If England is the home of football, Brazil is the church, where the beautiful game is close to a religion for millions of fans in yellow and blue.
And right now, no Brazilian player is more inspirational than our very own Rafaelle Souza, who led her country to Copa America glory this summer without conceding a single goal.
Here, we find out where a player from the country that has given us countless legends of the game from Pele to Marta finds her own inspiration…
Who was your biggest inspiration in football? Can you tell us about them and how they inspired you?
My inspiration was Marta. It’s weird because now I play with her for the national team, but the first time I watched women’s football on the TV I was around 14. I saw Marta playing and I just felt that I wanted to be like her. It’s incredible that she is still playing now, and I know that she has history here because she played for Umea when Arsenal beat them in the Champions League final in 2007.
She had won that competition already in 2004, when she was only 18. She came from almost the same part of Brazil as me in the north-east, and it’s kind of a poor area. She had to move to Rio just to join a women’s club and, with all the difficulties she had, I thought that if she got to play at this level I could also find the power to work and be that player.
Not everyone gets to meet their heroes. When did you first meet Marta?
I had just come up from the under-20s and was promoted to play with the full national team. I met all the older players at that time and I was really, really shy. They used to call me “Junior” as a nickname and make me carry the balls and cones. It was a pretty rough time!
How important is family to you? And what values have they taught you?
My family is really important to me, especially with football, because in Brazil it’s not common for parents to let their children to play soccer. When I was growing up women’s football was not a big sport for girls, and I played with boys a lot of the time. My parents always supported me and let me decide what I wanted. I saw a lot of girls that had to stop playing and stop following their dreams because their parents didn’t allow them to play, so I’m really thankful for my parents.
They saw my talent, my passion and ultimately they trusted me. They told me, “If you’re smart, we’ll believe in you. Whatever you want to do, we’re going to support you.” They saw that I was always happy when I was playing football.
Was there anything else that inspired you to play football?
I’m from a small city so there wasn’t much to do. We didn’t have any extra classes like music lessons or English classes in the afternoon, so I used to go to school in the morning and after school I just played football because I loved it. I think I was passionate about football because, in Brazil, everybody dreams of being a footballer. But I also just love to play. Even now, when I’m back in Brazil on holiday with my friends, we’re always going to play football just for fun.
Was there ever a time when you didn’t feel like playing football?
When I was a child I was just playing on the streets for fun, and then around the age of 10 I started thinking: “maybe I could find a club to play for,” but in my city and even in the capital of my state there were no women’s football clubs, so I didn’t have any hope of being a footballer.
What moment from your childhood made you think “I can become a professional footballer?”
Everything happened really fast for me after I went to my state capital. I used to play indoor football and then a coach saw me playing and talked to the national team. I went straight from playing indoor to the national team under-17 level. I wasn’t expecting it, especially when I was between the ages of 10 and 14 and I just felt lost.
I was thinking, “I have to study and I have to do something else,” and that’s why I decided to go to the biggest city to study. I went there to study and then I started playing indoor for the school and they saw me play.
When I got to the Under-17s national team it was a big moment. I got the Brazil jersey with the CBF badge on it, which was unbelievable in itself. We went to Rio and to Teresopolis, which is the city of football in Brazil where the national team plays. Beforehand, I never even knew that the facilities existed but when I got there I was amazed by all the support we had for the national team at under-17 level. I think that was the moment when I thought I could become a professional football player.
And tell us about a coach that has particularly inspired you.
My first coach. After I played indoor with my school, I went to play for a club called Sao Francisco and I had a coach there called Mario. He taught me a lot of things because I had never played on a bigger pitch because I had been playing indoors, and he helped me with conditioning and fitness levels. Mario was also the person who gave me my first pair of football boots because before I’d been playing in indoor shoes or just barefoot!
What reasons inspired you to join Arsenal?
A big part was the club’s history, like playing in the Champions League and big tournaments, and the Women’s Super League itself is really strong. I was looking for a strong league. After being in China it felt like I was hiding from the world, so I wanted to be in a league where I could show people my football.
I also wanted to be in a country where I could have some independence because in China I couldn’t speak the language at all. I also had offers from French and Spanish clubs, but I wouldn’t be able to immediately speak the language and live my own life. So everything together – Arsenal’s history, my own independence and the level of the league – was really good for me.
Since being at the club, has it lived up to your expectations?
Yes! I feel like I still have a lot to improve and to get to know the environment here, like the city and everything. Everything is still quite new for me but I always say: “so far, so good.” I really like the club. I really like the players and the city. I just wish for better weather! I love the Brazilian weather but here it is really different. I guess I have to get used to it.
Is there a teammate who can really inspire you? How do they do it?
I would say Aline Pellegrino, who was the captain of the Brazilian national team. She’s such a good, kind person, as well as a good player, and she’s a defender like me.
I really liked her pre-match speeches and how professional she was, so I loved playing with her. Now she’s retired, I believe she’s helping the Brazilian Confederation and giving us some support that we didn’t have before.
Tell us about a sportsperson from another sport who you find inspirational.
Bernardinho, the coach from the Brazilian volleyball team. He was such a great player but an even better coach and we got so many titles with him. I read his book, which was great, and his quotes are so inspiring when it comes to preparing for games mentally.
What inspires you to do better when you’re on the pitch?
I don’t really have one thing that gets me going because every time I step on the pitch, whether it’s training or matches, I always give my best self. I would say that my passion and love of football inspires me. I want to do my best because it’s not just a job for me. It’s my dream, it’s my life. I give everything.
Has anything ever happened in your life when you’ve felt “I need to win this game for a particular person”?
I think in Rio 2016. We played Australia in the quarter-finals and we went to a penalty shootout. My mum was in the stands watching us play and I was thinking about my family and friends in the stadium. It was really a mind shift for me to step up and take a penalty in front of a home crowd: to score for the Brazilian national team.
And is there a place – anywhere in the world – that inspires you?
I would say that my city where I grew up. I used to play football on the streets, barefoot, in a city called Cipo, a really poor city in the north-east of Brazil with only 15,000 people. Going back there, I reflect back on everything. How could I get so far?
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