Verona currently have a team in Serie A in the shape of Chievo, but the flying donkeys aren’t the city’s first love. Having been overtaken by their cousins and spent a long time in Serie B and Lega Pro (Serie C) over the past few years, it is somewhat unbelievable that Hellas Verona are the best supported team in the Veneto city. Their fans start at the very top with the mayor too, and their attendances regularly match and eclipse Chievo’s. Charles Ducksbury has kindly offered to regale us with the tale of one of the club’s heroes. I present you Hellas Verona goalkeeper – Rafael.
Being a supporter of Hellas Verona over the last few years certainly hasn’t been very easy for me, in particular the last four years with Hellas being in the third division (although now officially called Lega Pro, supporters still know it as Serie C). Countless defeats, an almost catastrophic relegation to C2, and an forgettable end to a season when Verona threw away of an 11 point lead at the top of Serie C1B to lose promotion on the last day of the season to Portogruaro, and then being beaten in the play off final versus Pescara in the 09/10 season. During all this pain, it’s always nice as a fan to know some of the players care as much as you. But the player the Ultras have come to relate to more than most over the past 5 years has been an unlikely one, eccentric Brazilian Goalkeeper Rafael.
Rafael de Andrade Bittencourt Pinheiro (to give him his birth name) has been there from the first horrible game in C at home to Cittadella through to the last, a play-off win in Salerno and promotion back to Serie B. Although he has had a very up and down relationship with the fans regarding his actions on the pitch, his passion has never been called into question as he is a man who clearly loves Verona. His years in goal for Hellas have certainly been incident packed. It seemed every time I made the long journey to see my team Rafael did something noteworthy, unfortunately just as many bad things as good.
His first year at Verona was the first year in Serie C1, the 07/08 season. That particular season was the worst in Hellas Verona’s proud history. Only one win the first 18 games meant relegation was almost a certainty. Current Parma coach Franco Colomba and Sorrento boss Maurizio Sarri were both fired as the Gialloblu lumbered to defeats against all comers, the only shining light was the performances of Rafael, continuously keeping the score down with save after save.
The turning point was the hiring of former Verona player Davide Pellegrini in late February. As a former player, passion was driven into the side and fortunately climbed off the bottom and into the Play-outs. Victory over Pro Patria meant Verona survived in the third division. Rafael won every player of the season award, both the clubs official award and those of the numerous supporters clubs around Veneto. In the bleakest of seasons, Rafael was a shining light.
Although the next season was as unspectacular as they come (finishing 9th, nowhere near promotion or relegation) the 09/10 season was polar opposite. Verona were seemingly invincible as they ran away with the division, not losing until round 11 and unbelievably not conceding an away goal until the 14th away game. In the middle of this amazing run was a Monday night game against southerners Ternana, a game in which Rafael did something spectacular that gained national recognition and even made it into the UK‘s Sky Sports News. Although what he did paid off, if it had gone wrong then it’s likely the Brazilian would still be hanging from the Curva Sud to this day.
In a tension fuelled game in which Verona could move a massive seven points clear at the top, Hellas weren’t at their best and laboured into a 1-0 lead, then doggedly hung on well into the 2nd half. It was in the 3rd minute of injury time that Ternana gained a corner and predictably sent everyone forward. The fans nerves were shredded as the ball came in, but luckily Rafael caught the ball. 99% of other keepers would then fall to floor to waste as much time as they could and hopefully see in the final whistle. But that simply isn’t Rafael’s style. Upon gathering the ball, Rafael proceeded to sprint to the edge of his area and threw the ball around an attacker, before chasing after it. Which the entire Ternana team chasing after him, he dribbled past another player before playing a perfect through ball to Farias, who chipped in from around 55 yards to seal a win and send the Bentegodi crazy.
It certainly was a high point in the season, as the Gialloblu’s form became more patchy as the tough winter set in. In one game at home to SPAL of Ferrara, Hellas were leading 1-0 when at around the 60th minute, current Swindon defender Alberto Comazzi hacked down a forward, not only giving away a penalty but receiving a red card. Rafael was sent the wrong way but SPAL’s over-celebrating led to a melee on the edge pitch. Rafael sprinted a full 40 yards and in front of the referee pushed a SPAL player over, for which he received a clear red card. The Curva was rightly furious with him, as now in the space of two minutes Hellas went from a 1-0 lead to 1-1 and were down to nine men. Although it finished 1-1, Rafael’s form and mentality were being called into question.
A defeat at Real Marcianise signalled a real crisis for Verona and Rafael as the team fell apart after being an incredible 11 points clear. One game that summed up the season was the second last, away at Rimini. Knowing that if Hellas won the final two games we would be promoted. Rafael proceeded to produce two blunders as Hellas lost 3-2 and dropping out of top spot. Defeat at home to Portogruaro in the final game meant the play-offs, which saw a final defeat to Pescara and another season in Serie C. For the first time since he’d arrived, Rafael was questioned as the clubs first choice keeper. After attempts to bring in Acerbis from Grosseto, sporting director Gibellini decided to stick with the Brazilian and the show of faith was repaid.
After a slow start to the season resulting in a coaching change (Andrea Mandorlini replacing former Roma hero Beppe Giannini) Rafael’s form was incredible as Verona stormed up the league, arriving in the Play-offs again, but certainly in better form than the year before. He made one incredible save in the semi-final first leg against Sorrento whilst the score was 0-0 (Verona won 3-1 on aggregate) and in the final against Salernitana his performance was heroic, gaining an 8 in most Pagelle – player ratings – where a 7 is a begrudging recognition of a very good game. Verona were leading 2-1 on aggregate in Salerno as the shots rained in. He made three promotion winning saves as Hellas held on and returned to the second tier. 2,000 had travelled south to be at the game and it was after the game Rafael wrote himself into Veronese folklore.
He sprinted towards the fans to celebrate with them, and then in the dressing room lead the chants before uploading videos of the squad singing onto his Facebook for the fans to see. He continued to upload video’s a pictures (with rumours suggesting he was sending them whilst on the plane home!). By the time the squad arrived in Verona most of the squad were barely able to stand up.
The party had just began for Rafael however, who proceeded to lead the 5,000 Butei who had gathered at the airport through a rendition of ‘Salerno, Salerno, Vaffanculo’ and various other songs not too complimentary to the people of Salerno or indeed southern Italians in general. He partied all through the night with the fans, many of whom had a picture taken with the heroic stopper. His performance in the Play-Off games proved he was a great keeper, something he is trying to prove now with Hellas in Serie B.
He’s now 29 and very different from the fresh faced lad who arrived from Brazil all those years ago. His agility in my opinion is unmatched in the second tier, his perfection of the ‘Star Jump’ save made famous by Peter Schmeichel has already come in use this season on a couple of occasions. Although his decision making can be called into question, when the big games arrive he tends to be counted. But the biggest compliment that can be paid to Rafael is that the ragazzi who gather in the Curva Sud every other weekend now consider the lad from Brazil as one of them.
You can follow Charles on twitter (@cducksbury) where he offers erudite views on the comings and goings of most Serie A and B stories.