For a man who was arguably São Paulo’s greatest ever player, not to mention a Paris Saint-Germain legend and a World Cup winner, Raí Souza Vieira de Oliveira is not half as widely-known as he should be outside of his native Brazil.
The younger brother of Sócrates, Raí was an attacking midfield player of some repute, a regular goalscorer and a tricky and energetic presence until his retirement in 2000. Rarely mentioned in the same breath as luminary contemporaries such as Romário, Bebeto and Leonardo, Raí is perhaps deserving of a higher level of praise and recognition than that which he currently receives.
Raised in the northernmost reaches of São Paulo state, it was natural that Raí joined his local professional club, Botafogo de Ribeirão Preto (not to be confused with the more famous Botafogo of Rio de Janeiro), as a teenager in 1984. However, after showing a good deal of promise in those early days of his athletic career, there was interest in the young Raí from some of the wealthier clubs in São Paulo, the gifted 21 year-old midfielder moving to Ponte Preta in the summer of 1986.
Although he may have only embarked on a formal career at a relatively late stage of his development, Raí made up for lost time as he quickly impressed at his new club, sealing a transfer to São Paulo – one of Brazil’s most prestigious clubs – just a year after his departure from Ribeirão Preto. It was to be with São Paulo that Raí would transform himself from a promising young talent into one of the finest players the Brazilian domestic game has seen over the course of its long and illustrious history.
During his six years with the club, Raí was the creative hub of a São Paulo team which won every major trophy available under the stewardship of Telê Santana between 1990 and 1996. Three State Championships, two World Club Championships, two Copa Libertadores and the 1991 Brazilian Championship were all claimed from 1989 to 1993, the Brazilian club coming to be firmly established as South America’s most dominant side.
During that time, Raí made 110 league appearances for the Tricolor Paulista, scoring 25 goals and taking on the role of the team’s intelligent constructive linchpin, a master playmaker in the mould of Rivelino. The player’s wonderful form was officially recognised in 1992 as Raí was named South American Footballer of the Year, his remarkable form quite rightly receiving the plaudits it deserved.
His stock in the world game having reached its zenith, Raí was transferred to Paris Saint-Germain where he continued to play some quite astonishing football. In his first season in the French capital, Raí helped PSG to the 1994 league title (Les Parisiens being handed the title after Marseille’s disqualification and subsequent relegation), silverware which kick-started an extremely successful run for the club. Triumph in the Cup Winners’ Cup followed in 1996, with further success in the Coupe de France coming in 1998 – Raí proving a crucial component of the team throughout.
However, while his club career had been going from strength to strength, Raí’s international career had been dealt a serious blow at the 1994 World Cup. Named as Brazil’s captain going into the tournament, Raí struggled to find his best form in the United States, putting in a series of lacklustre displays in the group stage and disappointing his manager, Carlos Alberto Parreira. Despite scoring from the penalty spot in the opening game against Russia, Raí was substituted against both Cameroon and Sweden, eventually finding himself dropped and replaced as captain by Dunga ahead of the Second Round clash with the hosts.
In a tournament that was emblematic of the inconsistency he displayed throughout his patchy international career (51 caps spanning 11 years), Raí featured just twice more as a substitute, missing out on the final entirely and being subjected to vilification and humiliation despite Brazil’s success that summer. Though he quickly returned to form with PSG, Raí’s reputation had taken a hit from which he would never quite recover.
In 1998, at the age of 33, Raí moved back to São Paulo, returning to the club where he had made his name to play out the last two years of his career. The playmaker eventually retired in 2000, his status as a São Paulo legend confirmed, but his reputation outside of Brazil having been irreparably damaged six years earlier.
Had it not been for a slump in form during that first North American World Cup, Raí could well be considered as one of the greatest players of his generation. As it is, he will forever be cast in the shadow of his more illustrious brother.