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The inside story of Rafael Leão: Made in Lisbon, thriving in Milan

Milan

The twenty-one year old is the latest from Sporting’s academy, now enhancing his reputation at Milan, following in the footsteps of some legendary names.

The halls of Sporting CP’s youth academy have graced some of the finest talents the world has ever seen. The club’s contributions to the Portuguese national team draws strong parallels to La Masia’s contributions to Spain.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Luís Figo and Paulo Futre all took their first steps in football in Lisbon. Many of the current crop in the national team also made their forays into professional football at Sporting.

It seems like only a matter of time before Rafael Leão becomes part of that bracket of aforementioned elite names. The AC Milan star is no doubt set for a bright future in football.

FTF spoke exclusively to his first coach at Sporting’s academy, Luís Martins, to learn more about his rise from Sporting.

First impressions

‘The first time I saw Rafael was when I took the job as the technical director of the Sporting academy,’ recalls Martins.

It was 2015 and at the time, as part of his due diligence, Martins had to conduct thorough assessments of the human resources at the club.

‘ Every time I saw Rafael in his first few sessions for the U17s, he was different and he was special.

You know, at Sporting, we’ve created so many good players – like Ronaldo and Figo. Because of that, we are qualified to see when we have special talents in front of our eyes,’ Martins said.

‘Then it was easy to see, Rafael was different from the others’.

At the time, Leão was already an U17 international player with Portugal, which gave him a significant advantage at Sporting.

In 2016, Martins took over as the head coach of the B team at Sporting, thus helping Leão progress through the ranks from the U19s to the B team.

Within two-three months, Leão would make the move up the ladder, to the first team itself.

Charting a plan for the future

Technical directors have become increasingly important in the landscape of modern football. Much like the role of a sporting director at the highest level, the technical director at academy level plays a vital part in ensuring the player’s career is being handled well.

‘The job of a technical director in Portugal is like an interface. The relationship with the player and the coaches is important. Then we try to build a plan for the career of each of the players,’ explains Martins.

In Leão’s case, Martins and the Sporting staff identified two key problem areas early on.

‘Because we’ve had players like Nani, Ronaldo and Figo, it became easier for us to create the final picture for each of our players.

Every player has their own individual plan and individual work. The team is like a garden where we create the scenarios to build the talents of the players,’ says Martins.

‘In the case of Rafael, we had two problems. His fitness, because he was in the final stage of his growth physically. Then, he experienced some problems in his muscles and joints.

We showed him why it’s important, specifically to him, to work on his core muscles and then the development was a natural process.’

Leão’s excellent physical condition is underlined by the fact that he essentially had no injuries at all since leaving Sporting up until his most recent injury in November 2020 which ruled him out for five games.

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Family support

Leão is a native of the city of Almada. A beautiful city which is across the Tagus river connected by the 25 de Abril Bridge. Although he was born there, Leão spent most of his time at Academia Sporting in Alcochete.

Martins recalls how close Leão was with his father and his uncle. His father in particular, took a very keen interest in every decision that had to be made.

‘Sometimes the father did not always understand everything and Leão had a much better head than his father.’ Martins recalls with a smile.

‘The father always stayed with Rafael, whenever he did not have any training sessions. He’s very supportive but he can be obsessive sometimes and quite different from Ronaldo’s family.

Leão lived with his father and his uncle and it was like that.’

Down to earth personality

A tightly-knit bond with his family meant that Leão was always aware of the responsibility on his shoulders and that pushed him further in the pursuit of being successful.

‘In Rafael’s context, there was big pressure on him to become a professional. But he doesn’t show that. Whenever you speak to him, he’s a polite guy, very sympathetic.

He can hear and understand a lot from the smaller conversations.’ recalls Martins.

‘ We’ve lived some very good moments together. I remember, seeing a fantastic performance from him when he plays for the B team against Union de Madeira.

After twenty minutes, we scored twice and held on to win 2-0 thanks to two fantastic goals from Rafael on the day.’

Martins further recalls, ‘It’s special because it’s the returning point from an period out with injury and then he shows his ability to be the main man up front in a difficult situation.’

Comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo

Whenever a young forward in Portugal does well, there are inevitable comparisons with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Figo. In Leão’s case, it was no different. As a wide forward from Sporting, with pace and an eye for the goal, the similarities with Ronaldo were there to be seen.

Martins gives his own perspective on the comparison.

‘I’ve worked with both of them and what I can say is that they are different players, for sure.

I worked with Cristiano at that age and what he showed us in terms of his future was different when compared with Leão,’ recalls Martins.

‘Cristiano had the ability to work until the very last minute of training sessions and then work even more. But Leão isn’t like that.’

‘He’s the kind of guy who needs to work, but sometimes, he doesn’t see it like that,’ says Martins with a chuckle.

‘He works for the minimum and that’s that. That’s what makes them different players’.

Martins then goes on to explain why coaches need to be mindful when making predictions about the careers of players.

‘When coaches say, No no, I’m sure it will happen like that!, it is not possible to say that. Maybe, probably, he can do it.

What I’m trying to say is Leão is a very talented player and I’m not surprised at the things he’s doing with Milan. But I’m not saying anything else for his future. I hope for the best for him and his career,’ claims Martins.

Scoring at the Dragão

Porto vs Sporting is the rivalry that every young footballer in Portugal grows up dreaming of playing in.

Every kid dreams from Lisbon dreams of pulling on the green and white of Sporting and every kid from Porto dreams of the famous blue and white. The rivalry between the two teams and the subsequent success of both sides has come to define Portuguese football for decades.

When Leão took to the field with the U19s of Sporting against Porto, not even he would have envisioned what happened on the day.

Martins says, ‘It was the turning point for Rafael. He shows up for a couple of games and the people look at him and think Oh What a fantastic striker!

He scored a goal at the Dragão against Porto and after that, he suffered an injury, staying out for two-three months.

But those kinds of performances in the two-three games in a row showed everybody the ability of Rafael.’

‘It is not by luck or by strange circumstance, no no, it is because of his consistent performances.’ underlines Martins.

Personal goals

It is perhaps this family support that has kept him grounded and focused on achieving his targets throughout his career. As a young player, especially in Portugal, it is natural to try and mimic your idol’s tricks and traits.

However, Leão at the time was only focused on doing what was necessary to reach the Sporting first team.

‘At the time, Rafael only wanted to stay in the first team of Sporting. That was his main objective in the beginning of his career.

Of course we saw that he was a very talented player and he had the potential to play for the big clubs,’ Martins recalls.

Leão’s potential was there for all to see, however, he would not stay for long at Sporting to realise his dreams.

Things took a turn for the worse in 2018 as Sporting’s training center in Alcochete was attacked by assailants leaving several players and staff injured in the aftermath.

Leão then decided to terminate his contract and quickly moved to LOSC Lille in the summer of 2018.

Best position for Leão at Milan and beyond

So far at Milan, Leão has been used as a left-sided wide forward and as a lone striker up top as well.

Ever since his time at Sporting, he has shown the traits to be a striker up front, which is where his skillset is best utilised, according to Martins.

‘The best position for me at the time, was as a striker. His mobility needed work to learn the strategic and tactical side of the game. Because he has a very easy final touch, he needs to play centrally, as a striker,’ Martins explains.

‘ Rafael’s big strong point is the ability to accelerate with the ball. Which depends upon the body’s balance to create rotations, stop, shift and manipulate the ball.’

Milan fans have been able to enjoy some excellent moments thanks to Leão’s contributions. The finest of which was certainly on matchday 13 against Sassuolo when he scored in the very first minute of the game.

Attacking the space in behind the Sassuolo defence with haste, he opened the scoring against Consigli with a well-taken effort. It was a truly breath-taking sight and encapsulated Leão’s strengths perfectly.

Room for improvement at Milan

Milan recently enjoyed a 2-0 victory against Hellas Verona thanks to goals from Diogo Dalot and Rade Krunić.

Leão was unable to find the back of the net after having two very presentable opportunities. One of which was a header, which blazed over the bar, this is one of the areas he needs to work on, according to Martins.

‘To play upfront as a striker, he needs to improve his heading ability. Also, the ability to play with his back to the goal, because when he has to play with defenders close to him, it’s not so easy for him.’

Untapped limits for Milan

So how far can someone with Leão’s talents go in football? Only time will tell.

‘I think even Rafael doesn’t have an idea, like us, about his limits. Because I think we speak about a player like him, he’s a guy who has all the potential.

Even after spending two-three seasons[as a senior pro], he’s still a youngster and he can develop even further,’ claims Martins.

It will certainly be interesting to see how far Leão’s talents take him.

Only the skies are the limits for the boy from Almada. One who only dreamed of donning the jersey of Sporting.

Now the possibilities for his growth are endless and the future is exciting.

From Lisbon to Milan – this is his story.

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