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Rafael Leao: Portugal’s next superstar?



Rafael Leao
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Looking at the career of Rafael Leao – The “Portuguese Mbappe”


Rafael Leao: Portugal’s next superstar?

Rafael Leao has had an interesting start to life as a professional footballer, from rivalry’s boarders at a young age to being compared to a global superstar and playing his part in the revival of a European giant, whilst breaking two records along the way. It is crazy to think Leao is only 22-years-old.

This summer has been an extremely hectic time in Leao’s career. He had international heartbreak to deal with along with making key decisions about his future, Leao’s footballing career is fascinating.

We take a look back at what the Portuguese star had to face to reach the level he is at today and the next step in his bright career.


Youth Career

Leao bided from Almada, Portugal, a rock throw away from Lisbon, a place where Leao would spend a lot of his childhood. Before crossing the Tagus River, Leao spent three weeks at Amora FC, after being spotted by the coach, who was amazed by Leao’s talents whilst playing street football.

In the limited time spent at the academy, Leao managed to impress in the two tournaments he played in and joined Benfica. His time at Juniores do Benfica was cut short after his parents struggled to pay for Leao’s journeys to the academy.

It wasn’t long until Leao was playing academy football again, this time for Sporting Lisbon’s historic academy. Joining an academy with the prestige of Sporting’s is difficult for any young player, but Leao went above these expectations.

“The best player in Sporting Academy history,” was the label given to him by his then-youth coach Tiago Fernandes. To be given that status at an academy that has brought through Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Nani and Luis Figo is quite the feat but that didn’t affect Leao’s game.

His down to earth persona, powerful dribbling along with his eye for goal made him an instant success in the youth team. “Every time I saw Rafael in his first few sessions for the U17s, he was different and he was special,” said Luis Martins, his first coach at Sporting Lisbon. Martins became a key figure in Leao’s development as a football, integrating Leao from the under 19s to the B team when he became the coach of Lisbon’s B team.

On 21 May 2017, the forward came off the bench to make his debut for the B team and scored in a 1-1 draw against Braga’s B team. His rapid success in the youth team saw Leao take the leap into the first team, after scoring seven goals in 12 games.


The Breakthrough Moment

Less than a year after his first outing with Leoes’ B team, Jorge Jesus had called him up to the first-team squad, making his debut against Feirense in February 2018.

His most memorable moment in a white and green shirt came three weeks later at the Estadio Do Dragao, against Porto. At 18 years old, Rafael Leao became the youngest ever goalscorer for Lisbon against the Dragões, in a 2-1 loss.

His limited appearances for his boyhood club didn’t stop interest from the European giants, with Manchester City having a keen eye on the then 18-year-old. In the end, after five games, two goals and the Portuguese League Cup, his time with his boyhood club ended sourly.

Rafael Leao terminated his contract with the club, along with stars such as Rui Patricio and William Carvalho, after failing to qualify for the Champions League saw ultras attack players and staff at Sporting Lisbon’s training ground.


Moving Abroad

As a result of his Sporting Lisbon contract termination, he was available to be signed on a free and Lille were the one to take advantage, beating the Citizens to the Portuguese starlet. The signing of Leao was an impressive one and Lille’s CEO said, “Rafael chose our proposal and our project and we thank him for his decision. He has impressive technical and physical qualities that make him one of the most attractive and promising young players in world football.

“We feel that his signature is a rather exceptional event for LOSC and we are confident that the future will confirm it.”

Despite the hype around his arrival at the Stade Lille Métropole, his best position was unclear, playing as a second striker or centre forward during his time in Lisbon, but also having the skill set to play as a wide forward.

Christophe Galtier put those questions to bed straight away, sticking the 19-year-old up front as the lone striker, with Nicolas Pepe and Jonathan Bamba flanking him either side, in his first start against Caen. He repaid the faith shown in him by Galtier scoring the only goal in the match and linking up with Pepe extremely well.

Despite a goal in his maiden start for Lille it took him a while to really find his feet. Leao finally caught light midway through December, scoring six goals in seven games, as Lille looked to become the team to put the pressure on French juggernauts, PSG. His mid-season form was so impressive, the French media started to label Leao as the “Portuguese Mbappe” due to his blistering pace on the ball and menacing runs in behind of defenders.

His lone season in northern France saw him help guide Lille to a second-place finish, and score eight goals in 26 games, numbers that impressed AC Milan enough for them to make an attempt to sign him.


The Milan Dream

£25 million was the fee needed to be paid by AC Milan to acquire Leao. The Portuguese joined the Rossoneri as part of their new recruitment strategy, where they look to sign young players with potential, in a bid to return to glory.

As Leao did in France, he took a bit of time to get going but so did AC Milan, resulting in Marco Giampaolo’s sacking. Leao scored one goal under Giampaolo and Stefano Pioli was brought in to try and help guide AC Milan back.

Under the Italian he found a bit of form, scoring five goals as AC Milan finished sixth. Pioli struggled to find Leao’s perfect position, playing him five different spots.

His second season with Milan was a little more consistent. Leao either played left-wing or as a second striker with his main role being to support Zlatan Ibrahimovic and make up for the Swede’s lack of mobility by making late runs in behind.

He finished the season with six goals and six assists and the fastest goal in Serie A history scoring after six seconds against Sassuolo. Throughout the season it looked as if AC Milan could actually go on and win the Scudetto but fell off, allowing fierce rivals Inter Milan to swoop in a win the title. Whilst battling domestically, they also put on a show in the Europa League becoming one of the teams to watch but lost to eventual finalists Manchester United. Leao struggled to mark the European campaign scoring one goal.

The Milan team under Pioli was an energetic, high-scoring and stern team that has helped the Rossoneri reappear from their slumber, with Leao being a key part of the way they play with his intelligence and versatility making him a vital cog in Pioli’s attempt to revive the sleeping giants.


International Duties

His international career isn’t as acclaimed as his club career, but at 22-years-old he still has time to make his mark with Portugal’s senior team.

At under 17’s level, Leao tasted his first, and only, piece of success with his nation, winning the European Championship. The Portugal team that defeated Spain on penalties was packed to the brim with talent, the likes of Diogo Dalot, Gedson Fernandes and Florentino all started the game. The aptitude of the squad saw Leao only start one game, with Helio Sousa preferring to use Leao as an impact substitute.

At the age of 18, he made his debut for Portugal’s under 20 side against Switzerland, replacing Jota in the 60th minute. It wasn’t long until Leao would be progressing through the age groups again, two months later he made his debut for the under 21 side.

Rui Jorge decided to offer Leao a call-up, after two games with the under 20s. Leao made his debut in the under 21 European Championships qualifier match against Romania, with the match ending in a 1-1 draw. The forward yo-yoed between the under 20 and under 21 team before establishing himself in Jorge’s plans permanently.

He featured in the under 21 European Championships that took place earlier this summer and helped Portugal reach the final where they eventually lost 1-0 to Germany. Leao has made 61 appearances for Portugal’s youth teams and has scored 13 goals.


What is Next for Rafael Leao’s Career?

Throughout the summer Leao has been incessantly linked with a move away from the San Siro, with Everton and Wolves being admirers. As the rumours started to heat up, Milan’s board declared that Leao wasn’t for sale and are keen to see the Portuguese international fight for his spot in Italy.

The 2021/2022 season is a key season for Leao, he has been shown faith by Milan and will need to really kick on and become an important figure in the Milan squad, whether that be as a left-winger or supporting striker.

If he is able to star this season it may see him breakthrough into the national team. It would be a great achievement for Leao to get called up to Portugal and it would show the talent he possesses if he can shine alongside the likes of Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes and a name he once got compared to, Cristian Ronaldo. The potential is there it is now down to Leao to finally reach it.


We hope you enjoyed the article ‘Rafael Leao: Portugal’s next superstar?’. What is your favourite moment of Rafael Leao’s career? Let us know!


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Nathan is currently doing a sports journalism bachelor’s degree at Staffordshire University and is an aspiring sports writer. He is a sports fan but is mainly interested in football, tennis and rugby, supporting Chelsea.


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