It may not have been a New Year’s resolution exactly, but Rafael Leao’s promise to himself to hit new heights in 2019 has started impressively.
The 19-year-old Lille attacker arrived in France as a free agent after ending his contract with Sporting CP after 50 fans stormed the training centre. Though his start to life in Ligue 1 was hampered by injuries, the youngster is showing the kind of form that justified the excitement around his arrival in northern France.
He has scored four times in his last four matches and five overall in just 515 minutes on the field, making him the club’s leading marksman behind the duo of Nicolas Pepe and Jonathan Bamba, whose marginal slide in form lately has been barely noticeable due to the poaching capabilities of their young comrade.
“I’m ready!” he told Portuguese newspaper Record on January 2 - and it seems that he certainly is.
Leao was born in Almada to Angolan parents and has been immersed in football for his entire life.
“I met him when he was 14 and few people understood his way of playing,” Tiago Fernandes, now a coach at Chaves but a man who was Leao’s mentor, told France Football. “He was doing things with the ball that no-one could do. But he still forgot his positioning on the field.”
Branded “the best player in the history of the Sporting academy” by Fernandes, above even Cristiano Ronaldo, he debuted for the first team as an 18-year-old, nutmegged the great Iker Casillas as he scored against Porto, but left in the aftermath of coach Jorge Jesus’s fall out with president Bruno de Carvalho.
“He’s the Portuguese Mbappe,” Lille president Gerard Lopez told RMC as he celebrated beating off the likes over Dortmund and Benfica for the player’s signature.
Lopez, though, was also forced to bat off claims from Sporting that they were owed the €45 million (£39m/$51m) value of the player’s release clause – a fight that Lille subsequently won.
The player, meanwhile, has been doing his best to shrug off comparisons to the Paris Saint-Germain wonderkid, who scored twice in the 2018 World Cup final to help France to glory.
“Mbappe is Mbappe. He’s an incredible player. He’s 20 and has already proven a good deal. I’m Rafael Leao and I must work and prove myself. And today, I’m with Lille to do that and to progress,” he said in December.
But like the French superstar, the player’s father, Antonio, has had a big influence in his career. Indeed, had the teenager had things his way, he might have been back at Sporting, but his father and agent guided him to France.
“He wanted to come back here but they did not bring him back,” Sousa Cintra, acting president of Sporting, told SIC Noticias . “The agent has a red card and cannot set foot back here.
“We were ready to negotiate with big clubs and now he’s stuck in Lille when he could have gone to Real Madrid.”
Antonio was so keen on a move to Lille, though, because of the way they have nurtured youngsters in the past like Eden Hazard, and more recently Pepe and Bamba.
Head coach Christophe Galtier, meanwhile, is anxious that he earned his right to play and did not start purely because of his up-and-coming reputation.
“He was starting to lose his patience, to get upset in training because there were matches he could have come on in but circumstances didn’t allow it,” the coach accepted after handing him his first start, in which he scored against Caen. “He’s a player who can make you pull your hair out, but a few minutes later bring you a lot of hope and a smile.”
Now, however, his flurry of goals have cemented him as Lille’s No.9 for the foreseeable future.
“I’m very happy,” he admitted after bagging another against Amiens last weekend. “It’s important for me, it gives me extra motivation to continue working and to give the best of myself.”
As Galtier concedes, Leao is far from the finished product, with the coach eager to see him more efficient defensively and that sense of positioning that Fernandes joked about still with room for improvement.
Yet the raw materials for excellence are prevalent. Like his Lille cohorts, he is fast and technical, able to play wide if required, yet his strength in the air is greater than that of LOSC’s other starters.
For a young player to have so much maturity in front of goal is impressive, while his understanding of Lille’s gameplan is growing.
“He’s progressing and working a lot,” Galtier said. “Relationships with other players are being struck up. He’s present and effective in the box; I believe he’s started seven times and already has five goals.”
Mbappe he may not be, but if he lives up to his New Year promise, then the name of Rafael Leao will be one that strikes fear into Ligue 1 defences.