Rafael Leao heads to Qatar with the world at his feet and a World Cup in his sights, one of Europe’s rising stars ready to take up the mantle of fading Portuguese legend Cristiano Ronaldo.
The undoubted star at AC Milan, where his flamboyant wing play brought last season’s Serie A title, the 23-year-old Portugal attacker has developed from a talented but inconsistent youngster to a proven match-winner.
His six goals and nine assists in all club competitions this season have helped put Milan back in the mix for the Scudetto in Italy and in the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in nine years.
Fleet of foot and blessed with superb balance, Leao also has accurate distribution and an eye for goal, and under coach Stefano Pioli he has become the one to watch every time he turns out for Milan.
In some ways his career has mirrored the early years of veteran Ronaldo, who has been out of favour at Manchester United and going through a rapid decline in both performances and status in the twilight of his career.
Ronaldo was also considered a show pony when he came through at United nearly two decades ago, a raw teenager who was yet to turn into the goal machine who came up with the goods when it mattered.
“I made the leap thanks to the arrival of Pioli (in 2019)… He gave me the right mentality and always encouraged me to believe in myself,” Leao said to DAZN in March, before claiming the Italian title.
“He always told me that I was talented but that I didn’t have the winning mentality, that if I wanted to get to the same level as (Kylian) Mbappe or Ronaldo I needed to make an impact in every single match.”
Like Ronaldo, Leao came through at Sporting Lisbon and he has been compared to Mbappe — and those two are the players he aspires to be like.
– Ronaldo aspirations –
Former Sporting youth coach Tiago Fernandes said in 2019 that he believed Leao was the best player in the history of the club’s academy — even better than Ronaldo as a youth player.
“I wanted to show everyone who I really was, even if I’m not yet a true goalscorer like Mbappe or Ronaldo,” Leao said earlier this year.
“Those two are the two attackers I study on YouTube and who inspire me. I want to get to their level.”
Leao’s career exploded into life in France at Lille after he unilaterally ended his contract with Sporting in 2018 when fans invaded the club’s training ground.
The legal wrangles which resulted from that move — Leao has to pay Sporting 20 million euros ($20.2m) — have bubbled in the background as he approaches a tournament which could see him take the step up to the next level.
Milan are trying to get Leao to extend his current deal which runs to 2024, and Italian media report that they are offering 6-7 million euros a year in an attempt to stave off interest from the Premier League.
Chelsea made an informal bid for Leao in the last close season, and Milan director Paolo Maldini said in September that “no one is unsellable” for a club which can no longer wave around a bulging wallet as during the salad days of Silvio Berlusconi.
Portuguese sports daily Record also claimed that Maldini met with Sporting director Frederico Varandas twice as part of discussions over Leao’s debt, with currently around a fifth of his annual salary being taken to pay back his former club.
Milan are reportedly trying to cut a deal with the Portuguese side in the hope it will convince Leao to stay long-term at the San Siro — which fans are packing out thanks in part to Leao’s development into one of the world’s most exciting talents.