Blessed with a stride almost as long as his rangy legs and a turn of pace that leaves most opposing defenders trailing in his wake, Leo Baptistao is one of those players who is easy to spot on the pitch, especially when he controls the ball with the sole of his foot.
“That’s a habit I’ll never kick,” said the Atletico Madrid man. “When I was a kid I was always told to control the ball with my instep, not the sole, but I can’t stop doing it. It just happens!”
It is not hard to imagine his coach Diego Simeone berating him in training for a piece of skill that reveals his background as a futsal player. Like so many of his fellow Brazilians, the tall striker, who joined Atleti in July, learned his trade on the futsal court. Unlike them, however, Baptistao only made the switch to the 11-a-side game at the age of 15.
“When I was young I decided to go with futsal because I had a group of friends I always played with,” he told FIFA.com. “We played tournaments and won titles but back then I didn’t know if I was going to make it as a footballer. I just played so I could do some sport and because it kept me fit. We played for the fun of it.”
The pitch just became too tiny for me. I was very quick and I couldn’t run in such a small space.
It was at about that time that Baptistao met Neymar, a team-mate of his in a representative side in his native Santos. The two went their separate ways when the Barcelona star switched to the grass game, though, as fate would have it, the Spanish league has brought them together again.
“What with the distance between us and not having many mutual friends, we kind of lost touch,” he explained. “But the fact is we get on well and we talk whenever we see each other, like in the Super Cup the other day (Barcelona and Atletico met in the two-legged final at the start of the season).”
Unlike Neymar, Baptistao stuck to futsal. The years went by, however, his friends began to move on and as he grew taller the court became smaller and smaller.
“The pitch just became too tiny for me,” he explained. “I was very quick and I couldn’t run in such a small space.”
It was then that he realised that he might just have a chance of making it in football, and with a view to making that happen he decided to leave Brazil for Spain. Recalling the move, he said: “I turned 16 here. I came with one of my father’s friends for a trial and I’ve been here ever since.”
Into the big time
His stay with the club that selected him was short-lived, the problem being that they had no accommodation for youth-team players and Baptistao’s father could not afford to pay for a flat for him. Then, along came Rayo Vallecano and a youth coach of whom the striker has fond memories: “He helped me settle in. He played me videos and showed me how to read situations. I learned a lot from him.”
Adjusting to an unfamiliar footballing culture far away from his family, Baptistao found life hard for a while: “It’s tough. You’re just a kid but you also have to bear in mind that it’s your dream and that you want to make a living from it. I had to give it a go."
Regular chats with family and friends helped him make it through, as he explained: “I spoke to them all the time on messenger, with a webcam, though it didn’t work very well at all.”
Undeterred, the Brazilian teenager continued to chase his dream. Staying with Rayo, he suddenly got himself noticed, making his league debut at the age of 19 at the start of last season and helping the unfashionable Madrid club achieve their highest ever Liga placing.
“I didn’t expect everything to happen so quickly,” he said with typical grin, before turning to his move to Atletico: “It’s a big change, especially in terms of the responsibility I’ve got now.”
Though he is still fighting for a place in the starting line-up, he in no way regrets the decision he has made. “You have to be ambitious and I think I’ve taken a big step forward in my career.”
He could well take another big stride in the right direction this Wednesday, when Los Rojiblancos make their return to the UEFA Champions League against Zenit St Petersburg. And with star striker Diego Costa suspended for the tie, the 21-year-old Baptistao could be line for a debut appearance in the competition. “Let’s see if I get the chance," he said. "I’m definitely up for it though."
And Zenit might have cause to rue Baptistao taking to the pitch, for they know that if he gets on the ball and stretches those long legs, he will take some stopping.