With 18 minutes remaining of the second leg of the 2010 Copa Libertadores final between Brazil’s Internacional and Guadalajara of Mexico, Inter striker Rafael Sobis made way for his young team-mate Leandro Damiao. The former had just levelled the score at 1-1 on the night to put the Porto Alegre side 3-2 ahead on aggregate, though there was still work to be done for the Brazilians as they closed in on their second Libertadores title.
Damiao was in no mood to hang around. Within four minutes of making his entrance, the 20-year-old slipped his marker on the halfway line and sprinted forward to place a firm shot past Chivas keeper Luis Michel from the edge of the box. It was goal that turned out to be the winner on the night, with O Colorado running out 5-3 victors overall.
As well as winning a much-coveted trophy, that valuable strike represented a spectacular turnaround in the youngster’s footballing fortunes, coming only seven months after he had broken into the Inter first team and three years after being told by coaches that he had no future in the professional game. Anxious to make up for lost time, Damiao did not stop there, going on to make a brilliant start to the 2011 season and cap a fairy tale rise to prominence by winning a place in the Brazil team.
No one has been more taken aback by Damiao’s sudden emergence than the player himself. Yet as he explains to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview, it has all come about through hard work and honest application. “I’ve always had to give everything I’ve got, to keep plugging away, but the fact is that things have happened very quickly for me,” he said.
“Up until the age of 17 and 18 I couldn’t really see where I was going, but thanks to God and my family I found the strength to keep on working. I got stronger physically, technically and mentally, and things started happening.”
When I went to Ibirama a lot of people said I wasn’t good enough. I had an awful lot of problems to face.
No one has supported Damiao more than his father, who has encouraged him all the way and worked doubly hard when money was tight to help keep the dream alive. Yet, while his son impressed on the pitches of his hometown of Jardim Angela, in the state of Parana, whenever a trial with a big club came around he failed to make an impact.
With time passing fast, he even failed to make the grade with little-known outfits XV de Outubro and Atletico de Ibirama, based in the southern state of Santa Catarina. Though he can smile about it now, repeated rejection almost made him quit. “When I went to Ibirama a lot of people said I wasn’t good enough,” he explains. “I had an awful lot of problems to face and I nearly gave up football to go and help my family.”
Nonetheless, his persistence and a positional switch from the midfield to the front line earned him a second chance with Atletico, and his career gradually began to take shape.
Three divisions in three years
Disillusion gave way to hope in 2009 when the youngster established himself as the focal point of the Atletico attack, following a brief spell with third-division outfit Atletico Tuberao. One of the side’s leading scorers in the Santa Catarina state championship with eight goals, he started attracting attention from others, not least because of his imposing stature and cool head in front of goal. Suitably impressed, Internacional signed him up, Damiao promptly winning three titles with the Colorado U-20 side and earning promotion to their B team in 2010.
With coach Jorge Fossati choosing to deploy the reserves on occasion in that year’s Rio Grande do Sul state championship, the rising star made the most of the opportunity. Indeed, Damiao scored twice and laid on two more in his debut against Ypiranga and got a call-up to the first-team squad for their Copa Libertadores campaign. Six months later would come that goal against Guadalajara and the fulfilment of a once-impossible dream.
One man who helped make his rise through the Colorado ranks possible was Luis Fernando Roese, better known as Ortiz, a world champion with Brazil at the FIFA Futsal World Championship Hong Kong 1992. As Damiao explains, it was Ortiz who filled in the gaps in his footballing education: “I needed to learn some of the basics and Ortiz took me through all that. He helped me a lot and I’m a much better player today, although I still need to keep working at it.”
Fighting off homesickness in the process, the youngster made his father’s long-cherished wishes come true. “He gave me the strength to go to Santa Catarina, but I had to fight really hard to fit in all on my own,” recalls Damiao, who is repaying his father’s support with goals. “Fortunately, I’ve got to used it. I’ve been with my girlfriend for four years now and my dad and my brother come down to Porto Alegre when they can. And whenever I have a break I go up there.”
His father would no doubt have been proud when he learned of his son’s call-up to the Brazil team for the March friendly against Scotland in London, after the withdrawals of Alexandre Pato and Nilmar through injury left coach Mano Menezes with only Neymar and Jonas as forwards. “To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised,” he said. “I was on a great run, scoring a lot of goals in not so many games (13 in nine matches at the time, though he has now scored 17 in 15). Mano knows what kind of person I am: dedicated and focused on my objectives.”
Aside from his goals, Damiao has also impressed with his attitude, and as he goes on to explain, he possesses another quality in short supply among the current breed of Brazilian forwards: “The strikers who’ve been figuring in the Seleção lately are quick players, like Neymar and Nilmar, but they’re not centre-forwards who are used to battling for the ball in the box. There aren’t many players like us in Brazil today and that’s why I want to get back in the team. I’ve achieved my dream but I want more now.”
A hit in the humble Santa Catarina state championship not so very long ago, Damiao is now blazing a trail on the national and international stages. Given his recent rate of progress, it would come as no surprise to his career advance yet further in the near future. According to reports, Real Madrid have already been taking an interest, prompting Inter to place a minimum price tag of €50m on their increasingly marketable front man.
Yet, for now at least, the in-demand Damiao is content to bide his time: “All I’m thinking about right now is staying. I don’t want to leave. I want to win the Libertadores again.”