Football gratifies Leo’s teenage kicks
Once upon a time Leo’s kicks were a constant worry for his parents. While practising his judo skills on his classmates, he got into numerous fights and was booted out of more than one Rio de Janeiro school. A genuinely sweet kid, his father wrestled with the problem before introducing the energetic youngster to the beautiful game. Now his mother’s tears only begin to flow when her son, Brazil’s roving right-back, describes moments such as the crucial opening goal against Portugal.
“I used to train at judo and I would act out some of the tricks I learned on the other kids at school,” says the fresh-faced 17-year-old, who, with his all-action performances in the first round, has been singled out as a potential star of tomorrow. “Unfortunately some of the other boys didn’t see the funny side and it got me into many fights.”
Leo’s dad thought about it long and hard and decided that the young scamp needed his aggression channelled in the right direction. With the help of an old friend, his nine-year-old son swapped the local Rio judo club for the surroundings of Brazil’s most famous team -Flamengo.
“I had a difficult time adjusting at first but soon I began to get into it,” he recalls. “It was more fun doing tricks with the ball.”
A dream come true
With his inexhaustible energy to get up and down the pitch and skills to match, Leo was quickly catching the eye in the Rio state junior league, leading his team to a 4-0 victory over arch-rivals Botafogo in the final. And last year he pulled on the famous canary yellow jersey for the first time.
“It will always be one of the best moments of my life, wearing the shirt in the Maracana - like a dream come true,” he says smiling.
Now Leo is gracing Finnish fields and catching the eye of many observers. After his team-mates missed umpteen chances in their first match against Cameroon, the right-back tore through the Portuguese defence in Brazil’s second match before calmly placing the ball in the corner of the net for the crucial opener - only his second strike for the Selecao. In a man-of-the-match performance, he once again burst forward before setting up striker Abuda to finish for number two in the 5-0 rout.
“It was funny because the night before I was dreaming that we were winning 2-0 and I had scored one goal and made the pass for the second,” he smiles. “But someone woke me up in the middle of the dream so I’m not sure how it ended.”
A mother’s tears
In the match itself, Brazil went on to grab three more and inflict a demoralising defeat on their Portuguese-speaking cousins.
Later that night, as he does after every match, he telephoned his mother to describe the game.
“My parents have no opportunity to watch the game live in Brazil, but I call and describe every move,” he says. “They had expected a close contest so were surprised about the score. At the end when I told my mum I had scored, she started to cry.”
The curly-haired wide-eyed teenager is now intent on whispering more words of success those many thousand miles over the phoneline.
“I want to win the world championship, go back to Rio and try to get into the Flamengo first team. I will take it step by step but my ambition is to eventually get into the national team,” the star says maturely, charting his rise to the top.Although Leo points to Denilson as his favourite player rather than Cafu, it is the Brazilian World-Cup winning captain who he most resembles. However, the youngster does not feel he is ready to step into the boots of the veteran for a good few years yet.
“Even at 19 it’s too young because the Selecao shirt is too heavy – there’s too much responsibility for someone of that age - but it would be a dream to play,” he adds.
With the quarter-final match against USA coming up on Sunday, Leo’s shoulders, shaped by his judo years, should be broad enough to carry his team as well as the U-17 Selecao jersey to a spot in the last four.