Sometimes it is hard to be a centre-forward. Whole games can go by without a single chance coming their way, the result of an off day for their team-mates or tight marking by the opposition.
Worse still is the situation that Brazil’s Leo finds himself in at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011. The leading marksman in the South American qualifying competition with four goals, the young penalty-box predator has lost his starting place to tournament revelation Ademilson and has been watching most of the action from the bench.
Rather than complain about his lot, however, the Cruzeiro striker has stayed upbeat, answering coach Emerson Avila’s call whenever it has come and doing what he does best: scoring goals. Two have come so far at Mexico 2011, one in the round-of-16 win against Ecuador and another to set A Seleçãozinha on the road to victory over Japan in the quarter-finals.
Yet, as he explains to FIFA.com, grabbing goals from the bench is nothing new for Leo: “I started the South American championship as a substitute too. I came in after the competition started and ended it as the top scorer. It’s the same situation here and I haven’t let it get to me at all. There’s a very strong bond between us and, if I’m among the substitutes in the next game and have to come on, then I’ll do my job.”
Doing it for the team
Leo’s two goals in the competition have been exact replicas, the 6’1" striker using his height to good effect to glance in near-post headers from set-pieces. That kind of finishing is his stock in trade. “At the South Americans I played in a central position, which is where I usually play for my club,” he said, explaining his usual penalty-box brief. “Here, my position is close to the area with Ademilson.”
And though Ademilson has jumped ahead of him in the pecking order at Mexico 2011, scoring five goals and providing two assists so far, that does not mean to say coach Avila no longer has faith in Leo.
“He’s one of our best players up front,” said the Brazil boss in reference to the Cruzeiro prospect, who has maintained Brazil’s high standards in attack whenever he has come on. “We came across Ademilson a short while ago and I think the best thing for him is to play close to the area. And if we play with him and Leo then one of them can leave space for the other. This time, though, we kept them fairly well apart so they could both play their game.”
Starting the quarter-final against Japan in the absence of the suspended Lucas Piazon and Nathan, Leo proved his worth to the team with a selfless display, dropping back into the left side of midfield whenever the Japanese were in possession. So much running did he do, in fact, that he had to be substituted with 20 minutes remaining.
“I’m not used to playing there but as Japan move the ball around well and their full-backs like to get forward, I had to drop back and mark,” said the tireless team player. I ran myself into the ground and I had to ask to be subbed because I was exhausted. It was good, though, and if I have to play in midfield, in defence or on the wing, then I’ll do it.”
Ready to go again
“We need to think about which line-up is the best for Uruguay,” said Avila, who will have more reshuffling to do come Thursday’s semi-final, with Piazon and Nathan becoming available once more and gifted attacking midfielder Adryan missing out through suspension.
As if he did not already know it, the Brazil boss can count on Leo to perform again if need be: “Ademilson and I can take up different positions,” said the Cruzeiro striker of his burgeoning relationship with his new team-mate. “I can play in the centre and he can go out on the wing, and we can switch if that’s what the team needs. It worked last time and I hope I can stay in the side for the next game. If I get a starting place then I’m ready, but I want to perform in the same way if I come on as a sub, with my head held high, trying to win the title. I’ll be ready, no matter when I’m needed.”