Leão: “I want to show I can make a difference because I have grown, Ibra always reminds me to stay humble, now I am consistent and Pioli trusts me”

Rafael Leão celebrating during Milan-Genoa at Stadio San Siro on January 13, 2022. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

Rafael Leão has given an interview to La Gazzetta dello Sport ahead of tomorrow’s huge match against Juve.

After the fiasco against Spezia on Monday, headlined by ridiculous refereeing, Milan return to the pitch tomorrow to face Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve.

If the Diavolo want to get the three points, they will need Rafael Leão at the top of his game. Rafa is learning to surf better and better on the waves of Italian football. After every goal, after every victory with Milan, he posts the emoji of the guy on a surfboard and writes ‘We go!’

Ahead of the game, Leão sat down for an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport’s Marco Fallisi:

Rafa, where are you going?
“We control the highest waves, we always try to take them in the right way to stay upright and reach the finish line.”

On social media there’s surfing, on the pitch instead there’s another celebration: you turn and show your name on the shirt. What is the message?
“I want to show that I’m there, in every sense. That I’m always ready to give everything for the team, that I can make a difference because I’ve grown.”

Rafael Leão celebrating during Milan-Spezia at Stadio San Siro on January 17, 2022. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

To your father you dedicated the ‘call’ after goals, to your mother you gave a hairdressing salon and on your skin you tattooed the birth dates of your brothers. How important is the family?
“It’s fundamental, they support me before and after the games. They taught me that without sacrifices you can’t go anywhere.”

Talking about your neighborhood Bairro da Jamaica, in Amora where you grew up, you wrote: ‘When you arrive do not forget where you came from’…
“In those years I saw everything, I lived through a thousand difficulties, and my dream was also that of many kids who did not make it. If I am who I am today then I owe it to those years, made of simple things: a ball, friends, the dearest loved ones.”

Rafael Leão during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

Ibrahimović is also a boy from the ghetto. Did a similar childhood help you understand each other?
“Zlatan is a Champion who has never forgotten the past. He always reminds me to stay humble and work, work, work: that’s the only way you can do great things.”

After your first game together, 0-0 in January 2020 against Sampdoria, he said: ‘I explained to Leão what he has to do to become decisive’. Two years later, Rafa, have you understood how to do it?
“Before I was inconsistent. Maybe I would play great for a quarter of an hour, then I would stop or do things halfway – get past my man and then miss the key pass. Today I’ve become more concrete, I’m consistent for 90 minutes, I score more and make more assists. I play in a great team, of course, but I’ve changed the way I approach matches. I am more decisive.”

How did it click?
“It’s a combination of factors. I know Serie A better, I had the right advice from my parents and from my personal trainer. And I’ve never lacked the trust of the club, which has always made me feel protected, and of my teammates and of the coach.”

Rafael Leão and Stefano Pioli celebrating at the end of Milan-Genoa at Stadio San Siro on January 13, 2022. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

The tactical key to the turning point?
“Pioli understood me, he knows that with my dribbling and my breakaways I can make the difference. Before he took care of the tactical aspect with me more because I was younger and more undisciplined. Now he doesn’t explain much, he trusts me, I do my part even when the opponents have the ball. He tells me ‘stay wide and gun for the man’: everything becomes easier for me. I’ve also played as a center forward and as a ‘10’, I’m ready to do it again if needed, but on the left wing it’s another thing…”

Halfway through the season and you’ve already scored 8 goals between the league and the Cups, your best record in your career, but some say that you still score too little. What’s the answer?
“That they have a point, I can and must score more. I work every day to become a great player.”

Pioli said that you remind him of Henry. Do you agree?
“I thank him for the comparison, we are talking about a very great player. But I want to be Rafa, I want to make my own way.”

Rafael Leão, Brahim Díaz and Zlatan Ibrahimović celebrating during Milan-Spezia at Stadio San Siro on January 17, 2022. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)

Who has inspired you the most?
“Mbappé and Neymar. And at Milan I admired Kaka a lot.”

At the same age as you, 22, Ricky won the Scudetto. Are you and Milan ready to win?
“Yes, we are stronger and more mature than last year. Winning the Scudetto is the goal, we want to see Milano all Rossonera. I am young, but I feel grown up on the field and the same goes for many of my teammates. Pioli repeats it to me, to Sandro, to Alexis: ‘You are young only on your identity card’.”

Rafael Leão and Alexis Saelemaekers celebrating during Milan-Genoa at Stadio San Siro on January 13, 2022. (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

Tomorrow there is Juve, after the break – Inter. Does the Scudetto pass through here?
“With Juve it will be difficult, they are a great team that has returned to scoring points. We must take advantage of the home advantage, our fans will support us even if there will only be 5000 of them. We need to start winning again, we are ready and we know we are worth it.”

How are you preparing for it?
“I’m trying to figure out how I can hurt whoever I face based on their characteristics. But I also let my instincts guide me: I dribble, I’ve been doing it since I was little, and it comes naturally to me.”

Rafael Leão during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

How much have we seen of your potential so far?
“This is the Leão the scouts were talking about when I was a kid. I can still improve, but I can already affect the results with my qualities. I’m at a good point along the way.”

Does training under the eyes of Paolo Maldini help you grow?
“I used to watch him on TV when I was young, he was a legend. Now he gives me advice on how to improve, I feel very lucky.”

Rafael Leão celebrating during Milan-Roma at Stadio San Siro on January 6, 2022. (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)

How does your way of playing change depending on your attacking partner?
“With Giroud I know that if I don’t cut-back well to shoot than I can serve him with high balls because Oli is very strong in the air game. With Rebić I look for the depth more, he frees himself from being marked very quickly. Everything goes well with Ibra, he scores goals in every way.”

Theo said that the faster between you two is him…
“It’s a great challenge! Playing with him is spectacular, he is one of the strongest fullbacks in the world. I hope to have him at Milan for a long time to come.”

Rafael Leão during training at Milanello. (@acmilan.com)

Does your future remain Rossonero?
“I have two more years on my contract, they are not few. Let’s see, it’s still early. For sure I feel great here.”

If everything goes as it should, your Portugal will play for the World Cup qualification against Italy. Is it easier to go to Qatar with Ronaldo or to win the Scudetto with Ibra?
“With them on the team, anything is possible. I’m trying to stay focused and prove I’m good enough to play alongside two giants like them.”

You are attentive to looks and style. Could the Scudetto be worth a tattoo?
“Maybe so, let’s see…”

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He certainly exceeded expectations of many, from Niang 2.0 to Henry 2.0. Hope he continues to grow.


He is some player, great to watch