What a difference a year can make for some, and Leo Baptistao is testament to that. Not many knew about the Brazilian before he produced an outstanding performance to help his side gather three points away to Real Betis, but they sure do now.
For the 20-year-old it was his proper debut. His official bow, after all, had ended in disaster a year ago, as he was injured in the opening minutes of the first game of the season against Sporting Gijon. Falling awkwardly on the turf and injuring his collarbone, what was meant to be the best moment in his career was ruthlessly taken away.
That’s not even half the story, though. Leo, as few Brazilian players seem to be these days, was brought up in a middle class area of Santos away from the favela stories that often rule in the country.
Rather than kicking a lump of material around in the streets, it was an indoor football league where he was spotted. He was adept in small spaces, and had a destructive pattern to his running as the indoor game requires decisive movement over the first 10 metres. A company in Brazil touted him around, and Getafe were first to take an interest but couldn’t provide the housing or financial support for his Madrid move.
That was when Rayo stepped in, and why Leo has turned down the overtures of various Spanish clubs who were impressed by his performances with the Juvenil set up. Along with Lass Bangoura, who exploded on to the first team last season, the pair formed a lethal partnership in the youth ranks.
As Lass trained away with the first team, Leo embarked on his recovery from the injury, but with more setbacks this time in his foot, his progress was hampered. He continued to work hard for another chance however, in the hope he’d catch someone’s eye again. His fortunes were to change over the summer, as Paco Jemez was appointed Coach at the club.
Although Jose Ramon Sandoval picked him out, it would be new man Jemez that gave the player a closer look. Inclusion in the first team for pre-season was the perfect opportunity for Leo to showcase his talents and he did exactly that, offering up several impressive performances from either his role just off the striker or in a wide area. It’s perhaps the latter position in which he looks more comfortable, as he can run at full-backs with a particularly strong burst of pace and utilise his skill in the danger areas. He linked well with those around him too, getting his head up to bring teammates into play, all the time whilst still offering a glimpse of his individualistic attributes.
For someone like Leo, and others within the cantera at Rayo, the arrival of Jemez was essential. In his opening Press conference he stated: “the cantera is integral to my plans and the general future of Rayo.” It of course can be argued that it was necessary and there wasn’t any other option given the financial situation at the club, but Jemez was not just dictated by economic means but also of a faith in youth. Leo repaid that with his display at Villamarin – securing a goal and an assist and proving to be a threat whenever the ball arrived at his feet.
Jemez was delighted after the game saying that Leo ‘could explode this season’ while the player himself insisted he was ‘the happiest boy on earth’. He burst into tears in an interview this week too, overawed by the sentiment he received from Rayo fans on message boards and in person, becoming truly humbled.
The boy who first made his name on the indoors, is now on his way to making it in the great outdoors.