Lille forward Rafael Leão’s ascent in 2018-19 has been one of the highlights of the Ligue 1 season, with the 19-year-old’s sparkling form in France leading to fans dubbing the former Sporting youngster “The Portuguese Mbappe.”
Leão has scored six goals in his last seven league matches for Lille, having joined last summer from Sporting. The nature of the Portuguese’s performances, including his pace and eye for goal, have drawn him the nickname referring the Paris Saint-Germain forward.
Speaking to Le Parisien, Leão was keen to stress that such comparisons are premature. “I have a style of play quite similar to his. Both of us are fast, we like to dribble and finish the action well. We are young too. But the comparison stops there,” Leão told the paper.
“I try not to pay attention [to the nickname.] Mbappe is an accomplished player. He has already shown everyone his potential and won several big titles. I still have everything to prove, many things to learn to become a great striker like him. He is a source of inspiration, a model. But I'm not Mbappe. I have my own story and I am my own way.
“What are my qualities? I am a good finisher, dribbler and I am fast. But I still have to progress with my passing and the defensive field. My main fault ? I may be too nonchalant. Sometimes I think things will happen my way. I must learn to be more consistent in my efforts.
Despite his humility, Leão’s recent goalscoring form matches that of the World Cup winning Frenchman. It was a gradual process for the young forward following his move from Alvalade, with Leão not making his full debut for Lille until late October, when he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Caen.
“I am beginning to reap the benefits of the work done here,” he said. “My debut in Lille was complicated. It took getting used to a new country, to the football here. I was away from my family too. But I found people here who helped me and made my adaptation easier. Today, I feel more comfortable.”
Leão’s coach at Lille, Christophe Galtier, has been a source of influence on the teenager, although Galtier has confessed that his young star sometimes “makes me want to bang my head against the wall.” Leão accepts that he still needs some work, with suggestions of the need to mature following him from his time in Lisbon.
“[Laughing] I still need someone on my back who pushes and repeats things. Like they would a child. It can be annoying, I understand. But it'll end up paying off, I promise! I need to mature. Once I understand that, I will be a completely different player. And better.”
“I could not stay at Sporting”
Sporting was Leão’s home from the age of 9 until he left the club last summer, terminating his contract after players were attacked by fans during training. The Almada native was asked about the incident, and about whether he already has eyes on stepping up to a club of the stature many in Portugal felt was his destiny.
“[I left Sporting] because of the events with the supporters. It was a difficult time. Conditions were no longer met to continue there. I did not feel safe anymore. I have a lot of respect for Sporting. But what has happened is lamentable. I could not stay anymore.
“When (Lille director) Luis Campos called me to express his interest, I saw no reason to refuse. He told me about the project and the team he was building. But what pushed me to come here was especially the possibility of having play time.
“For the young player that I am, it is important to gain the matches to progress. What's the use of being in a big club if I do not play? I prefer to play in a team that gives me play time and allows me to grow.”
By Sean Gillen