'Better than Cristiano Ronaldo' – Rafael Leao sensational form no surprise to former coach
The 19-year-old is in sensational form as his club fight for second place in Ligue 1, but it is no surprise for his former youth trainer
Lille star Rafael Leao was “better than Cristiano Ronaldo” when he was a youth academy star, his former coach says.
The 19-year-old left Sporting CP after 10 years with the Portuguese side’s academy to join Lille on a free transfer last summer and has burst into incredible form since his breakthrough in the first-team.
Leao has scored six goals in Ligue 1 this season, with five of them coming in his last six matches in the French top flight.
The young striker has already been hailed by Lille president Gerard Lopez as the Portuguese version of Kylian Mbappe, but Tiago Fernandes has compared him to another star.
The former Sporting youth coach says Leao should have been promoted to the senior side earlier than he eventually was, saying he looked even brighter than five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo.
“I pushed [then-Sporting coach] Jorge Jesus to take him in the first team and I said to him: ‘Yes, Gelson Martins has talent but Rafael is the best player in the history of the Sporting Academy’. At youth level, he was better than Cristiano Ronaldo,” he told L’Equipe.
“When he decides to be decisive, he is. He just has to ‘click’ and he does it. There are players that if they force it, it doesn’t work all the time. With him, you say to yourself, what potential, what power!
“The big problem he had was complacency. I tried to move him because I was one of the oldest.”
Leao, who has five caps for the Portugal national team, is a big admirer of Ronaldo’s, having praised the Juventus star as an example to follow.
“The best in the world is Cristiano Ronaldo, who has made a successful career with a lot of hard work and, like me, came through the Sporting academy and is a great example to follow,” he said.
“I know that I have a lot to learn and that my attitude and commitment are fundamental to me achieving my dreams. I’m still young and I am not in a hurry to do so.”
Leao is contracted to Lille until 2023.