By Tom Webber
If Brazil is a country known, perhaps stereotypically, for strikers of immense individual ability and flair, then Internacional striker Leandro Damiao goes against the grain somewhat.
The imposing forward plays as if he had been born and trained across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, but he still possesses that showman’s streak frequently associated with the Samba nation.
It is part of what makes him so appealing to European clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, and it is an understandable motive. But it is his strength of character that should be noted as it has been integral to his rapid and intense progression.
His extremely high work ethic has seen him become a starting striker for the Brazilian national team, and on his current form it is a position he could well fill when they host the World Cup in 2014.
While other promising youngsters, such as Neymar, Ganso and Lucas Moura, made their names at the more prestigious academies of Brazilian football, Damiao has taken a far more arduous path to the upper echelons of the Brasileiro.
A late bloomer, Damiao suffered regular rejections as he chased his dreams in the early stages of his career in rural Brazil. Playing as a midfielder, his talents were not recognised until a positional switch to his current centre-forward role secured a temporary contract with minnows Atletico Tubarao. From there he earned a chance with, and secured a move to, Santa Catarina side Atletico Ibirama, who had previously turned him away.
His impressive form was finally picked up on by one of the nation’s top clubs in Internacional in 2010. After initially being taken on loan, the Colorado acquired his rights having witnessed his potential first hand during first-team appearances in the Campeonato Gaucho, which included a debut brace against Ypiranga Erechim at the age of 20.
From then on, Damiao has been on an upward trend and he also scored in the final of the Copa Libertadores the same year as Inter won the trophy for just the second time in their history.
But it was 2011 that would truly serve as Damiao’s breakthrough period. After a disappointing Copa America, the national team was in need of new blood and, with the striker in the midst of a season that would see him score 38 goals in 51 games for his club, he provided an ideal fresh option.
Despite having made his debut against Scotland as a replacement for the injured Alexandre Pato in March of 2011, Damiao soon became part of the bigger picture.
The 23-year-old may not be the archetypal Brazilian centre-forward, but this is what has been so influential in his commandeering of the national team’s attack. At over six feet tall he provides a physical focal point, something which the Selecao lacked at the Copa America, and his impressive aerial game allows for diversity in the play. But he is more than just a target man; Damiao is a predator.
There are few in Brazil who are as lethal as he inside the box. His physical nature allows him to welcome the ball under pressure and he also has the technique to create space and shoot. He acts on instinct and can score goals of any kind, from acrobatic bicycle kicks to poacher’s efforts.
However, he is not one to create for his team and instead he waits on others to make chances for him. He does not drop deep to get involved and thus can go missing for large parts of a match. This will not be accepted in Europe and he will be expected to up his work rate and contribute more to the team going forward.
Questions had been raised on his back-to-goal game but he has improved that drastically this year and is now capable of drawing in and involving team-mates around him.
Damiao’s form was contentious in the warm-up friendlies before the Olympic Games and led to questions as to whether he should retain his starting berth. However, he dispersed all doubts over his ability in London with six goals in five appearances as the Canarinho reached the final, only to suffer a shock loss to Mexico. The fact that he kept Pato on the bench shows just how highly rated he is.
The 23-year-old has the physique, technique and goal-scoring ability to succeed in Europe but he will not come cheap. The progression he has made over the last two years is tantamount to his determination and desire to become the best he can be.
Potential suitors should not be put off by a large transfer fee: they could well be purchasing Brazil’s starting striker for the 2014 World Cup.
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