ESPN Brasil this weekend featured a story about the short career of 26 year old Rafael Leão, who had a shot in English football, but now dedicates his life to other activities.

He was only 15 years of age when a Manchester United scout saw him play for Brazil’s Clube Atlético Juventus, and then took him to a club who had a partnership with the Red Devils.

That led to a loan move to Old Trafford in 2011, after he’d turned 18 years of age. It was the chance of a lifetime for the youngster but things didn’t go the way his dreams would have had it.

“He asked if I was the No. 7 and told me that he was a Manchester United scout,” Rafael Leão told ESPN Brasil.

“John told me that he liked me a lot and that he had a project: I would go to Desportivo Brasil and from time to time I’d go to England until I was 18 years old, so I could definitely stay there.”

Of his trips to Manchester United, one of the first experiences he remembers is the time he met Cristiano Ronaldo.

“The academy players and the professionals used to eat at the same cafeteria. I was there, putting the bread on the tray, and then came the man by my side. He asked: ‘Are you Brazilian?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ He said: ‘Nice to meet you, whatever you need, I will help you’. It was an unusual humility… he’s a fantastic guy. He was at his peak and was the best in the world.

“I couldn’t speak English at all, and the twins (Rafael and Fabio Da Silva) translated for me, and John helped me with that. Ferguson knew everything that went on at the club, from cleaning to the top of the board. When I arrived, he already knew who I was. He greeted me at the cafeteria, welcomed me and wished me good luck.

“The first time I trained with the professionals, I was 16 years old. I met all the people and I was very shy. I scored a goal against Van der Sar in a training match and I wanted to cry with excitement (laughs). I used to see them on television and the impact was too much.”

The Brazilian would go to England two or three times a year, spending periods of 20 days. Then, once he’d passed his 18th birthday, it was time for the loan move.

He was part of a team with the likes of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, playing in U23 tournaments for the club.

“Ferguson complimented me a few times when we met in the cafeteria, told me to stay that way and encouraged me.

“When my contract ended, Ferguson said to me, ‘Rafael, I would like to thank you for the time you stayed with us. We like you very much, but we would have to loan you to a third or fourth division team in England, it is better for you to return’.

“I thanked him, but later I learned of another situation. Manchester United wanted to keep me for another year on loan, but Desportivo only accepted to sell me because my contract was ending.”

Embed from Getty Images

The player still had a second chance in English football, since he’s played for Ituano, a club whose president is Middlesbrough legend Juninho Paulista. The former Brazil international helped Leão go to Boro, but things didn’t work out there either.

“I was going to play the State Championship and then I would go to England. But in the first training I broke my foot and had to put a pin. Soon after, I went to Boro and made my recovery there. The board changed, there was a makeover at the club and I ended up returning to Brazil.”

Now at the age of 26, Rafael Leão works with his mother, as well dedicating his time to law school and religion. People who meet him have no idea he was once a footballer, and he still gets invites from amateur clubs, although now he prefers to just play football with friends.

If you’re wondering, Rafael Leão is the player one in on the bottom row of the above picture, with the ball between his feet.