Interviews

Ronaldo Vieira: 'I still support Leeds and didn’t feel like I had to leave… but Sampdoria are a big club'

The Bundesliga isn't the only destination for young English talent. The 20-year-old midfielder was a first-team regular at Elland Road, but he tells Alasdair Mackenzie why he couldn't turn down a move to Serie A

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Ronaldo Vieira isn’t one to hang around.

The former Leeds midfielder swapped English football for Serie A and Sampdoria in the summer, following a path previously trodden by the likes of David Platt, Graeme Souness and Liam Brady. He was the latest in a line of young English talents to leave his comfort zone and seek success on foreign soil, but for Vieira it was just the latest chapter in an already eventful life story.

Born in the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau in 1998, Vieira relocated to Portugal with his family at the age of three. He and brother Romario (no prizes for guessing which national team his parents most admired) joined the Benfica academy, before moving to England in 2011 and eventually joining Leeds five years later.

A rising star in the Championship and England’s youth ranks, Vieira's reported £7.7m switch to Italy took some by surprise, but for the 20-year-old it was nothing more than the logical next step in his development.

Ronaldo Vieira

Trials and tribulations

“I wanted to come here to improve as a footballer and I think every player wants to do that, no matter what age you are. I’m still young and have a lot to learn,” he tells FourFourTwo.

"The move was quite quick. They just came with an offer and that’s what happens - when the club receives a good offer, they accept it. I was willing and open to it, so everything went smoothly. I have no bad feelings about Leeds; I’m grateful for what they've done for me, and I think I improved a lot as a player and became more mature there, so I thank them. I’m still supporting them now.”

Vieira has made his rise up the football ladder - a journey which has taken him from the i2i development centre at York College to challenging for the European places in Serie A within three years -look effortless. However, the youngster has had his fair share of hard lessons and setbacks along the way, with several clubs turning him down as he chased an opportunity in the professional game.

“I had trials at Hull, Barnsley and Man City but it just didn’t work out,” he explains. “Then I had a trial at Leeds – the first one didn’t work out for me, but then a couple of years later I had another one and I was more mature, so it went well. I settled in well and we started from there.

“I always believed in my ability. As a young player going into a trial you get nervous, because you’re coming from nowhere and those guys have already been in the professional setup for a long time. Sometimes the clubs just don’t give you enough time to prove yourself - maybe in the first week or so you’re still a bit nervous, but once you get in you can prove yourself.

“I think that’s what happened with me. At Leeds, I did the first training session and they saw something in me – it all started from there.”

Ronaldo Vieira

Young Lion

The clubs who failed to spot Vieira’s potential were soon made to regret their oversight. The teenager became a first-team regular in his second season at Leeds in 2016/17, making 34 Championship appearances and winning the club’s Young Player of the Year award.

“That felt good because a lot of good players have won it: Lewis Cook, who's now playing for Bournemouth regularly; Sam Byram has won it; Charlie Taylor. So for me to win it as well just shows that Leeds can really develop a player. I was over the moon. It was a good moment for me.”

Vieira’s form also earned him international recognition. He helped England’s Under-20 side to back-to-back Toulon Tournament triumphs in 2017 and 2018, before making his Under-21s debut in the summer. The playmaker is eligible to represent Guinea-Bissau, Portugal or the Three Lions at senior level, but there's no doubt in his mind over which shirt he'd most like to pull on.

“I’ve obviously chosen England at youth level, so I’d like to carry on doing that until I get to the first team. England would be the choice for me. The first time I got called up was an honour - it just showed I’d worked hard that whole year. To go to a tournament like Toulon and win it was unbelievable. I had an unbelievable summer, and to go back the next year and do it again was even better.

Ronaldo Vieira

“I was happy to be called up - it shows that if you really work hard, the chance is there for you. I’ve worked hard my entire life and it’s paying off. There’s something good going on with England at the moment, and there’s a pathway through to the first team at international level.

“If you work hard and believe in yourself, there’s always a chance for you. There are a lot of young players coming through and it doesn’t matter how old you are; if you’re doing well at your club and you’re playing well, people are talking about you. It gives you a chance to get [to the first team].”

Broadened horizons

Of all those who have made the step up from the youth ranks to Gareth Southgate's first team, one stands out above the rest for Vieira.

“Lewis Cook,” he replies when asked which member of England's younger generation has most impressed him. “For me he’s always been professional, he does everything right and on the pitch he’s showing that he’s a good player. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. But there are others too - there are a lot of very good young players in that team who are playing regularly for Premier League teams and abroad as well.”

The Sampdoria man isn’t the only young English player to have ventured overseas in a bid to reach the top. Jadon Sancho recently earned a promotion to the senior England set-up after shining for Borussia Dortmund, who are currently seven points clear at the top of the Bundesliga.

“If you’re born in England it doesn’t mean you have to play in England," Vieira says. "If you feel like you should move somewhere to get more regular first-team games, you should do it. The aim is to play games and improve yourself, and you can’t do that if you’re not playing regularly. I didn’t feel like I had to do it, because I was playing a few games at Leeds, but I wanted to because Sampdoria is a big club, so I took the chance.”

Ronaldo Vieira

La dolce vita

Vieira, who's always keen to convey his thirst for self-improvement, is beginning to see the fruits of his labour with more opportunities in the Sampdoria first team of late. Head coach Marco Giampaolo has gradually introduced the 20-year-old to Serie A, lending him a helping hand as he adapts to a new club, league and style of football.

Vieira made his league debut as a substitute during Samp’s superb 3-0 win over Napoli in September, and after a long spell warming the bench he's now started three of the club’s last five games in the Italian top tier.

And with the Under-21 European Championship on the horizon next summer - in Italy, no less - the former Leeds prodigy is eager to make further progress before the season's out.

“I want to get into the Under-21 squad for the Euros in the summer. It’s a personal target, a big target because they have a very good team. But it all depends on what I do here because I have to just keep working hard and try and get more games. Hopefully my chance will come with the Under-21s and then progressing into the first team is what everyone wants.

“The Championship is a bit more physical and here it’s a bit more tactical, so I’ve been trying to work with the coach who's trying to help me improve my game. I’ve been learning a lot about the way the team wants to play. [Giampaolo] wants me to take risks with some passes, try and break through teams, play it forward as much as I can.

“I have a lot of respect for players like Toni Kroos, Williiam Carvalho, Jorginho - players like that in my position. I try to watch a few videos of them playing and learn as much as I can. Right now it’s just about learning and progressing.”

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