'Who?' asked the Argentine press after local boy Leonardo Ulloa shocked Manchester United

A Different League: The Leicester striker has a less well told story to the top than some of his countrymen

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The Independent Online

Not every hero has the same story. Leicester’s Argentine centre-forward Leonardo Ulloa cannot be seen dribbling around older, bigger boys on a baby football court on any grainy YouTube videos. Nor are there any retired coaches getting misty eyed on film recounting how they knew the first time they laid eyes on him he would end up a superstar.

After his part in the destruction of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United on Sunday, the “who is Leo Ulloa?” stories were being written – not in England, but in Argentina. Emerging from anonymity aged 28, his tale is one of patience and incredible perseverance.

Born in General Roca in the Rio Negro province of Argentina, Ulloa played briefly for local team Deportivo Roca as a young boy before being signed by Second Division side CAI, based in the province of Chubut.

When his Leicester team-mates tell him the club have a “tough away trip at the weekend” Ulloa can put that into some sort of sobering perspective. Chubut is 2000km south of Buenos Aires and with 80 per cent of Argentina’s clubs based within a 200km radius of the capital, that means most away games for CAI required a 4000km round trip – 24 hours each way on a team bus.

Nevertheless, it worked, because San Lorenzo, based in Buenos Aires, had excellent scouting links with CAI and they signed him. But Ulloa played only 31 times for the current Copa Libertadores champions and spent time out on loan to Arsenal de Sarandi and Olimpo de Bahia Blanca, where he suffered relegation in 2008.

Spanish Second Division club Castellon then paid €600,000 (£470,000) for him and, finally getting regular starts, he responded by scoring 30 goals in two seasons, earning a €900,000 move to top-flight Almeria.

 

These are 1990s prices being paid in the 21st century for an honest, hardworking striker who still did not look Premier League-bound, but Ulloa was finally starting to believe in his own ability. Almeria went down in 2011 but he scored 28 goals in 38 games back in the second tier and, early last year, Gus Poyet signed him for Brighton for £2m.

“Everything that didn’t work out for him in Argentina began to work out for him in Europe,” says Rio Negro journalist Cristian Helou, who has watched his rise.

Ulloa’s name still does not create much excitement back home. When Leicester turned over United, the ever-green Esteban Cambiasso stole the headlines in Argentina. The talk around the national team is more of Carlos Tevez being left out of Gerardo Martino’s latest squad than the new manager handing Ulloa a call-up.

There is no fan club straining for the 28-year-old to be picked. In Argentina, Sergio Aguero is adored by the supporters of his first club Independiente, Tevez is a Boca Juniors’ legend, Gonzalo Higuain is one of River Plate’s famous sons and Lionel Messi is immortalised at Newell’s Old Boys. For Ulloa, warm appreciation from first club Deportivo Roca is as good as it gets.

Lionel-Messi.jpg
Lionel Messi is, unsurprisingly, much more of a star in Argentina

 

That feeling works both ways. Ulloa made sure he was at the club’s important promotion play-off last season, and whenever he is in Argentina he visits the modest stadium the club shares with two other local sides. “He always goes down to the dressing room and talks to the players,” says club secretary Juan Antonio Martinez.  

Seeing the striker who left Argentina via the back door in June 2008 turn up on their television screens six years later mauling United and nearly topping the Premier League’s goal charts can only serve as an inspiration.

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