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Christmas special: The making of Leo Ulloa
Leo Ulloa left his family and moved 700 miles from home when he was just 15.
Now, 12 years on, he still thanks his lucky stars he uprooted and left home on the promise of a trial for a second division club.
Ulloa played second tier football in Argentina at 16 and in the top flight in the footballing hotbed of Buenos Aires two years later.
As a family man and established Championship goal-getter in England, he is convinced those bold moves as a teenager were the making of him. Both as a player and as a man.
Ulloa was playing kids football for his local club in the city of General Roca, smack in the middle of Argentina, when a hat-trick in a friendly changed his life.
Comision de Actividades Infantiles Comodoro Rivadavia, more commonly known as El CAI (pronounce kye), were on the receiving end. And they offered him a trial.
“I left home at 15 and it was a difficult step but I knew what I wanted and I loved football,” Ulloa recalls. “I left my family which was a hard decision – but a good decision because my dream was to play football.
“As a kid I played for my local team Deportivo Roca from the age of, I don’t know, six or seven.
“I played against one of El CAI’s teams for 15- year-olds in a friendly and I scored three goals.
“They liked me, they took me on trial for what was meant to be a week and but I ended up staying.
“None of my family came with me. I stayed in the club’s halls of residence.
“I wasn’t there long but that was my trampoline, shall we say, to get to Buenos Aires and play in the first division.
“It was hard in that I was alone. But when I got there it was like a family. From day to day it was easy because we had a lot of people looking out for us. They knew we were kids.
“It was hard being away from my family, yes, but I had good friends there.
“I went with a friend from my town and there were always people around the residential hall.
“I've still got friends from those days because I think that is an age where things really have a profound influence on you.
“Some of the boys who became my friends there are still playing professionally in Argentina and we are still in touch even though it has been a while and we hardly ever see each other.”
Comodoro Rivadavia is way down south, on the coast. But it was not long before Ulloa was heading to the big city after catching the attention of San Lorenzo de Almagro.
“Buenos Aires is like London, ” Ulloa said. “It's the biggest city in the country and it.s a real football city. There are lot of clubs.
“San Lorenzo is one of the top five or six clubs in Argentina. Again, I stayed in their residence and, at 18, I played in the first division.
“Again, they also saw me play against them. I had a good game against San Lorenzo. It didn't take long to get into the first team and the first division.
“I suppose I was 17 when I first went to Buenos Aires. It was more difficult for my family than for me. “It is a very big city and I was a kid.
“But I was quite calm, very dedicated to my football and my daily work. I went out with friends sometimes, of course, but I always did things properly.”
Ulloa, still not 20, had had to grow up fast. He reckons Albion are reaping benefits of that now. He added: “I matured very quickly. Thanks to God I lived through a lot of things that don’t happen to many kids of that age. It did a lot for me, as a footballer and as a person.”
Ulloa was never a regular with San Lorenzo (see video above of him scoring for them). He also had limited chances when he went on loan to Arsenal de Sarandi and Olimpo. So, when the chance of joining Castellon in Spain came, he took it for more down-to-earth reasons than the fulfilment of a childhood dream.
“No, Europe was not really my dream, ” he admitted. “For me it was more I had to come because I didn’t really have chance to play in Argentina.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go and then a Spanish team came in for me and I went. It was like I didn’t have an option but, thanks to God, it all went well. I worked hard and I made the most of it.
“I was already married at the time and we already had our first child Sofia. If I had been single, I’m not sure I would have left Argentina.”
Ulloa had just turned 22 when he made his debut for Castellon (see video above of him missing a penalty in am later match v Las Palmas, then scoring the first goal) and went on to do well with Almeria. He is now 27 and, though he would love to go back and play in Argentina, he is not sure he will have time.
The striker added: “Maybe I’ll go back. I don’t know if I will have enough years left. I'd love to go back and play because I left when I was very young. But I love my time in Europe. I like playing here and I feel comfortable.”
My idol – from the arch enemy
Leo Ulloa was three days old when Argentina won their second World Cup by beating West Germany in the 1986 final.
But he knows what it means to his nation to be the best on the planet.
Nothing would beat regaining the World Cup in Brazil. Lionel Messi would emulate Argentine legend Diego Maradona if he inspired the nation to glory.
But Ulloa has revealed a man from across the border is his footballing hero.
“Enzo Francescoli, the Uruguayan striker,” he said when asked to name his idol. “I loved his class, his style of play. And I liked his style off the pitch.
“He was a striker like me, a goalscorer. Maradona and Messi are good players but it was Francescoli for me. He played for River Plate, which was my team.
“My oldest brother turned me into a River fan because he was the only one in the family. But we didn’t go to see them play. It was too far away.”
Adapted from a feature which first appeared in The Score, our 12-page sports pullout available in The Argus every Monday.
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