Editor’s note: As part of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, MLSsoccer.com is bringing back "best of" features on Latin American stars in MLS this season. This story originally ran on June 1, 2022.
Brought to MLS during the offseason on loan from Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers, the 21-year-old has been a revelation down in South Florida, scoring seven goals in 14 games (12 starts), helping lift Inter Miami above the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line going into the June international break.
But how he eventually got to Miami and reignited his career is a different story.
Lost and found
Born and bred within Ecuador’s most popular club, Barcelona SC, Campana experienced success at a young age both at the club level and at the international level with the Ecuador Under-20s.
His play at Barcelona and Ecuador yielded a January 2020 transfer to Wolves, but Campana found the going tough in his first European foray. He was promptly loaned to Portuguese side Famalicao and then to Swiss outfit Grasshopper, but never got the continuity he craved.
A new opportunity arose from an unexpected, but familiar setting: Miami, the city where he always vacationed as a boy. Equipped with a United States passport via his mother, Campana joined Phil Neville’s fledgling side in January 2022 and thus far, it could not have gone any better for all parties involved.
“It was a door that was opened up to me and I made the decision without thinking twice. Miami has been my second home since I was little. I know that I haven’t achieved anything yet, there is still a lot of work to do, but I know that as a team we will be in playoff position. And then, well, why not think about winning the Cup?” said Campana in a phone interview with MLSSoccer.com.
There is also no question that Neville has played a major factor in Campana’s stellar season.
“I think more than anything it is Phil’s confidence that he has placed in me. Since the first day, I showed him my desire to work 24/7. We are of the same mindset to want to make history with Inter Miami and I think we will achieve it,” said Campana.
His prolific season in pink certainly put him back on the radar of Ecuador boss Gustavo Alfaro, who called Campana for Ecuador’s round of matches for the current international break – stateside friendlies against Nigeria, Mexico and Cape Verde. The Inter Miami forward returns to the national side after going 10 months without receiving a call-up. He had been part of the squad for last year's Copa America but fell off soon after.
It is an auspicious sign for the 21-year-old to be included on the latest list, knowing that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is on the horizon.
“This is a big push forward for me. All the work that I’ve been doing for the team is paying off. Thankfully things are going well here. I have found consistency and the trust from the manager and my teammates has been very important, and so it is an honor to form part of the national team. I’m sure I’ll be there in Qatar and that my national team will have a good performance there,” said Campana.
Torero's favorite son
Like so many players in MLS who hail from South America, the true essence of Campana’s make-up lies within his past at his boyhood club, with which he has a unique relationship.
There is a term in Spanish that succinctly explains this: “El club de mis amores.” (My beloved club)
For Campana, that club is Barcelona SC of Guayaquil, Ecuador, the biggest and most popular in that country, the club with whom he made his debut in March 2019.
Ecuador's Barcelona have been a part of his whole life. That’s how it is when your grandfather, Isidro Romero, is the most successful president in club history and your earliest memories are going with him to watch the team at the stadium.
It would have been really easy for Campana to have enjoyed his privileged background and dedicated his time more to partying and having fun while growing up, then settled into the family business as a young adult.
But that isn’t Leonardo Campana.
“Barcelona means so many things to me. First off, it’s the club I have been a fan of since I was a little boy and being able to debut as a professional with that team is a dream that I won’t ever forget,” said Campana.
“I remember as a child just being there with my grandfather in the stadium was an incredible sensation. I felt so much happiness. I knew I wanted to play there. As a young child, I never had any toys. My only toy was a ball, which I took everywhere and my only thought was playing football there.
“As the years went by, I realized that I had a gift. I took advantage of it and now each day when I get up, I have that desire to go forward and grow both as a professional and a person,” said Campana.
“A hunger for glory”
Carlos Alfaro Moreno, current President of Barcelona, was there at the beginning.
The Argentine was brought to Barcelona by Romero and was part of the team that captured Ecuadorian league crowns in 1995 and 1997. Alfaro Moreno fell in love with the country and the club. He was the only Barcelona player who attended the wedding between Campana’s parents, Isabel Romero, daughter of Isidro, and Ecuadorian professional tennis player Pablo Campana.
He was also Campana’s first coach.
“I’ve known Leo even before he was born,” said Alfaro Moreno with a chuckle in a recent conversation with MLSSoccer.com.
“After I retired, I started football schools in Ecuador and I coached Leo when he was eight years old. Later in 2015, I became vice-president of Barcelona and put together a project on the club’s youth development. When he was 16, Leo was finishing his secondary schooling and my viewpoint was that I saw Leo as a professional player. Leo, because of his family, could have studied in the best universities in the world, but what I saw in him was a ‘hunger for glory,’” said Alfaro Moreno.
Needless to say, as Campana began to rise through the Barcelona youth set-up, it did not go unnoticed that the grandson of the most decorated president in club history was nearing a first-team debut.
In a country where anything that happens to or at Barcelona is an instant headline, there was seemingly a distraction around every corner for Campana.
His first-team merit was called into question by skeptics and critics, many assuming that Campana was only rising the ranks because of his name.
Yet, it never fazed him.
“I played in the Barcelona Under-18s with Leo. He was a very calm person. He was always just one of the guys,” said former teammate and current FC Dallas player Joshue Quinonez.
“Of course, everyone knew what family he came from, but he was always very humble and sensible. He never had any problems with anyone. He always put in the extra effort and did extra work,” said Quinonez.
Hearing Quinonez’s comments for the first time, one can feel Campana beaming through the phone.
“The truth is that it fills me with pride, that my family raised me the right way, that they instilled values in me and they taught me to treat everyone with dignity and respect. I’ve never had a problem with anyone.
“To be honest, I never felt that pressure of expectations because I always had the support of my parents. I always try to be a positive figure for everyone in my team and be remembered as someone who was a good player, but a better person,” said Campana.
Campana’s crafty side
That humble personality could also become cunning and practice soccer’s dark arts when necessary, especially to help the club.
In a 2016 match between Barcelona and rivals Liga de Quito, Campana was serving as a ball boy in the second half behind the Liga de Quito goal. With Barcelona leading late and the final minutes ticking away, a ball went out for a Liga de Quito goal kick.
Only problem was that Liga de Quito goalkeeper Daniel Viteri couldn’t locate a ball to restart play. Turns out that a certain 16-year-old ball boy was trying to buy a few extra seconds to help his team.
Campana breaks into a laugh at recalling the events of that night.
“I was behind the goal and the goalkeeper came looking for the ball. He couldn’t find it because I had it hidden at my feet. As he got closer to me, he kicked the ball and grabbed me by the neck and they ended up sending him off,” said Campana.
It is also one of Alfaro Moreno’s most cherished memories of Campana.
“This was the grandson of the most historic president in Barcelona history doing this,” recalls Alfaro Moreno. “Leo was hiding the ball and the opposing goalkeeper was rough with him, insulting him. It proves that everyone in football has to have a bit of craftiness, no?”
The international stage
The 16-year-old ball boy was making waves with the Barcelona Under-18s and soon made his way onto the first team in 2019, coached then by Guillermo Almada, current manager of Mexican club Pachuca.
That year proved to be a crucial one for Campana. His goals in the Barcelona youth system and first-team debut at age 18 brought about a call to the Ecuador Under-20 National Team to play in the 2019 Under-20 Sudamericano in Chile.
Nine games and six goals later, Campana led Ecuador to their first-ever title at that level and finished as the tournament’s top scorer. He was a slam-dunk choice to lead the forward line for Ecuador at the 2019 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Poland, where Ecuador’s road to a semifinal finish included a 2-1 quarterfinal win over the United States.
“Ecuador had a great team. Initially, you get caught up looking at the players who are creating play in midfield and making the assists. You kind of overlook the big guy up top, but then we realized, 'Wow, he’s a problem,’” said former U.S. Under-20 coach Tab Ramos to MLSSoccer.com
“I do remember that we worried about him, but we also had so many other players to worry about wide and in the middle that we felt like with Chris Richards and Bouba Keita in the middle we could handle Campana, but he was a big part of their second goal.
“He wasn’t just a target player. He can move, he had good athletic ability, he was good in the air because he’s tall. He wasn’t your average box No. 9. He could press, he could do a lot and he became one of their important guys to advance,” added Ramos.
After a sparkling Under-20 Sudamericano and a historic Under-20 World Cup finish, suddenly, a lot of people knew about Campana.
“His spell with the Ecuador Under-20 team was fundamental in the growth of his career,” said Alfaro Moreno. “They were third in the World Cup played in Poland, and all of that pushed Leo into a new world, to a platform in which he was known worldwide, in which he was followed by scouts from the biggest leagues in the world. That started a much more professional stage for him, which is what he always dreamed about.”
What lies ahead
More than three years after one World Cup changed the course of Campana’s life, another World Cup might do the same, but on another level. All signs point toward Campana being on Ecuador’s final roster for Qatar and there is no reason to think he won’t continue his goalscoring ways in MLS for the rest of the season.
After stalling out in Europe in his first go-around, the experience gained from this year in Miami could lay the groundwork for a much more successful spell whenever he returns to the Old Continent (Miami hold a purchase option). One can’t help but think that future Champions League nights, Copa Americas and a 2026 World Cup on North American soil are all in the cards for Campana.
Eventually, though, there is a sense that things will come full circle.
“I think this time in MLS can serve as a trampoline so that he can recover that profile. But my overall wish is that things go well for him, that he has success in a European team and that he returns one day to Barcelona to finish his career and be a champion with this club,” said Alfaro Moreno.
The Leonardo Campana story is one that remains to be told, but there is already a pretty good idea of what the final chapter will look like.
Until then, Barcelona will be watching and waiting for their favorite son to come home.