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NicolÃ² Zaniolo made his debut for Virtus Entella in Serie B two and a half years ago. He had been released by Fiorentina the year before as a 16-year-old and knew he had to pursue other opportunities in the game. Some players would have fallen down the league pyramid or given up on football altogether, but Zaniolo rolled up his socks and started a journey that has taken him to the very top.
After spending a season at Inter, where he was named their academy player of the year, Zaniolo signed for Roma in June 2018. He played his first game for the club exactly a year ago â away at Real Madrid in the Champions League â and has not looked back. Zaniolo is now a regular at the heart of the Roma midfield and his goals were instrumental in the clubâs run to the Champions League quarter-finals last season. To crown it all, he is now an Italy international. Zaniolo is a man on the up.
Your breakthrough at Roma last season was incredible. Did you predict such a rapid rise when you joined the club?
âTo be honest, I didnât expect to have such an impact as I was coming from an academy team and had a lot to learn. I also made my Italy debut, which was a surprise, but I have lots of targets left. I have learned a lot from last season, but I need to go further now and keep pushing.â
It must seem like a long time since you were playing for Virtus Entella. What has changed in two years to take you from Serie B to the Italy team?
âSo much has changed, both from a physical standpoint and a psychological one. Essentially, Iâve changed the way I work and the way I am day-to-day. I wanted to be a teenager before, doing all the things my friends do, but Iâve learned to focus on what is important: football. I train harder, I focus more, I have high targets, and all these have helped me improve technically on the pitch but also in terms of my life off it. I am more complete â thatâs whatâs led to me playing at the top.â
Why did you think Roma would be a better place than Inter to break through and progress?
âWhen a big club with so much history like Roma wants you and has plans for you in the first team, itâs hard to turn down the offer. I confess, I thought Iâd be sent out on loan as I had lots to learn and a new move is always a risk, but Eusebio Di Francesco had confidence in me from the start and helped me a lot. If it wasnât for him, I would not have made the breakthrough. He is great with younger players and I owe him a lot.â
Young players in Italy often face a lot of pressure. You have been called âthe new Tottiâ. What are you doing to manage those expectations?
âItâs important to keep your feet on the ground at all times and I have a family behind me who do that, who understand football and who make sure I work my best at all times. Beyond that, the only way to manage expectations is within myself. I canât listen to what others say, good or bad. Iâm not Totti, but one day I hope to be as good.â
Who was your favourite player growing up?
âMy hero undoubtedly was always KakÃ¡, especially during his Milan years and for Brazil. I watched him a lot. For me, he was the perfect offensive midfielder: strong, technically perfect and capable of scoring and assisting. That is what I wanted to become as a kid and I still do now. I watch his videos, study the way he moved, and try to take elements into my game as Iâm also tall, strong and try to play technical, direct football.â
You left Fiorentinaâs academy at 16. What advice do you have for other young players who have been released by clubs?
âThe main advice is to never give up. Partly because, If youâre 15 or 16 and have reached that point, you must have some quality that another team will always find useful, even if it isnât always obvious. One team not wanting your skillset doesnât mean another wonât. More than that, though, you need to continue to enjoy football. If you donât enjoy it, you wonât have the motivation to keep fighting. Love football no matter what, in good times and in bad.â
Some former players and managers in Italy say your best position is at No 8, where you can influence the game in both halves. Which role do you see yourself settling into for Roma and the national team?
âAs a kid, because I had technical skills, I always played as a No 10 but I like playing as an eight or even a defensive midfielder. For now, Iâll play in any position, but maybe one day I will settle a little deeper, unless a manager comes in and sees me totally as a forward playmaker. I will play anywhere as long as Iâm on the pitch.â
Being a professional footballer is a great job with many perks, but what is the toughest part of being a player?
âThe journey itself is the hardest as itâs not easy to get the top. It takes a lot of sacrifice and time, and you have to keep believing even when you think it wonât happen. And then, once you get there, itâs even harder to stay. You are always working harder and harder every day. But, as you say, itâs worth what awaits you. I always found it hard to leave my family. I had to leave them many times as a young teenager to live elsewhere so I could pursue a football career. I was travelling all the time. I didnât get to do the things that my friends were doing â going out, the stuff everyone my age does. It becomes easier but when youâre younger, you just want to have a normal life and be around friends. It was worth it, though.â
Who are the best players youâve played against so far â in midfield and in defence?
âCristiano Ronaldo, of course. He is perfect physically and very hard to mark. Luka Modric as well. I was impressed with how he used the ball and the way he moved with it. Heâs small but hard to get off it. He turns sharply, moves quickly and takes up great positions. I found him hard to control. Defensively, RaphaÃ«l Varane. Heâs fast, very technical and strong. He is the hardest player to get past â almost impossible, especially one on one.â
You played with Daniele De Rossi before he left Roma. What have you learned from experienced players such as him?
âDaniele was always a leader and a fantastic person, so itâs easy to learn from him and other experienced players. In fact, if you canât, thereâs something wrong. Mostly what I learned was humility. He has time for everyone: the fans, the staff, the other players. Off the pitch, he prepares well and was always focused on Roma. I am trying to take that into my life, to make Roma the centre of it.â
Youâve shared a dressing room two World Cup winners in De Rossi and Steven Nzonzi. What inspiration have they given you when it comes to playing for Italy?
âWinning the World Cup is my childhood dream, as it is for any player, and being lucky enough to share a changing room with Daniele and Steve makes you believe that itâs possible. It focuses you to try to become that sort of player so others may one day look up to me. Itâs a boost every day, but now itâs time for me to write my own story. Iâm ready for the challenge.â
By the time FC Astana touched down in Manchester on Monday, they had been in the air for more than seven hours. A quick stop in Riga had lengthened their day and it was little wonder that, whereas most teams travel to European fixtures the afternoon before the game, the serial Kazakh champions had afforded themselves three days to prepare for this one. As far as their body clocks, tuned five hours ahead of British Summer Time, were concerned it was into the early hours of the morning when they finally checked into their hotel and could begin adjusting to the task in hand.
For Astana it is hardly an unfamiliar scenario: they have faced similar challenges in the majority of the 35 away fixtures they have contested in the Europa League and Champions League since, in 2013, they took their first steps on this stage. But for everyone else there remains a sense of mystery about facing a team based 3,700 miles from Old Trafford, and three times closer to the Chinese border than to Moscow. It is the furthest outpost in top-level European football; a remote new city in a still-new country, and – in the familiar modern-day mould – a sporting project designed to deepen Kazakhstan’s imprint on the geopolitical map.
“Life there has been surprisingly good,” says the Icelandic midfielder Rúnar Már Sigurjónsson, who moved to Astana in June after his contract with the Swiss club Grasshopper expired. “It’s a little bit strange, of course, a completely different world; a new city with all this strange but beautiful architecture. I had no idea what to expect but it surprised me in a very positive way.”
The city of Astana was renamed Nur-Sultan, after the former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, upon his resignation in March. It has rattled through the identities: in the Soviet era it was initially named Akmolinsk and then became Tselinograd, subsequently becoming Akmola when Kazakhstan declared independence in 1992 and then, in 1998, Astana (“Capital”). The vision presented by its modern incarnation, which soars into view from hundreds of miles of steppe, is extraordinary: a disorientating array of glitzy, high-rise, futuristic buildings that outwardly serve scant purpose beyond flexing the strongman Nazarbayev’s oil-funded muscles.
A strong football team is another means of doing that and Astana, founded in 2009, are backed by Samruk Kazyna, the country’s sovereign wealth fund. The aim was to give Kazakhstan a Champions League club: Astana achieved that in 2015-16, reaching the group stages and earning four draws against Atlético Madrid, Benfica and Galatasaray. They have not quite managed to repeat the trick but this is their fourth successive appearance in the Europa League; if they are not quite a Shakhtar Donetsk then the signs are they have outstripped BATE Borisov, whom they defeated in this season’s play-off and who were commonly cited by club insiders as a reference point earlier in the decade.
“The club is doing a lot of things right: well organised, a good structure, everyone working together to be a known team in Europe,” Sigurjónsson says. “I think their long-term vision is succeeding.”
Sigurjónsson was brought to Astana by Paul Ashworth, the club’s English executive director. Ashworth arrived in January as part of a boardroom reshuffle and speaks good Russian, having been a coach at FC Rostov between spells managing three Latvian clubs. He oversees a football setup, managed by the Ukrainian Roman Hryhorchuk, that has won five consecutive league titles but is embroiled in a rare three-way skirmish with Kairat Almaty and leaders Tobol this time.
“The domestic football is two different things,” Sigurjónsson says. “At home we have a good artificial pitch and a nice stadium, so you know what to expect. At away games you don’t really know what you’ll come across: it could be a grass pitch that hasn’t been cut for a few weeks. The league has probably been a little more even than I’d expected. The players are a bit smaller, more Asian in style: quick and with more technique, good on the ball. But the tactical and physical aspect is not quite the same as we know in European football.”
If that is not exactly a slip of the tongue, it does underline Kazakhstan’s wider struggle between European and Asian identities. Winning at Old Trafford would certainly bolster the former and Sigurjónsson, who believes it is “maybe the biggest game in the club’s history”, thinks their prospects should be taken seriously.
“I think we have a great chance,” he says. “Of course it’s a romantic idea, but you never know what can happen in football. It’s probably a great time to play them right now; they have a lot of injuries and perhaps haven’t found their best team yet.”
Sigurjónsson has his own reasons for scouring United closely: he is a lifelong fan who flew regularly from Iceland to attend games – such as the win over Aston Villa in 2009 made famous by Federico Macheda’s late winner – throughout his youth. If Astana, who are typically watched by around 5,000 fans at home league games, need an extra shot of backing they will find 40 of his friends and relatives, all United supporters too but parking their affections for the day, in the stands. The idea of playing at Old Trafford was a dream in his matchgoing days; doing so for a team from Kazakhstan is something no career planner could have sketched out.
“The world is always getting smaller,” he says. It might not have felt that way during Monday’s journey, but Astana are ready to prove that the gap with their more established rivals is, in football terms at least, narrowing.
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