Behind the mask is a boy. Just before Christmas 2016, Paulo Dybala missed Juventusâs last penalty in the Italian Super Cup final against Milan. It was still on his mind days later when, watching Gladiator, he had an idea. From that moment, he has celebrated every goal by putting his hand across his face, thumb and index finger extended to imitate a mask. It has been seen often â there have been 64 goals since, starting with a penalty in the next match â instantly identified as his. It is also, he says, ânot just a celebration but a messageâ.
Juventusâs No 10 speaks softly; he is thoughtful and the mask is worn lightly but listening it becomes apparent it goes beyond celebration to become more meaningful, if subconsciously. He says it was inspired by the penalty and the film, that he âdidnât really think aboutâ it as protection or some emotional shield. But in the way he explains it â in everything he says the morning after its latest outing â it is revealed as deeper.
At the end of a long conversation comes the inevitable question, if only for a laugh. Which, by the way, it gets. So, about Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo again â¦ âIâm the only player who shares a dressing room with both and people only see the tip of the iceberg, not the work beneath; they havenât won all theyâve won because theyâve been lucky,â he says. âAnd, yeah, I know people have to ask but they must know what Iâm going to say.â
Go on then, whoâs better? Dybala makes a play of looking out of the window at the Alps. âI canât answer that,â he says, laughing.
He answers everything else with an honesty and openness that surprises at times, his responses considered, calm. He talks about global warming â âwe have to change; this is the only place weâve got to liveâ â about books (he is reading Allan and Barbara Pease on body language) and about exposure â âweâre humans: there are 10 positive comments and the one that gets to you is the negative one, but you canât focus on that.â He talks about football, which means talking about life too; themes crystallise around the mask, as if it expresses his experiences.
âA lot of the time, you have difficult moments and you have to go out there and fight anyway: not just in football, in life,â he says. âBad things happen, to me or anyone, difficult times in life, but you have to keep going: put the mask on like gladiators do, and fight. Every battle. That was the idea I tried to transmit. People liked it, understood it. And thatâs pleasing because the messages you send arenât always interpreted the way youâd like.â
Which seems a good place to start any article, a rider usefully attached to every interview. Another good place might be Laguna Larga, population 7,437: Pauloâs Town, as a billboard there proudly declares over a picture of him âwearingâ the mask. Or Poland, perhaps. After all, although Dybala has never been to Krasniow, he will because, as he puts it, âIâd like to see where it all beganâ.
Krasniow is a village of 49 inhabitants where Dybalaâs paternal grandfather Boleslaw lived. During the second world war he was sent to a Nazi labour camp. Afterwards, there was little left and he departed for Argentina, sleeping in cornfields. He had almost died before someone found him. Boleslaw did not talk about the past much. Dybala wants to know more.
âIâd like to go, although thereâs no family left,â he says. âItâs a tiny place, eight or nine houses. Some Polish journalists put me in touch with my grandfatherâs daughter but she passed away. There are cousins in Canada and weâve spoken but not met. I want to. I tried to get a Polish passport but we couldnât find some of my grandfatherâs documents and we got Italian passports from my motherâs side instead. One day, I will. I feel maybe more Polish than Italian. Personality-wise, my dad was more Polish; my middle brother, exactly the same. All of us, a bit. Maybe a bit colder, Polish blood. Italians tend to be more emotional.â
Dybalaâs grandfather died when Paulo was four. His father, Adolfo, died when Paulo was 15. A football fan, Adolfo drove his son to CÃ³rdoba every day, a 70-mile round trip, to train with the second division side Instituto until, at 14, Dybala went permanently, living in the home of Faustino and Orlando and their grandchildren. But when Adolfo developed a tumour, Paulo asked to return to Laguna Larga. âI was young and it was very hard. My mother suffered a lot, my brothers too. You see the pain but you continue. Iâm not the first to go through that and wonât be the last. Sadly, thatâs the circle of life. Now we have someone helping us from above.
âI thought: âIâll ditch [football],ââ Dybala admits. ââDitch itâ in the sense of [not] leaving my family to play in CÃ³rdoba. I didnât want to. I would have kept playing in my town but I wasnât going to chase that dream any more.â What made you go back? âMy family.â Did football provide a refuge, an alternative focus? âMy refuge was my family. When Instituto called, I didnât feel like going. I was 15, I couldnât hide how hard it was: football was no refuge. I went back because it was my passion and my family pushed me. If not, my mindset was to leave it.â
There were tears but it had been his fatherâs dream, too, which drove him on. Dybala, a football fan even now who says if there is a second division game in Scotland on TV, itâs on in his home, became the youngest ever goalscorer at Instituto, breaking Mario Kempesâs record, aged 17. He scored 17 in his first season. In April 2012, Palermo came calling, which must have been daunting. âActually, I was completely convinced,â he says, although the move was not of his making, an early lesson in footballâs other side, and nor did it start well, his debut season in Europe ending in relegation.
His registration rights had been sold to an investment fund, which was why Palermo was the only option. âThings eventually came to light. There are still some people with legal issues in Argentina. Football has become a huge business. Weâre on the inside but a lot of the time you canât do anything. I was very young.
âBut I was very happy. From the second division to Serie A was an enormous change but I was convinced. My family came and the adventure began in Palermo. The first year didnât go well. It was all new and in truth it was a difficult dressing room; an older squad which was difficult when things went badly. We were struggling, results were bad. I was a kid, seeing a lot of things. Now Iâm grateful because the experience became a lesson. Here, at Juventus, you âalways winâ, right? Everythingâs nice. It was the opposite there but the second season was great. We won the second division and personally it was good.â
When he signed, Maurizio Zamparini, the Palermo president, announced him as the new Sergio AgÃ¼ero â just one of many names thrown at him, including Messi, SÃvori, and Tevez. âIf you believe that, it weighs on you,â he says, âbut I always said I didnât want to be the new anything, I want people to say my goals, my moves, are âlike Dybalaâ, not anyone else. Messi, [Omar] SÃvori, and AgÃ¼ero won incredible things. I wanted to win my things, not theirs. There was criticism because it was â¬8m for a 17-year-old, their highest transfer ever. I left for â¬40m and when I got here, the first thing they asked was about the fee. You think about the prices paid now â¦â
... And youâre cheap. Dybala smiles: âI donât want to imagine the pressure players have now. That helped in a way: I started to relax then, saw that I couldnât focus on that.â
It had all happened fast. He left home at 14, returned at 15 and left again at 16. At 17, he made his debut. At 18, he went to Italy. At 19, he was relegated and at 20 promoted again. At 21, he joined Juventus. The national team, too, although becoming a fixture remains elusive, Dybala admitting that what he has done until now âhas not been enoughâ, his club form not always reproduced, a place alongside Messi difficult to find.
And then, suddenly, almost without noticing, heâs 26. âItâs mad. Not long ago someone said: âYouâre five off 200 Juventus gamesâ, my fifth season and I thought: âBut I only got here yesterday.â If everything goes well Iâve got 10 years left but it went so fast.â Four leagues, three cups, a Champions League final: success normalised, almost unremarkable.
Then, last season something shifted. Dybala might not have reached this fifth season in Turin. No longer an obvious fit, he scored 10, five in the league â half as many as his least productive season until then â and in the summer Manchester United and Tottenham bid. Juventus welcomed their approaches. âI was close to leaving,â he says. âThat was in the clubâs thinking, I knew. Until the last minute, we were waiting.â
In the end Dybala stayed but he speaks enthusiastically about England, a place of âpacked stadiumsâ and âpassionâ, where open spaces would suit him, inviting suggestions he would welcome the opportunity arising again. âI have two years left on my contract. Thatâs not a short time but itâs not a long one either. Weâll see what plans Juventus have, if they think I might leave in the next market or if they want me to stay. Thatâs a decision for the club to make. Itâs hard to know because things change in a second.
âBut Iâm here, at a club that has treated me well; Iâm happy, comfortable. [Maurizio] Sarriâs arrival has helped. He wanted me to stay, which gave me strength when we didnât know what would happen. I knew he could teach me, help me bring out the best in myself.â
Myself may be the word. Dybala has provided seven assists and scored 11, more than the whole of last season and he has been given back the thing he loves most: the ball. âWithout it, I get bored,â he admits. âIf I go a long time without a touch, itâs like Iâm lost, I lose track of the game. Iâm fortunate to be in a team that wants possession, where everybody is technically good, with so many players high up the pitch, lots of opportunities to get on the ball. Youâre not thinking: âIâve got one, maybe two chances per game, I have to do something good.â No. You lose the ball and get it back again. [Miralem] Pjanic gets more than 120 touches per game.â
The night before this interview, Dybala had 97. âAnd most of those are in the oppositionâs half, which means less space but more opportunities to play,â he says. âSarriâs idea helps players a lot â all players. One, two touches. Combine. Move the ball fast. Defensively, itâs mechanised, thereâs no freedom there. But with the ball, close to goal, a thousandth of a second to think, itâs improvised â although I know my teammates, their movements, the movements weâve worked on during the week.
âWhen I started at Instituto in CÃ³rdoba, my coach had the same ideas, so I come with those mechanisms built-in. Latin Americans have that âfÃºtbol de potreroâ idea, street football.â
Still? âItâs been lost a lot; itâs harder to find kids in the squares building goalposts with rocks. Footballâs changed, technology took kids elsewhere. Weâve lost that picardÃa, that cunning, that improvisation. [In academies] everything is so structured, so perfect, that maybe â and I really hope not â weâre losing players like that.â
Players like Dybala. âAs you get older and football becomes more serious, professional, you understand that parts of your game are left behind. Sometimes you encounter coaches that give you freedom. For forwards thatâs the best thing that can happen and I still try to play as I always did, with the ball.
âWe should never forget that this is a game too and that when we were little, we played for fun. Thatâs how we started and who we are. We all have a kid inside of us and we should never leave him behind.âTopics Juventus European club football Serie A interviews Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Share on WhatsApp Share on Messenger Reuse this content