JEWEL IN JUVE’S CROWN
The Argentina international is not ready to emulate his fellow countryman Lionel Messi…yet
The day after he missed the decisive penalty in the Italian Super Cup in December, Juventus striker Paulo Dybala posted the following statement on his Instagram account.
“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot ...and I missed.
“I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed.”
The words are those of basketball star Michael Jordan, but there are two things that immediately come to mind. Either Dybala is absurdly wise at just 23 or he has a very good PR team.
Those who know Dybala would suggest a bit of both. He is indeed wise beyond his years, while he is fiercely protected and carefully managed by his Argentinian family clan. His mother, Alicia, lives two floors below him in a central Turin condominium and, as of September, his financial affairs are being looked after
by his brother, Gustavo.
The point about Dybala is that many see him as the latest in a long line of foreign stars in Italian football, with the former Instituto de Cordoba player following in the footsteps of such great names as Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Zbigniew Boniek, Zico, Ronaldo and Gabriel Batistuta.
As Dybala prepared for his third season with champions Juventus, the Italian media’s sense of expectation about him and his likely impact on both domestic and European football became just a trifle overstated. For a start, when Juve opened their Champions League campaign in Barcelona this September, many commentators opted for an almost heretical comparison between Dybala and his illustrious compatriot Lionel Messi.
On the night, that rash comparison melted like butter in the Cordoba midday sun as Messi served up yet another example of just why many believe he is the finest footballer of the modern age. Dybala is a wonderfully talented player, but he is not yet Messi, nor could anyone reasonably expect him to be.
What is true, however, is that by the time Messi is ready to hang up his boots, the player that Argentinians call “La Joya” (the jewel) could be ready to more than adequately fill those famous boots.
On the morning after Barca’s 3-0 defeat of Juventus, Italian football yet again scratched its collective head as it attempted to absorb its third consecutive drubbing by Spanish football in the last five months. Real Madrid’s 4-1 defeat of Juventus in the Champions League Final in May and Spain’s 3-0 thrashing of the national team in a World Cup qualifier in early September were the antipasti to this most recent debacle.
Inevitably, critics and fans alike pointed a disappointed finger at Dybala, arguing that he had failed to deliver.
Within hours, however, his club captain, Gigi Buffon, had jumped to his defence, telling Media Premium TV: “Last season I would have said that Dybala was one of the five best players in the world; indeed, at times he was in the top three.
“And I still think that, even if he did so-so in one single game, you have got to remember that, against Barcelona, it was the entire Juventus team that did not play well and that made it very difficult for Dybala.
“I would say that, given the consistent quality of his game in the last 18 months,
he is worthy of all the fuss and attention. You know, I have played with and against a lot of great players and that’s why I can tell you that Paulo is a member of an elite club of class players.”
Buffon is not the only 2006 World Cup-winner to have praised Dybala. Back in 2013, Rino Gattuso had a brief, three-month sojourn as coach of Serie B side Palermo.
Gattuso might not have lasted long enough to make much of an impact on the Palermo season, but he was there long enough to make the following observation about a 20-year-old who had arrived in Italian football with Palermo the previous summer: “He’s a player who is two pages ahead of all the others in the football manual.
“He is pure class, there is no way that he will not become a great player. Just look at his technique and the football he can play. He is the real thing, the guy with the numbers.”
If Dybala disappointed fans and critics alike in that 3-0 drubbing by Barcelona, he has, to some extent, only himself to blame.
When the two teams met in the first leg of last season’s Champions League quarter-final in Turin, Dybala had one of his best games of the season for Juve, scoring twice in an emphatic 3-0 victory – a result which did much to propel his side down the road and into the Final.
His performance that night prompted more unfortunate comparisons with Messi, with some suggesting that the “King” had just been forced to abdicate his Argentinian “throne” in favour of the “Young Pretender”.
Such conclusions were clearly premature, but it was not for nothing that Juventus agreed a new 7milliona-year contract through to 2022 with Dybala just days after that result.
Dybala had set the bar very high for himself. When it came to the Cardiff Final, and again at Camp Nou this autumn, he was not able to live up to expectations. There is, however, plenty of time for both Dybala and Juventus to recover ground in the Champions League this season. For the Argentinian, that is important because the Cardiff defeat hurt.
Speaking to The New York Times on the eve of season, Dybala confirmed this when saying: “In football, you always have the chance for revancha (revenge). There is a phrase in Argentina: it is an espina clavada, a thorn in your side, something that hurts you.
“The pain of losing that Final will be with me until I lift that trophy. I will be
a lot calmer then.”
You could argue that for both Dybala and a domestically all-dominant Juve, who have won the last six successive Serie A titles, the Champions League remains the only Alpine peak worth climbing. It may have begun badly but the climb still has a long way to go.
Likewise, the fact that Dybala’s international partnership with Messi has yet to kick-start into life does not mean that the two together will not gel and deliver match-winning performances in the future.
In the meantime, Juventus are doing their best to hold on to Dybala. This summer they consigned the coveted number 10 shirt to him. The fact that this shirt has been worn in the past by such as Omar Sivori, Platini, Roberto Baggio and Alex Del Piero is no lightweight consideration in the collective Juventus mind.
Juve did this against the background of consistent speculation – not just from the media but also from the powerful agent Mino Raiola – that, sooner or later, Dybala will leave Italy, with rumours of interest from first Barcelona and then Real Madrid.
On the field, the Argentinian’s class is there for all to see. Very much someone who likes to play behind a powerful front man such as compatriot Gonzalo Higuain or Croat marksman Mario Mandzukic, his game is based on a mix of mobility and razor-sharp technique which sees him both create and score goals.
A left-footed player, he likes nothing better than to drift in from the right flank, putting himself into the perfect position to shoot. If his partnership with Messi has yet to explode into life, the all-
Argentinian entente with Higuain has long since established itself in Serie A.
Off the field, Dybala has thus far been the model professional. He generates none of the unsavoury gossip that has tripped other stars of his age: no pictures at nightclubs, no incidents with fans, no car crashes, no tantrums.
When he first arrived at Juventus his initial impact with the team saw him somewhat underused, but he told one reporter: “Eighteen months ago I was playing in Serie B with Palermo, so it is normal enough that I do not immediately command a team place”
But while Dybala almost looks too soft to be a hard-edged, top-class, aggressive athlete, his life has had its own dark sorrows, namely the death of his father, Adolfo, who died of pancreatic cancer when his son was 15 years old.
“I still cry for my dad,” he has admitted. “Sometimes I dream of him at night and I wake up with tears in my eyes. But now, I think that he is looking down on me and he is happy for me.”
Perhaps Adolfo would approve too of his now trademark goal celebration which sees him put his hand over his mouth with his fingers and thumb stretched across his face to create the effect of a warrior’s mask. As for the meaning of his mask, a gesture that inevitably went viral when he first used it, Dybala explains: “Every day all of us have to confront problems and disappointments, but we have to fight them like a warrior, even if behind the mask we are smiling.”
Five days after that Champions League loss to Barca, Dybala’s eyes were smiling as he delivered his own response with a hat-trick in a 3-1 win over Sassuolo on the following Sunday.
With 10 goals in his first six Serie A games this term, the Dybala bandwagon is clearly rolling. This is most definitely a story that will run and run.
“He’s a player who is two pages ahead of all the others in the football manual. He is pure class” Rino Gattuso
Comparisons...with compatriot Lionel Messi
On the up... celebrated by his Palermo team-mates
Big time...with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric
New shirt...wearing the Juventus number 10 shirt this season
Tough...in action against Fiorentina
Deadly duo...with Argentina and Juventus partner Gonzalo Higuain (left)