JEWEL IN JUVE’S CROWN

The Ar­gentina in­ter­na­tional is not ready to em­u­late his fel­low coun­try­man Lionel Messi…yet

World Soccer - - Player Biography - WORDS: Paddy Agnew

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)

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