Nicolò Zaniolo revealed the incredible turnaround from almost quitting football altogether to making his Champions League debut for Roma against Real Madrid.
The creative midfielder had yet to make his senior debut when he moved to Roma as part of the deal taking Radja Nainggolan to Inter in 2018, but now aged 20 has become a key figure in the Giallorossi squad.
“I knew that I could do all these things, but I didn’t realise that I could do them so soon,” he told DAZN.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing as a trequartista more, but with my characteristics, I can also play in midfield or on the wing. I don’t see myself in a definitive role yet, because I am still developing as a player.
“There are some defects I need to work on, such as improving my weaker foot or choosing the final pass.”
Zaniolo’s career path hasn’t gone as smoothly as many would think, as he was dropped by the Fiorentina youth academy for not being good enough.
“I’ve never been considered someone who was destined to make it, especially in the youth sector. I was always quite small physically and developed later than the other boys, so when Fiorentina told me that I couldn’t stay there anymore, I retained my enthusiasm for football.
“I went to Virtus Entella and found more space, along with people who believed in me. I remember sitting at a café with my Dad and crying, telling him that if I couldn’t get playing time there, I really would have to change sport or at least try to find a different profession.
“I thought maybe I just didn’t have it. My father (ex-Genoa striker Igor Zaniolo, ndr) told me to give everything to the very last week, so I’d have no regrets. I did it and from then on, I never stopped playing.”
Zaniolo made his Serie B debut for Entella against Benevento in March 2017, aged 17 years and eight months.
Incredibly, after the move from Inter’s youth academy to Roma, he made his Champions League bow against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in September 2018.
He also received his senior Italy call-up to be part of Roberto Mancini’s squad before making his Serie A debut later that month.
“I won’t deny that I had already been told that morning I’d start against Real Madrid. I spent all day staring at the ceiling in my room, incredulous. I felt paralysed. I’d only ever been to the Bernabeu on a stadium tour.
“When you are in the tunnel, you can’t see the pitch yet, just next to me a wall of white jerseys with people like Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric.
“All you can do in those situations is stay calm and think if the coach is picking you, it’s because he has seen something and believes you deserve it. I tried to give my best and it didn’t go that badly.
“The Italy call-up was another surprise. I was out at dinner with friends having a pizza when I saw my name in the squad list and thought immediately it must be some mistake. The news looked the same everywhere, so I started to hope it might be true.
“A call from the team manager confirmed I’d have to be at the Coverciano training camp two days later, so I burst into tears. I called my Mum and Dad, they started crying too. I didn’t sleep for the next two days.
“Once I got to Coverciano, I was like a kid at a fairground. I still can’t quite realise what’s happening, but perhaps that’s the secret to my success, that I just keep going as normal and try to enjoy my football.”
Zaniolo’s debut Serie A goal was another magic moment, dribbling past two defenders and chipping the Sassuolo goalkeeper.
“I’d been trying to score for two or three weeks and thought, I can’t get it wrong now. I saw both defenders went to ground, so the only way to get the ball through was with a chip. It was the most beautiful sensation I have ever felt. I didn’t even know how to celebrate. I thought of taking off my jersey, but then remembered I was already on a yellow card.
“It’s pure instinct when you are in front of the goalkeeper like that, you don’t have time to think. I was still a kid to my teammates, but after that goal, I became one of them.
“I’ve had more disappointment than joy in my career so far, which probably helps me deal with criticism. It makes me stronger.”
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