Paulo Dybala: ‘Before the game starts, I give the ball a kiss. I want her to want to be with me’

Paulo Dybala didn’t wade through the Trevi fountain like Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. But he did get down on one knee and propose by its rushing waters as his girlfriend, the singer Oriana Sabatini, tossed a coin over her shoulder and made a wish.

“It wasn’t easy to choose somewhere for the proposal,” Dybala tells The Athletic, “because there are thousands of places in Rome. I didn’t want it to get out either, or for anyone to say I was organising something big. So I ran it by a few mates, we went out for dinner and decided to go get a gelato by the fountain.”

His buddies were on hand to capture the moment on camera. Fellini, sadly, is no longer available.

Dybala, incidentally, has just returned from the Cannes film festival – where La Dolce Vita won the Palme d’Or in 1960. Something of a ‘regista’ himself, as film directors and playmakers are interchangeably known in Italy, he walked the red carpet with Sabatini on his arm.

“Maybe when I’m done with football I’ll do a bit of acting to get an award,” he jokes.

His club Roma’s American owners, the Friedkin family, might be able to help there.

They were in the south of France to check up on their other football club, AS Cannes, and in their capacity as the distributors and producers of films including Parasite and Killers Of The Flower Moon. You might say Dybala is the Di Caprio to their Scorsese. More broadly he has been the leading man in Serie A for more than a decade, a player of rare gifts.

At previous employers Juventus, the Argentinian scored as many goals as the Ballon d’Or-winning Roberto Baggio (115) and counted on the blessing and friendship of Alessandro Del Piero, who considered him a worthy heir. In Rome, a player of his class has not graced the Olimpico since Francesco Totti’s retirement. Ten thousand fans turned out for his unveiling on the steps of the Square Colosseum in the EUR, a business and residential district of the Italian capital, in 2022.

“The music is different when Paulo is on the pitch,” then Roma coach Jose Mourinho observed. Less staccato, more mellifluous.

In a nine-month 2023-24 season, Dybala won the player of the month award three times. His numbers — 26 goals and assists in all competitions — were nearly as good at 30 as they had been in his early 20s. “There are players whose talent is such that you have to give them a bit more freedom,” Roma’s current coach Daniele De Rossi explained. “I played with Totti for 20 years. No one ever told him what to do. We just got our heads down when he had the ball. We’ve got a player like that in Dybala and need to make the most of it.”

Diego Maradona used to talk to the ball when he played. Dybala, as his proposal showed, is a romantic.

“Before the game starts, I give her (the football) a kiss — I want her to want to be with me. I don’t talk to her. I wouldn’t want to bore her. But I do give her ‘un bacio’ — a kiss — so she wants to be as close to me as possible.” Like against Feyenoord in the Europe League’s first knockout round in February, when this touch almost sent De Rossi head over heels. For fans in the stands, it was worth the ticket price alone.

For any clubs interested, it was a reminder of the outrageously low €12million buy-out clause in his contract that can be activated throughout the month of July.

“I’m a natural,” Dybala says, without a trace of arrogance when asked about the intangible skills of a No 10. “I have to think and execute in a fraction of a second. There are times when you’re in the dressing room before a game thinking about what might happen and how you might cause defenders problems. But when you’re on the ball and surrounded by defenders you only have one or two seconds to make a decision so it has to be quick, it has to be natural. It’s hard if you’re not. Everything you see is natural. Nothing is pre-rehearsed.”

Players of his role and elegance, the left-footed ‘fantasista’, have become few and far between in modern football.

Only this week, Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti lamented the absence of a successor to Baggio, Totti and Del Piero in his native Italy. Dybala’s old coach at Juventus, Max Allegri, opined to The Athletic earlier this year that kids these days are over-taught, that sessions are too structured, too tactical and stop-start. “If a child trains three times a week for an hour and a half, how many times do you reckon they touch the ball?,” he asked. “Thirty times? That’s 90 times a week. It’s not enough.”

There are too many apartment blocks with “No ball games” signs fixed to the walls. Kickabouts in piazzas are a thing of the past.

“I’ve been in Italy for 12 years,” Dybala says. “And I’ve rarely seen kids playing football in the streets. If you go watch kids train (here) the difference with Argentina is that our kids are given more freedom. They’re allowed to create and invent without hearing someone call out: ‘Two touches!’ or ‘Pass it over there!’.” These are shouts that stunt dribbling and pre-programme players against the ‘pausa’ — players who show calm amid the chaos, put their foot on the ball, even if only for a split second, and wait for the right moment.

Giving Monza the runaround (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

European football has always looked to South America for flair and the off-the-cuff.

In Saturday’s Champions League final for instance, Madrid will start Brazilian forwards Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo against Borussia Dortmund. Italy’s search for a striker with an innate sense for goal got so desperate last year that Roberto Mancini scouted Argentina for anyone with dual nationality and called up Mateo Retegui, the now Genoa forward, while he was still a player at Tigre.

“In South America right now, we have more talent than anywhere else on the planet,” Dybala observes.

Roma have drawn on it in the past with Alcides Ghiggia (the man behind the Maracanazo), ‘Pluto’ Aldair and Gabriel Batistuta.

Having South Americans as team-mates always captured the imagination of De Rossi, for instance. As a midfielder and later captain of the team, he’d listen to tales of Super Clasicos gone by, streamers and fluttering ticker tape from the likes of Leandro Paredes, Nicolas Burdisso and Dani Osvaldo. A one-club man until Roma’s former owners decided not to renew his contract, De Rossi chose to finish his career at the Bombonera in Buenos Aires with Boca Juniors.

“He loves Argentina,” Dybala says. “He’s still very fond of Boca and that world. I’m sure he’d like to go back and coach there. Let’s see what happens. Hopefully, he has a successful career in management and can stay in Europe for a long time and win trophies, build great teams and keep doing as well as he’s doing, because he deserves it.”

De Rossi rallied the team after taking over from Mourinho at the turn of the year and did so well the Friedkins gave the hitherto caretaker the job on a permanent basis in mid-April, as Roma once again threatened to qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League. But a semi-finals exit to Bayer Leverkusen and a third consecutive sixth-place finish in Serie A were a disappointing note on which to finish the season. Especially because fifth would have been enough to end an eight-year absence from Europe’s elite club competition.

“No one likes finishing sixth,” Dybala says. “We had the team to finish higher. We played really well at times but came sixth so, on a group level, I’m not very satisfied with what we did. We could have done more.”

Dybala missed the second leg of that semi-final through injury and his absence was keenly felt. However, overall he has played 39 games this season, 33 from the start, clocking up nearly 2,700 minutes. In retrospect, Juventus’ decision to withdraw a contract extension based on his perceived fragility looks flawed and their attack, which ranked sixth last season and seventh in this one, has lacked spark and ingenuity ever since.

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Celebrating another goal for Roma (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

“Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to improve, on and off the pitch,” Dybala explains. “I’ve changed a lot of people on my staff; my trainer, nutritionist, psychologist; everything in order to help me perform better in every game and in training. I’ve felt good this year.”

As he enters his thirties, Dybala still has that boyish glint in his eye and isn’t about to wind down. He has won everything in Italy on multiple occasions: five Scudetti, including the league MVP title at Cristiano Ronaldo’s expense in the year of Juventus’ last title, four Coppe Italia, a couple of Super Cups and Serie B with Palermo. He has played in Champions League and Europa League finals.

“Winning” is how Dybala aspires to spend the rest of the decade. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a shot at everything. I’ve won. I’ve lost. The defeats in those European finals are my regrets. I haven’t won a Champions League or a Europa League but that’s always going to be my aim. I want to win all I can with Roma. Winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that counts,” he says, quoting the Juventus motto, which remains ingrained on his psyche after seven years in Turin.

These experiences were what he dreamed of when he was the ‘pibe de la pension’ — the kid in the digs — after he left home to make it as a footballer at Instituto Cordoba, experiences he now draws upon to help Roma. They culminated in Qatar when Dybala scored one of the penalties in the shootout that decided the 2022 World Cup final against France. It ended Argentina’s 36-year wait for that trophy and left his team-mate Lionel Messi fulfilled.

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Dybala scores Argentina’s second penalty in the shootout that would decide the 2022 World Cup (Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

“I think he would have swapped any title to win the World Cup,” Dybala says. “When I say any, I mean any, and more than one too. We had a wonderful group of players at that World Cup, a very united squad. Everyone shared the same objective. We all knew our role and what was expected of one another. When Argentina went out on the pitch, 26 players became one. It was crazy. There was a very powerful positive energy that I’ve rarely seen in a group of players. For Lionel, it was definitely something special. Only he knows inside what he’s been through. For us to win it with him was a bonus twice over.”

More than five million Argentinians flooded the streets of Buenos Aires when the team returned from the Gulf.

“It was madness,” Dybala recalls. “So beautiful. It’s something that’s impossible for history to forget and for us to forget for the rest of our lives. Seeing that crowd from the bus was incredible. It was an incredibly hot day. We had a few drinks on the bus but after a while the ice melted, so they were no longer chilled. It was hot as hell.

“We had to keep stopping because there were so many people, we couldn’t move. People were jumping from bridges to get on the bus. They could have broken an arm or a leg but they wanted to be with us. We wanted to get to the Obelisk (in the Plaza de la Republica) but got stuck because security couldn’t get us through. So in the end we all had to jump off, catch a helicopter and go back to the training ground.”

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Millions flocked to the Obelisk in Buenos Aires to mark Argentina’s World Cup win (Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Given the season Dybala’s had, he was understandably disappointed not to be included in Lionel Scaloni’s squad for the Copa America this summer. He scored big goals in Europa League knockout games against Brighton and AC Milan and his hat-trick against Torino in Serie A should be put on display at the Vatican museums.

“I felt like I did some good things this year,” Dybala reiterated. “I was confident about making the squad, so it was a very tough blow for me to take because being part of the national team is one of the best things ever. But I also understand that it’s hard for our coach to choose. We’ve got so many good players in teams all over Europe and he has to pick 26. I respect his decision. I’ve always told him that. I’ve got a great relationship with him and he has certainly chosen the best for the team.

“I’ll be cheering from home, as I always am when I’m not in the squad. I’ve got a lot of friends on the team and hope with all my heart they can win the Copa America again.”

It leaves Dybala with a summer to plan his wedding and his future. Five years ago, he could have moved to the Premier League.

“That summer, I remember there was an approach from Manchester United as well as Tottenham but it was more Manchester because Juve wanted to make that move,” Dybala says, alluding to a mooted swap the club’s then chief football officer Fabio Paratici proposed for United’s Romelu Lukaku. “It was the season Juve appointed (Maurizio) Sarri, so I spoke to him to find out if he really didn’t want me on the team. After our chat, my intention was to stay. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay because I was happy (in Turin). That was my best year.” Dybala’s goals against Milan, and particularly Antonio Conte’s Inter, ended up deciding the title.

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Dybala had his ‘best year’ at Juve (Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

But what about now? Would he consider a new league? A change of football culture?

“I’ve been in Italy for almost 12 years and I’m having an incredible time,” he says. “It’s difficult for me to see myself outside Italy, because I grew up and became a man here.” He’s no longer ‘Picciriddu’, as fans at Palermo, the club he joined in 2012, used to call him in Sicilian: The Kid. “Italy has given me everything,” Dybala continues. “It’d be hard to leave, but of course you always have the curiosity and wonder how you’d do in leagues as good as La Liga and the Premier League, where there are great teams and great players.”

Dybala’s contract expires next summer and his future will be on the agenda of Roma’s new technical director Florent Ghisolfi.

La Joya (The Jewel), as Dybala is nicknamed now, won’t be lacking proposals.

Fans will be making a wish at the Trevi fountain in the hope this football romantic stays at Roma.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: John Bradford)

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