After a tough first year in Rome, Javier Pastore has rediscovered his form and fitness this season – and Paulo Fonseca’s side are already beginning to reap the benefits.
Pastore, by his own admission, has become used to being a divisive figure among supporters, yet now he is finally beginning to unite the Giallorossi fans – as the eye for a pass and innate talent for creating chances that football fans have long known he possesses have finally been on regular display at the Olimpico.
We sat down with the Argentinian to discuss how he has turned things around this season, along with everything he is learned from football since he very first started playing the game, against the wall of his garage in Cordoba…
What memories do you have of your relationship with football when you were young?
“I’ve got so many memories, because it was the only thing I did, from the age of four or five. I still have photos of myself - always with a football. It’s all I wanted to do, either at school or in the street with my friends. There weren’t video games like there are today – we only thought about football.”
Where did you play?
“Every district of my hometown, Cordoba, used to organise a championship. I remember that I played in all of them, including the ones where my cousin and my other friends lived. Everyone would bring their own team, with one of our dads taking the role of coach.”
Have you always been a technical player?
“I remember that I used to play with my uncle in the garage, using a tennis ball. He’d say to me: ‘If you manage to play with this, then the larger ball will be easier.’ I used to practise kick-ups and kick it against the wall. I did it every day – it was my passion.”
Has your desire always been to become a professional footballer?
“It was always the idea I had fixed in my mind.”
Who was your idol as a youngster?
“When I was young it was [Gabriel] Batistuta, without doubt. At that time, he was playing for the national team and scoring a lot of goals in Italy too – he was all anyone spoke about. I had a poster of him in my room. When he came to Roma, my father gave me his shirt as a gift, which was wonderful. When I grew up, [Juan Roman] Riquelme was my idol – he was a reference point for me, as a number 10.”
How did your career start? Did you immediately realise you’d make it?
“In reality, it wasn’t easy. Everything happened very quickly in Argentina. I started playing in the second tier with Talleres in Cordoba, my city's team. I made my debut with the first team, playing three or four games. Then I went back to playing with the youth teams. It was a very difficult moment, because I thought I had made the breakthrough. After training and making my debut with the older players, going back was a disappointment. I had to start over, with the same desire as always, but it wasn't easy.”
Then what happened?
“After six months I went to Buenos Aires to play at Huracan, in the first team. I went on the training camp with them, but I couldn’t play because of some bureaucratic issue. I trained alone sometimes and I missed the start of the season. When the documents were released, I had a second training camp with them and broke my ankle. This is why I also had to skip the apertura phase of the league season. It seemed like everything was going against me. It was really difficult. I only played five games. In the following season I played consistently as a starter and in six months my life changed.”
How did you feel at that point?
“I had never played as a starter in the top flight and played twenty matches in a row – all of them went fine. At that point the call came from Italy and I couldn't even comprehend what was happening.”
How did your transfer to Palermo come about?
“They came to watch my performances for two months. For me it was a dream to play in Europe. It was extraordinary – they convinced me immediately. I didn't think twice – I jumped at the chance.”
Were you a little afraid?
"Never, no fear. It was my dream. I came for the thing I do best: playing football. My family supported me and came with me along the way. All this gave me so much confidence.”
How was your experience at Palermo?
"Amazing – two unforgettable years. The team played well – we achieved good things during that period. We finished fourth in the league, within one point of Champions League football, reached the Italian Cup final, and played in the Europa League. We did things that hadn't been witnessed Palermo for years. I have so many beautiful memories – the people were wonderful to me. It's the city where I met my wife. It will always remain in my heart; a part of Sicily is with me at home.”
What difference did you see between Argentine and Italian football?
“The difference is tactical. Lots of matches here are prepared in much more detail. There, a lot more freedom is left to the players. Here it is different, even compared to France. Out on the pitch, you always go eleven against eleven, however here in the preparation and training you are much more attentive to certain aspects.”
When did the PSG opportunity arrive?
“In my second year I did very well at Palermo and I already knew that the club had a great chance to build a new team if they sold me. For me it was an important step to grow and improve. In the last two months of my second season at Palermo there was already talk of my sale. I never like to talk before the end of a league season. My agent was there to work on this, but I told him I didn't want to know anything – I wanted to concentrate on the league.”
You ended up moving to France. How would you describe that experience?
“It was a great experience. A lot happened during those seven years. I joined a team that was completely different to the team I’d left. I saw the team grow as I did – they changed coaches, the media, the training ground, the stadium… They improved everything. I’m happy that I was there throughout all those changes. They made me happy. When I joined PSG wasn’t the club it is now. I’m happy that I did my bit. I wouldn’t change anything about that time. We won a lot of titles and I made a good impression on the fans and on the people of France. They speak highly of me and have good memories of me and that’s the most important thing.”
And then came the call from Roma…
“It was obviously a real opportunity for me. I wanted to change clubs so I could feel like an important player for a side once again, taking back the role I had lost a bit at PSG – because of the arrival of so many high-profile players. Roma was the best option; we are talking about a great city and both my wife and I absolutely love it.”
The first year wasn’t straightforward, though. What happened during that period?
“Everything started well and I was really excited to play here. But unfortunately I picked up a few injuries in quick succession… and then there was the injury in the first derby of the season. By September it had already started to go pretty badly. I had lost the coach’s confidence, because I was never fit to be out there on the pitch. Physically I was never in good shape, I wasn’t able to manage the training workload well or improve my physical fitness. I didn’t play many games and it wasn’t an easy year – personally or professionally.”
After the summer, what were you thinking before the start of the new campaign?
“There was a lot going on in my head. There were a lot of changes going on throughout the club and that became a question mark for me. I took the first few days of holiday with my family, but before starting the new season I wanted to talk with the club and with the coach, I wanted to know what they thought about me.
"I was well aware I had not done well the previous year, it made me frustrated to think about that last campaign and I didn’t want the incoming coach and staff to be influenced by those performances. From the first day the club made it clear to me that the change in coach would be a good thing for everyone. From the first training sessions I think I showed that I wanted to address the mistakes of a bad season, both for me and for the team. The coach was always very open, he showed that he believed in me. He asked me to forget about what had gone before, to train at 100%.
"They managed the situation well. I talked with the staff; I told them that last season I was never able to find form or fitness – but for different reasons it was nevertheless necessary for me to play at times, and that didn’t go well for either the team or for me.”
How did you prepare for the new season?
“During that period I spoke a lot with the coach and his staff. I was able to get up to speed physically by playing in all the friendlies, although for one we week we decided together to stop for a bit. It wasn’t an injury, but after double sessions every day, and knowing my body well, I asked to be able to recover for a little bit – to not play in a couple of friendlies and to train alone, because I was already starting to feel the cramps.
"I was aware that during that period, during those friendlies, you could earn your spot and I knew that by not playing I was risking losing an opportunity. But I wanted to avoid getting an early injury, to avoid being out for the games that matter. The coach accepted that, he told me, 'Train well this week, because you need to be ready to go for the first game’. The coach only used me for a few minutes, to allow me to get up to speed at the right speed. But now physically I feel like I did before.”
Beyond your condition, tactically what did Paulo Fonseca ask from you?
“A lot, especially during the early months. We worked on a lot of different aspects. He wants his midfielders to always be facing the opposition goal, and never return towards our own box. I had to stay very focused during training, because I was used to having my back to goal, to play one-twos with my teammates. But the coach wants us to play facing forward, changing the play across the field from right to left regularly.
"But the most important thing is the confidence that the coach gives his players, and the way he speaks to them. I have had a lot of coaches in my career and I have learned a lot from all of them – I can say that this coaching group has a lot of desire to do well and to win. They are all young guys, they have a lot of strong ideas and they know how to transmit that. For a side like Roma, that wants to aim high, that is absolutely crucial.”
You have turned the boos into applause with your most recent performances. Was it tough to realise you didn’t have the backing of the fans?
“I’ve been booed at every team I’ve played for, just as I have been cheered too. That’s because of the way I play. If I am fit and well I can contribute a lot, but if I’m not there physically then I can’t give my best. Sometimes if you don’t have the strength to run back, you save it to make a good run forward. And that’s all things that the fans notice.
"Sometimes I’ve appreciated the boos. When things are going well it’s clear, but when they are going badly you need that reaction from the fans. It is the sort of thing that personally gives me a bit of a kick, I tell myself, ‘Okay, maybe it’s better if I go into training two hours earlier now’. The fans saw that I wasn’t quite right, and my wife and my mother noticed too. It was tough for my family throughout the year, they were aware that something wasn’t right – coming here every month and asking me about my fitness. And if they could see it, then of course the fans could see it every Sunday at the stadium. These are things that make you reflect. At the end of the day this is the passion for all of us, but it’s a job as well and we have to respect the fans that support us.”
You might be spoilt for choice on this one, but which player have you enjoyed playing with the most?
“There are lots that spring to mind. For my game, the best striker I’ve played with is [Edinson] Cavani. I like assisting goals and I’ve had a good connection with lots of players, but it was best with him. He’s a lethal striker. I can’t not give a mention to [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic too. If you take everything into account – the mental side of things, as a team-mate… He’s the player that most inspired me to improve. If you watch him in training you learn. We’re still in contact – I’m very close to him.”
How did living in Paris change you - you were a young guy when you went...
“The first year was a bit difficult because the language and culture were different. I was younger, less open and very shy. I didn’t speak to my team-mates and other people as much – I wasn’t good at socialising with them. I was very young and I got a bit demoralised. I thought I’d never be able to learn French – I just couldn’t understand it. It was a mental thing. But from the second year onwards I got down to it, put my shyness to one side and started to talk. I didn’t speak the language well but I didn’t care – the most important thing was making myself understood. From that moment on I was able to build a bond with my team-mates and the city, together with my wife. I realised that Paris is a magical place. I became a man there and my daughter was born there too – I was only a lad when I became a dad.”
Do you have a favourite goal?
“The one I scored for PSG against Chelsea in the Champions League. I came on with five minutes to go and out of an ordinary move scored a great goal that nobody was expecting. That’s one of my best.”
How much has Italian football changed since you first came to the country?
“Nowadays you all defend and attack as one. It was different ten years ago. However, when I first arrived I was young and all I thought about was having fun.”
Do you think it’s easier or harder for young players to make a career for themselves now?
“I can only speak about my own experiences, but I think it’s harder. I also think about the relationships I have with young people in Argentina. Nowadays money is the only thing people think about. Lots of families and young kids think about playing football solely to earn money, even in the lower leagues. I’m not saying I’ve not earned money in my career, but that can’t be the first priority – if that’s the case then passion and football get pushed to the side and it’s harder to get to the top. You have to do something because you love it. Money comes afterwards. You can’t think about money before you get to Serie A. Lots of kids are given things before they’ve earned them nowadays.”
What advice would you give to young players today?
“To play football with passion and to give their all. To learn in every training session – that’s the key. The rest comes on its own. You need a good head on your shoulders and then a bit of luck. Then things happen.”
What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received in your career?
“There have been lots of people that have helped me. My agent Simonian first and foremost. I’ve been with him for 16 years and he’s always told me to focus solely on playing. That’s one of the many things he’s taught me. On a footballing level, one of the people that really left a mark on me was Walter Sabatini, the person that brought me to Europe. He used to give me a lot of advice when we worked together at Palermo.”
What kind of thing?
“He would talk to me about everything – life, football… I was like a son to him. When I joined Palermo, I couldn’t do anything right either in training or matches. He would call me into his office to watch the game back. It was 40 degrees so I just wanted to go to the beach! But he would keep me there to watch the match back. He’d say: ‘Watch it back three times and then tell me what you’ve noticed.’ He’d go off and get on with stuff, and then at the end of the game he’d say: ‘OK, what have you learned?’ I’d say: ‘I had a few good moments.’ He’d say: ‘No, here you flung your hands up because a team-mate didn’t pass you the ball, here you didn’t track back ten yards…’ It was all stuff that you don’t see when you’re 19, but he made me see it. They were important details both on and off the field. On a football level, he really helped me.”
How much did you grow as a player during your time at Palermo?
“A lot. Beyond my relationship with Sabatini, when Delio Rossi arrived I learned more about tactical movement in a month than anyone else had taught me in my whole career. We’d do additional work at the end of training, just us. I didn’t think it was going to help me at all. He said: ‘You’re not going to play this month. You’ll be on the bench. Then when this month is over I’ll put you back in the team.’ That’s exactly what he did. He put me back in the starting line-up a month later and I was a different player.”
What are you like away from football?
“I’m a normal lad – well, an old man! I like being at home with my family. I want a quiet life.”
What’s your favourite hobby?
“Right now it’s spending time with my family. When I was young, I played videogames, but now if I had a day off I might play volleyball. I really like the cinema – my wife and I go a lot. It wasn’t easy in France because of the language, so when I had a day off my wife and I would come to Rome to see a film then head back early the next morning. Everything is lot simpler since I came here.”
Have you thought about what you might do when you retire?
“Right now I’m planning on having a few more good years of football, then we’ll see. Football is my life so I’ll certainly stay in the game, but I don’t know yet – life can change from one day to the next. I’m Argentine, my wife is Italian and my kids were born in France. Who knows where I’ll live in the future? They’ll choose, definitely. My first priority is my family.”
What is the target for this season?
“To be available to the coach, at any time. For 90 minutes or for 10. I want to stay fit and healthy and help Roma finish as high up as possible. Football is a team game and if Roma do well it’s because the whole squad has done well, not just one player.”
Check out earlier entries in our Big Interview series:
AS Roma x Chris Smalling
AS Roma x Edin Dzeko
AS Roma x Gianluca Mancini
AS Roma x Aleksandar Kolarov
AS Roma x Nicolo Zaniolo
AS Roma x Jim Pallotta
AS Roma x Cengiz Under
AS Roma x Paulo Fonseca
AS Roma x Leonardo Spinazzola