Nicolo Zaniolo isn’t the new Francesco Totti. He’s also not the saviour of Italian football. As he tells asroma.com, he’s just a normal 19-year-old focused on training and playing football.
In the second in our Big Interview series, we present the first in-depth interview with the young midfielder as he explains how he’s already experienced the harsh realities of football and his hopes for the future...
Let’s start at the beginning. What are your first football memories?
“They go back to when I was three or four years old. I’d not yet joined a football school at that stage but whenever I saw an object on the street, I’d want to kick it. When I got a bit older, I used to go and watch my dad, Igor, who played – that’s when my passion was really born. I used to love watching fans celebrate goals.”
Where did he play when you were young?
“He played for many different teams. I remember when he was at Carrarese, which was close to my house, and also here [in Rome] at Cisco Roma. We used to come here often to watch him play. I used to get so excited when he scored a goal.”
Who were your footballing heroes growing up and why?
“My idol has always been Kaka – I loved his way of playing. It was a beautiful thing to watch when he touched the ball.”
How old were you when you started to believe you could make it as a professional footballer?
“It’s hard to say. I’ve always thought it was fun to play football. During my youth career it never felt certain because I had a lot of disappointments. There was never a moment where I thought to myself: ‘I can do this’. It’s not even something I’m thinking about right now, to tell you the truth. I just want to train and play matches.”
You were released by Fiorentina in 2016. What happened there?
“I started out at Genoa and then went to Fiorentina, where I started playing with the Under-13 team, before moving up to the U-15s. Then I did a summer of training with the Primavera [U-19], after which I was told that there was no room for me”.
How much did that affect your confidence at the time?
“It came as a big shock because after seven years there, I’d made friends and felt part of a family. I cried about it for a whole week. Then I just rolled up my sleeves and I went to Entella, near to my home and my family, and that’s where it all really began.”
Was there ever a moment when you thought you wouldn’t make it as a footballer?
“Yes, during the first month at Virtus Entella. I was in the Primavera squad but I wasn’t playing – I still needed to get used to my surroundings. I arrived when pre-season training had already finished. I was at my father’s cafe in La Spezia and I was crying. I said to him: ‘If I can’t make it here, maybe I need to do something else with my life.’ He replied: ‘Do one last week at full throttle. Do it well, without thinking.’ That’s what I did and I kept going.”
In 2017, you made your debut in Serie B for Virtus Entella as a 17-year-old. What do you remember about that day and that match?
“I felt the moment was coming. I’d got close to making my debut at one stage and I still remember that – we were at Vicenza, winning 1-0, and the coach said to me: ‘Warm-up because you’re on soon.’ Then we conceded and he chose to send a defender on instead. Then at Benevento, one day before my father’s birthday, I got my debut. It was an incredible feeling – I couldn’t believe it. Less than a year had passed since being offloaded by Fiorentina and I was making my professional debut.”
18 months later, you’d joined and left Inter and were making your Champions League debut for Roma away to Real Madrid. Did it feel like you were living in every young boy’s dream?
“The boss had his technical meeting at 11 o’clock – he didn’t tell us the line-up but he said he wanted to talk to me after the meeting. That’s when he told me I’d be playing and asked if I was ready. I said I was. Rather than resting, I spent all day in my room, looking at the ceiling. Once I was out on the pitch, I just thought about playing and doing what I knew I could do. When you’re out there on the pitch, that’s all you think about.”
How much did your team-mates help you?
“[Daniele] De Rossi came and told me to relax, and play as I know how to – with two touches. [Francesco] Totti came to tell me the same thing.”
How did your life change after that game?
“There’s been a lot more attention on me, as well as the people close to me. I prefer to talk about what I do on the pitch, rather than what goes on off it. I love football – this is my passion. I’m happy with the season I’m having and I hope to keep going like this.”
That was September 2018. Five months on and you’re breaking records in the Champions League with two goals against Porto...
“It’s a feeling that, even now, I can’t describe to you. I’ve perhaps not even processed what happened against Porto. Now I just need to train – that’s what I’m focusing on, going hard out on the pitch to get those feelings again.”
What do you think when people say you’re the new Totti or the new hope for the Italian national team?
“I think it’s going too far to compare me with Francesco. It’s an honour to be mentioned in the same breath as him, but I’ve still not achieved anything.”
Roma fans on Twitter were delighted to read that you said you’d like to spend your whole career at the club. Did you mean it or did you just say it because a camera was put in your face?
“Playing in the same team as De Rossi and [Alessandro] Florenzi, and looking at what Totti did, you realise just how close to this club and these fans you can be. It would be a dream for me to do the same. For now I'm just focused on training and playing my football.”
You made your Serie B debut a couple of months before Francesco Totti retired after 25 years with Roma. Is he a player you admired and is he now someone who you can go to for advice or to talk to?
“He was amazing. He could spot things two hours before anyone else – it was incredible. I'm quite shy and I feel awkward going up to him so I've never asked him anything directly but he's often come over to me to give me pointers.”
Kolarov said in an interview that you have the correct focus and attitude, but if that ever changes he will be the first one to let you know. What do you think about that?
“Aleks is a great player and he's highly experienced. He knows how football works and he knows that can happen to a youngster whose name is on everyone's lips. If he saw me getting cocky, he would be absolutely right to bring me back down to earth. He's someone we all look up to in the dressing room and on the pitch. He's right.”
In training, which players are you trying to learn from most?
“Everywhere you turn there are great players here. I look to the most experienced players, the veterans – De Rossi, [Kostas] Manolas, Kolarov, [Edin] Dzeko. They're the ones I try to take after.”
What is the best piece of advice you have received so far in your career?
“My dad says you can reach the top quickly but you can fall to the bottom even more quickly. He's always telling me not to get big-headed, especially now. He also tells me to remember how I felt when Fiorentina got rid of me.”
The club has shown a lot of faith in you – when you could have been sent out on loan. Was there a point where you thought you'd be going elsewhere to get some experience under your belt?
“I didn't start pre-season training with the team because I was at the [U-19] Euros and I didn't go on tour either. When I got back I was the ninth midfielder and one idea was for me to go out on loan. But the club and the coach believed in me and I must thank them for that. I hope to keep on proving they were right to show faith in me. The coach gives me advice every day about what I should do, both on and off the pitch. I'm really grateful to him for all the opportunities he's giving me.”
When you look around the Roma dressing room and see international stars like De Rossi and Dzeko and Nzonzi, who has won a World Cup, do you ever think – I haven’t made it just yet?
“I was talking to Daniele about what it's like to win the World Cup just yesterday and it gave me goose bumps. They're the sort of players I have to look to for inspiration. One day, perhaps, I hope to be able to experience that myself. But I'm not thinking about it yet.”
Some former footballers are very critical of the new younger generation of players – particularly in the Premier League – for appearing to care more about social media and all the trappings of being a footballer than actual football itself. Is that something you are conscious of?
“I was born in the age of social media and it's hard not to use it. It's good fun but I know you need to be careful. People have gone back to posts I did five years ago.”
"The coach gives me advice every day about what I should do, both on and off the pitch. I'm really grateful to him for all the opportunities he's giving me.”
What’s a typical day in the life of Nicolo Zaniolo?
“I wake up and have breakfast with my mum. She takes me to training and picks me up again afterwards. Sometimes I see my girlfriend, who I met here. That's it really.”
No video games?
“No, they're not my thing.”
What’s your favourite hobby away from football? Is there something you do to take your mind off the game?
“Going out with my friends, chatting about this and that, and just joking about with them.”
Are you famous now?
“Not famous, but I am in the spotlight. I know I'm young and I'm doing well at a big club. I have to make sure I'm able to deal with it all.”
Do you still have the same friends you've always had?
“Yes, I do. I spent new year with them instead of going on holiday. We had a big dinner together in La Spezia and we had a great time.”
Who's your best friend in football?
“Giuseppe Caso, who plays for Cuneo. We've been friends ever since I was very young playing for Canaletto, then I met up with him again at Fiorentina.”
Do you have a message for the Roma fans who adore you?
“I thank them for their support. I hope to keep doing as well as I have been and that we can achieve our targets together.”