It's now 10 years since Stephan El Shaarawy made his Serie A debut, almost immediately becoming the fresh-faced hope of Italian football.
His career journey has taken him many places since then - in the fourth installment of our Big Interview series, the man himself discusses what he's learned...
What was Stephan El Shaarawy like as a child?
“A boy with an endless passion for football, from the very start. I was born with a football in my arms and it’s accompanied me ever since. As soon as I started to walk, my dad took me out into the garden to play. Football is my life.”
Didn’t you like any other sports?
“Not really! One day I was in the park near my home and another boy gave me a basketball with Michael Jordan’s hand printed on it. It really struck me, so I went to my dad and told him I wanted to play basketball. He informed Dionigi Donati, my coach back then at Legino, who went crazy and begged my father to make me change my mind.
"Dad calmed him down and told him he wanted me to give it a try at least. I tried it out for three days before returning home and imploring him to take me back to football. I haven’t stopped ever since.”
When did you realise you had finally made it?
“There wasn’t one moment in particular. However, when I started to train with the first team at Genoa, I could feel that I was close to my dream coming true. I always wanted to play in Serie A.”
It seems like only yesterday, but your debut in Serie A was ten years ago. Do you remember that day and the emotions you were feeling? Were you aware your moment had come?
“Everything went so quickly; I was only 16 years old. I was just thinking about playing and having fun. At the time, Genoa weren’t doing so well and had a lot of injuries. I was on the bench for the game before my debut but didn’t come on. The next match was away to Chievo Verona and there were five Primavera players in the squad. [Bosko] Jankovic went down with cramp and the coach told me to go warm up.
"During those moments, I felt I was getting so close to my dream. I was tense and full of emotion, but I had this unbelievable desire. I came on when it was 0-0 and we scored; I was involved in the build-up for the goal. I was right next to [Ruben] Olivera when he put it in the back of the net and we celebrated together. It was a dream debut.”
Have you always played as a forward?
“As a kid I played in lots of positions, even goalkeeper. Growing up I was a midfielder until under-14s, then I moved to the right wing before switching to the left where I have stayed ever since. That’s my main position, although at Padova I played as a trequartista.”
Who were the players that inspired you or you admired?
“First, it was Ronaldinho, but then I fell in love with Kaka. I’d constantly watch his skills on YouTube, every day when I’d come home from school I’d practise them and try to do them myself. I learned a great deal from him. I always admired him as a player and then, when I got to know him, as a person too.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in your career?
“The best advice I’ve received has always come from my father. He’s been by my side for my entire football career. He’s always followed me and has changed his job and his life due to my career. He’d take me and my friends to play and made so many sacrifices.
"This is what I learned from him actually: you need to make a lot of sacrifices, keep your ambition high and never rest on your laurels. And always be humble, regardless of your achievements.”
Would you give this same advice to a youngster about to embark on a professional career?
“Never be satisfied with what you’ve achieved and try to play football with passion; they must live it with joy. On the other hand, you have to demand the utmost from yourself; it’s never enough what you’ve done so far.”
Have there been any particularly difficult moments in your career?
“Yes, when I had an operation on my metatarsal in my left foot in 2013. It was the first injury of my career and it was probably the worst day of my life. Then, after being ruled out for three months, I got another injury in December during my second game back, with the World Cup just a few months away.
"Together with my doctor, we opted for an operation and I was only able to start my recovery in May. I was out for a whole year pretty much.”
What did you learn from that period?
“I realised who the genuine people in my life were that I could count on: my family and my friends. I got a lot of criticism from the outside that wasn’t fair and made me feel bad. I learned a lot from that time.”
Who is your best friend?
“I’ve got two. One is called Manuel, I’ve known him since nursery, and the other is Aurel, who’s been my friend since secondary school. We’ve spent so much time together and we share everything. They really supported me in my darkest moments.”
Who are you closest to in football?
“I’ve had good relationships in every team I’ve played in. Over time you might lose contact with former team-mates, but someone I’m really close to is Mattia Perin. I played in every youth team with him and we won the Scudetto together in the Primavera. My closest friend here at Roma is Lorenzo [Pellegrini], I spent a lot of time with him away from the pitch and we have an excellent relationship.”
Is it true you’re the best at cue sports in the squad?
“It depends. If we’re playing pool, like on the table we have here at Trigoria, then I have to say many of my team-mates have improved a lot. [Alessandro] Florenzi is very good. But at home I have a snooker table and everyone tells me I’m the best at that.”
Where does your passion for snooker come from?
“I’ve always liked pool and I used to play it a lot in Savona. In 2010, however, only snooker was shown on the telly and that’s how I got into this sport. It’s more difficult, the table is bigger, the pockets are narrower and there are a lot of tactics involved. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to play it in Italy.
"From 2010 to 2014, I could only watch it on Eurosport. One day the commentator read out a tweet saying that a snooker club was opening up in Savona, my home city. I couldn’t believe it and I called them up instantly to find out more. I was in Milan at the time and on my first day off I went to try it out. From that moment, I started playing there, until I bought myself a table, which I’ve set up in my house here in Rome. The Italian champion Gianluca Manoli also lives here, so every now and again we have a game.”
A few months ago you even went to watch the Masters tournament in London.
“The day before I had scored against Torino and the gaffer gave us two days off. It was the final in London, so I couldn’t not go.
"Besides, my two favourite players were coming up against each other: Ronnie O’Sullivan, the best snooker player of all time, and Judd Trump, who’s coming to watch me on Saturday at the Olimpico.”
We know you also like investing in the digital world, can you tell us about that?
“It’s something I do alongside my brother, Manuel, who I’m very close to. He’s always been interested in new technologies and the digital world. Among the start-ups we’ve invested in there’s Charity Stars, a platform that auctions off products and experiences but gives 80% of the profits to charity.
"In general, we’re interested in a sector that is continually evolving, although much slower in Italy than in the rest of Europe, not to mention the United States. Nevertheless, we’ve decided to go down this path: believing in ideas means believing in our future.”
Muscle injuries have consistently halted your progress in the middle of your best periods of form this season. How do you judge your season so far?
“On a personal level, I’m satisfied with the consistency I’ve had this season. I’ve developed, I feel mature as a footballer, I’ve improved in terms of finishing and overall performance. All of this has given me more confidence in my ability and more self-belief. In terms of the team, we’ve dropped too many points, we could have done better.
"However, the league table is still looking okay, we’re only a point off the Champions League places. There are seven fixtures to go and there’s nothing to suggest we can’t achieve our objective."
Did the win against Sampdoria give you more motivation than expected?
“It’s definitely changed the situation we’re in. It’s given us back some confidence and I think it’s done the same for everyone around the club. Out of the blue, our target has become reachable. Now we need to focus our minds on taking advantage of this opportunity.”
“On a personal level, I’m satisfied with the consistency I’ve had this season. I’ve developed, I feel mature as a footballer, I’ve improved in terms of finishing and overall performance. All of this has given me more confidence in my ability and more self-belief. In terms of the team, we’ve dropped too many points, we could have done better."
Stephan El Shaarawy
Is there a quality that Roma have which puts you at an advantage over the other Champions League contenders?
“We showed it last year, with our run in the competition, that we’re a Champions League team. We deserve to be among the top sides and we want to experience those emotions again.”
You played your 100th game for Roma against Empoli, celebrating the milestone with a goal and by wearing the captain’s armband which Florenzi gave you at the end. Do you feel like a leader in this side?
“That was a fantastic feeling and a moment of pride. It’s the first time I’ve worn the armband since I’ve been in Serie A. It was a shame Ale had to go off, but wearing the armband for those ten minutes gave me an incredible buzz, which I felt out there on the pitch. It was a wonderful emotion and a special evening.”
That was also Claudio Ranieri’s first match in the dugout. How are you finding it with him?
“He’s tried to put a positive imprint on the squad based on team ethic and helping each other out. He asks us to fight for every ball and we’re following his lead. He’s got great experience as a coach and communicates a lot, with the young players as well.”
It can’t have been easy to say goodbye to Eusebio Di Francesco, especially after such a painful defeat as that against Porto.
“No, it wasn’t. Unfortunately the coach is always the first to fall. He threw himself into the job, he gave everything he had for Roma and us and tried to convey his idea of football. What we did last year won’t be forgotten and he’s written his name in the club’s history by reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League. He’s definitely left a positive memory.”
Soon you’re doing something with the kids from Calcio Insieme, a Roma Cares project. How did this initiative come about?
“Almost three years ago I was involved in an incident on the roads, a mistake that can happen to anybody. I assumed all the responsibilities and proposed doing something useful for society. I’ve often collaborated with Roma Cares in various activities and I tried to do the same for this.
"My intention was to transform a negative episode into a positive experience, both for me and the kids who will be involved. I even read that I’d avoid prison with a 'punishment'... spending time with kids will be anything but a punishment.”