Like his elusive dribbling style on the pitch, Diego Perotti's journey to the top has not always followed the obvious path.
In this wide-ranging interview, the winger opens up about his childhood in Argentina, the pressure that came with trying to emulate his footballing father - and how he eventually came to forge his own path in some of Europe's most beautiful cities...
What were you like as a child?
"As a child, I was very active and I enjoyed playing games, particularly if a ball was involved. I played many sports and my mother is a swimming teacher, so I did plenty of swimming, then basketball and skating as well. I played football from the age of four and could never just stay still, not even to watch TV. I always preferred to do something that involved moving around."
Where did you grow up?
"I grew up in Moreno, a city to the east of Buenos Aires. It was a calm place 20 years ago. My friends and family all live there now and I go to visit them once a year. It's become quite a dangerous area now and it's got worse since I was little, a bit like the whole of Argentina."
Did you play those sports with friends or at school?
"I played basketball for eight years, from four to 12. I played basketball on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then football on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Then I had football matches on Saturdays and basketball games on Sundays, so I was busy all week long. My mother took me swimming when I was just two or three weeks old and when I was two, I could swim on my own. When I started to play football and basketball at the age of four, I stopped swimming. I've played many different sports in my life."
How did you get on at school?
"I did fine at school because I could only do the things that I wanted to do after school if everything was going well with my studies. I had to show my mother that I was studying, otherwise she'd take sport away from me and that was essential to me, so I simply had to do well at school. She was very strict about that."
Which sports did you follow when you were little?
"I followed football and while I really enjoyed playing basketball, I never managed to get into it on TV. It just didn't do it for me. Football, however, was something I watched from a young age. I didn't watch every single game, but I did watch Boca and the important European matches. I knew almost all the players and have always liked football. I also followed the national team. The World Cups that I enjoyed were held in Europe, so either I got up early or stayed up late to watch the games and I'd take a radio with me to school to listen to them. The first World Cup that I remember was France '98 when I was ten. Even though Argentina did very badly, the one I liked the most was in 2002 in Japan and South Korea. While the schedule wasn't ideal, it also made it fantastic, because we had World Cup evenings with friends and we'd wake up early to watch games. Argentina went out in the group stage, but it was still brilliant."
Who was your idol?
"Juan Roman Riquelme. When I started playing for Boca, I was 12 or 13, and he was starting to break into the first team, I fell in love straight away. I've always tried to replicate what he does on the pitch and even now when I can't sleep every now and then, I start watching clips on YouTube and always end up watching games that he played in and the moves that he put together. Besides the superstars that we have today, I'd say he was the best of all the 'normal' players."
What was your journey from playing so many sports to focusing on football?
"I could've played a whole range of sports, but from a young age I knew that football was my favourite. I was good at basketball, but the most important sport and the one that I enjoyed the most was football. I wanted to become a footballer no matter what and I managed to do so because I never gave up. When I was at Boca, I didn't really play much and they got rid of me after two years. I went on trial with different teams, but didn't end up staying. It wasn't an easy journey for me. I then joined Deportivo Moron, a side in the third tier, and started my career there. When I got there, I just thought about the fact that at least I would get to play and I'm grateful for everything that followed. At the time, I was just happy to be out on the pitch playing for the first team, whether it was in the top, second or third division. I just wanted to enjoy that feeling and have never given up."
Your father was also a footballer…
"Yes, and when I was at Boca, I did feel the pressure as it seemed like I was only there because he'd played for them. When I kicked the ball about with friends, I thought I was incredible, but when I got to Boca for a trial, I realised that I'd been playing against friends who could barely control the ball. Things evened out at Boca, where so many players were better than me, particularly physically, as I was so small. Some people said that I only joined Boca because of my father. Such things really got to me for two years and given that I ended up not playing much, I believed it as well. Those two years were tough for me, but it was always a nice feeling when my father was recognised in the street or when I said my name and people remembered him."
When did you understand that you'd be able to make the jump up from the third tier?
"When I started playing for Deportivo Moron, the first-team coach included me in a training camp and I was given a professional contract. I never thought I'd play abroad anywhere, let alone in Serie A. In 2007, I joined Sevilla B and that's where I started coming up against so many fine players. I didn't think I was ready for that level, but after a year, at the age of 21, I was promoted to the first team and played in almost every game towards the end of the season. It was like a dream. Things were simply coming off for me. I could play my game calmly and sometimes my naivety and ability not to overthink things helped me out. I'm older and more experienced now, but the thoughts and pressure that I put on myself now weren't in my head back then. I suffer more from that now than I did ten or 12 years ago when I was starting out. The only thing that I wanted was to become a footballer, but everything that followed was unexpected."
How did you find moving from Argentina to Europe?
"It was a big positive. Everything gradually improved, in terms of football and finances. I've always been lucky enough to be in very beautiful cities. I think Seville is one of the most stunning cities in the world. All it needs to be number one is the sea. I then went to Genoa and Rome, so I've been lucky in the sense that I haven't had to endure the cold in Russia or grey days in London. It was a very simple move for me, particularly as I could speak the same language in Seville. Although I was only 18, I lived on my own there, which really helped me grow up. I started driving and cooking in Europe. I also matured considerably, which is what I needed to do. It was a very happy time for me, despite being far away from my family."
Do you miss Argentina?
"A lot. I've never been able to get fully used to the distance. When my family comes to visit me, knowing that they'll leave makes me sad for so many reasons. My mother doesn't get to see much of my children, certainly not enough. The years go by and we all get older. I've been abroad for 12 years now and I have my own family, but I'm still not used to it. I don't think I ever will be, so I go back there whenever I can."
When you stop playing, will you go back to Argentina?
"I've always thought that I would, but the truth is that Argentina is becoming so unsafe that it might not be a good thing for my kids. I've already lived there and enjoyed myself, so it's not a worry for me personally. If I can give my children a calmer life in which they can ride their bikes and play football without thinking that something bad might happen, it would be selfish of me to go back to Argentina just because I have friends there. They're still little and are growing up here. I haven't decided yet, but I think we'll end up staying here."
Would you like your sons to continue the family's footballing tradition?
"Yes, I already like that idea. The older one, who is four, is crazy about football and just loves it. He plays every day and is always wearing his Roma kit and singing our anthem. When he comes to watch a game, he stays in his seat for two hours and it's the same story when watching on TV. His passion for the game is very similar to what mine was like. In 15 years' time, who knows what he'll want to do, but I do like the fact that we share those emotions, as these things make me so happy. He'll do whatever he wants, but sharing this passion makes me proud."
What advice would you give a youngster looking to start out in football?
"Based on my experience, the most important thing is never to give up, not even during the most difficult periods. I lived through some extremely tough times in which I didn't think I'd reach my dream. The years passed and my team-mates were doing better than me. I was quite a way behind, but my desire to follow my passion made me continue and helped me not throw in the towel during the dark days. You have to dream, but also work hard and think positively. There will always be better players out there, starting when you are little, and they might have a smoother path, but what matters is not giving up and always giving 100%. It's through doing the right things that you achieve results in the end."
Has anyone in particular helped you reach this level?
"I've always been close with my family. My mother would take me to all the pitches on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and it wasn't that safe for women, but it would be just the two of us. She was always very clear with me about how if I wanted to be a footballer, I had to keep going, but if I felt it was affecting me badly, it wasn't a failure. It was what I wanted to do, so I had to keep going."
What's it like working with Paulo Fonseca?
"It's brilliant. Now that three quarters of my career have passed, I'm starting to see football in a different light, closer to how a coach views it. There are so many concepts that I'd want to instil in my players if I were to become a coach one day, and I'm experiencing them now with him, which I'm very pleased about. He's very direct and manages to get his message across very quickly. He stresses the importance of possession because the more time that we have the ball, the less time our opponents have to hurt us. He asks the full-backs to put a shift in as part of the attacking and defined style of football that we really like as players. He's very honest. The in-form players get picked and if you're out of form, you have to win your place back."
How has your relationship with him been during this period of inactivity?
"I've been speaking to him on the phone a lot. I was ready to make my comeback from injury a few days before the start of the quarantine and he's been following my progress. He always takes an interest in how my children and the rest of the family are. We have a close relationship with him, but that connection with the players doesn't mean that he doesn't expect a lot from us in training. Not being in daily contact with the players isn't easy for us or him, but we've given it everything. Luckily, there will be scope to leave home soon and continue our individual training at Trigoria, which is certainly a big positive."
How have you found training on your own?
"Fortunately, I live in a villa and so I've had enough space and everything I need to be able to train well. I also have a small gym which I've made the most of during this period. It hasn't been easy and it's not the same without any footballs, but I do think I've improved my physical condition."
Has it been more tiring psychologically?
"I certainly can't complain. There are so many people who have suffered more during this period, possibly due to not having any work to do in recent months. I'm in no position to complain. I've done everything I can to work on my physical condition and it would be hypocritical of me to say I've struggled."
Has spending so much time with the family helped?
"We've definitely done different things from what we usually do, but I'm also aware that as footballers, we usually have a schedule that allows us to spend plenty of time with the family. I've been able to enjoy time with my kids in a different way over the last few months, particularly the younger one. As a father, I've made the most of this more regular time together at home."
How much do you miss football?
"So much. It's what we've always been used to. I've played football ever since I was little and the game is my life. Even on holiday, we've never spent so much time away from our team-mates and the sport. I haven't played at all apart from the odd match in the garden with my son and I miss it. Being able to go back to Trigoria and run on a pitch in an open space will be something else."
Are you in favour of resuming the season?
"As a footballer, I want to get back to playing and continue this season. The right thing to do is put all the conditions in place to be able to play football safely and I hope that an agreement can be reached. I say this without forgetting all the coronavirus victims and all the families experiencing testing times all over the world due to the lack of work because of this pandemic."
Check out earlier entries in our Big Interview series:
AS Roma x Justin Kluivert
AS Roma x Amadou Diawara
AS Roma x Jordan Veretout
AS Roma x Elisa Bartoli
AS Roma x Betty Bavagnoli
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