While 2020 has been a difficult year for most - to put it mildly - Gonzalo Villar might be among the minority of people who will look back on these 12 months with a certain degree of fondness.
In January, Villar was a promising young midfielder at Elche, learning his way in the second division of Spanish football. Yet just a few weeks later he was making a surprise move to the Italian capital and now, with a few weeks still to go until the end of the year, he is among the Roma players fans are perhaps most excited to see develop over the coming years.
With a handful of starts in Serie A and the Europa League already his belt, along with the backing of his manager and recent call-ups to the Spain Under-21 squad, we sat down with Villar to learn more about his whirlwind rise - and the rest of his career to date...
What were you like as a child?
“I liked playing with the ball from when I was very young. My mum told me I used to dribble the ball when I went shopping with her. I never tired of it.”
How did you fall in love with football?
“At school – that’s where I first started getting passionate about it. We’d play football during the breaks between lessons. It was something I felt inside of me. I think I was the one who made football so popular in my family.”
What’s your first football memory?
“When I was four my parents took my older brother to play 5-a-side football. I was younger but insisted on playing with him and his team-mates. They let me join in and realised I was good – that became my first team.”
How did you go from 5-a-side to 11-a-side?
“I moved up to 11-a-side at school, then a relative of mine had some contacts at Real Murcia and suggested I go for a trial with them. It went well and they ended up telling my dad they wanted to keep me. I was nine and I wasn’t happy at the time because I didn’t want to leave my school team and all my friends. They insisted though and two weeks later I accepted. It was the right choice. I spent six years there then joined Elche, which is where my career took off.”
Who did you support as a child?
“Real Murcia, the team of my city. They play in Segunda B now – the Spanish third division. They’re not doing very well at the moment and have some financial difficulties but I still watch them when I can. I hope to see them back in the top flight one day. I have another nice memory connected to Real Murcia…”
“In 2008 Spain beat Bosnia 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier at Real Murcia’s home ground, La Nueva Condomina. I was a ball boy that day and Edin [Dzeko] was playing for Bosnia. I told him about it last year. It was quite a coincidence to find myself on the same team as him 12 years later!”
When did you realise you might make it as a professional footballer?
“There wasn’t one moment when I had that realisation, or even a period when my approach to football and training changed. I’ve always loved football and it was always my dream to play for a top-flight side – from when I was four all the way through to when I joined the Elche academy. It was gradual: the more I grew, the more I felt I was getting closer to my goal.”
Have you always been a midfielder?
“Not always. I played as a striker in my first year at Murcia, then they had me play in midfield for one game and I loved it so much it became my favourite position.”
Did you like watching football on TV?
“Yes, I used to watch loads of games with my family, La Liga and Spain matches obviously. I don’t remember the 2008 Euros we won very well, but the 2010 World Cup and especially the 2012 Euros were an amazing feeling.”
Who was your childhood idol?
“It was always Andres Iniesta. I grew up watching Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona when they were dominating in Spain and Europe, and as I midfielder, Iniesta was the one I had my eye on most. Even now, before or after matches I like to watch videos of him and other stars like [Zinedine] Zidane and Xavi on YouTube.”
Do you have any idols outside of football?
“Rafa Nadal is probably my No. 1 idol, the person I aspire to be like. Even during the tough times, he’s always been so strong mentally. You get negative spells in tennis and football but it’s all about staying strong in your mind. That’s why I see him as a role model.”
So after Real Murcia you went to Elche…
“Yes, I joined them when I was 15 and spent two seasons there. Then I went to Valenica for three years before going back to Elche. I was so excited when I made my senior debut, even if it was in the second division. Elche is not my home town but I’m very fond of the place. When I was at a low after Valencia released me, they welcomed me back with open arms. Elche had become my home.”
Did things not end well at Valencia then?
“I was really happy there for three years. My departure was a bit strange for a series of reasons unrelated to football. It was a difficult summer for me and my family and I don’t like looking back on it. As I said, Elche welcomed me back and I ended up here.”
When did you find out Roma were interested in you?
“It was around December 10th last year. My agents came round to my house and just said, ‘Gonzalo, go and sign for Roma.’ I was totally taken aback but I couldn’t have been any happier. I know what I’m capable of and I know where my strengths lie, but it doesn’t often happen that a player goes from a second-division outfit to one fighting for the Champions League spots.”
Was it a quick decision?
“Valencia were interested too actually, so my family and I took a bit of time to think things over. However, the interest shown in me by Roma and Paulo Fonseca convinced me. I strive every day to prove to them that they made the right choice.”
What was your knowledge of Roma like?
“My most recent memory was the comeback against Barcelona in 2018. I watched that match with two friends who are Barca supporters and it was incredible. I was watching as a neutral but then I got totally caught up in it. At the end of the evening, I annoyed my friends by shouting ‘Manolas! Manolas!’ I really enjoyed that.”
What’s it like to swap Spain for Italy?
“I don’t really know yet as you can’t judge anything by this year. I basically only had one normal month before the whole Covid-19 thing kicked off and it seems to be never-ending. It’s not easy living with the thought that you or one of your team-mates could test positive for one of the many tests we have to undergo.”
You’re yet to play at the Olimpico with the fans…
“That’s right. All four of my appearances before the lockdown were away from home. I haven’t yet had the chance to play at home with our fans and it’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to.”
Who have been the most important people in your career?
“My family. They’re very demanding of me, and I am with them. My dad especially: he always lets me know if I don’t play well. He wants what’s best for me and he knows what I’m capable of. I’m so sad about them not being able to come to see my games, for many months now.
"I don’t mind living on my own but the idea of not being able to go and see them in Spain and not have them come to Rome is very hard to accept. It’s a totally unique year.”
You often post photos of yourself studying for university on Twitter…
“I’m studying economics and there’s an exam session coming up soon. I have five exams to do so I’ve cut down on the PlayStation and have been spending more time on the books lately. I study with my best friend, Aitor Bunuel. He’s a footballer too and plays for Almeria. The distance doesn’t stop us helping each other and putting a bit of pressure on each other. All the exams are online and they’re all oral exams of course.”
You’ve said that Fonseca was important in helping you decide to join Roma. What’s he like as a coach?
“He’s confirmed the good impression I had of him after we spoke the first time. He explained why he liked me and when I got here he told me to play to my strengths. I’m trying to give my all in training so that I can play as much as possible.”
What do you think of the team’s form?
“We’re playing well, winning lots of games and getting Roma up to the sort of position we should be in – fighting for the top and the Champions League spots. We can’t settle for a place in the Europa League; we have to be up there near the top come the end of the season and you never know what might happen.”
How much of a help is it to have four Spanish team-mates?
“It makes everything easier. We’re all happy and we’re a good group. It’s just a shame we can’t meet away from training and matches with the situation what it is.”
What’s it like to be playing with Pedro?
“Amazing. I grew up watching him from when he broke into the Barcelona team and now I’m playing alongside him, a World Cup and European Championship winner. He’s a phenomenal player. It’s a privilege to have him as a team-mate. He never stops: he always trains hard and he’s an example to us all.”
Check out earlier entries in our Big Interview series:
AS Roma x Manuela Giugliano
AS Roma x Paloma Lazaro
AS Roma x Carles Perez
AS Roma x Lindsey Thomas
AS Roma x Antonio Mirante
AS Roma x Juan Jesus
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 Nicolo Zaniolo
AS Roma x Paulo Fonseca
AS Roma x Leonardo Spinazzola