Nicolò Zaniolo. It’s certainly the name on everyone’s lips these days after his two goal performance against Porto in the Champions League last week. However, with as well as he’s performed in his maiden season with the Giallorossi, it’s easy to forget that, for all intents and purposes, he’s just a kid. The 19 year old sat down for an official interview with asroma.com to talk about his life both on and off the pitch.
Nicolo Zaniolo isn't the saviour of Italian football. As he explains in our in-depth interview, he's still just a teenager - focused on training hard and playing football...— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) February 20, 2019
The Beginnings: Persevering through Tough Times
Zaniolo started the interview by talking about his early days as a footballer and the passion for the game that was nurtured by attending his father, Igor’s matches.
However, things weren’t always easy for a young Nicolò, despite how easy the game seems to come to him now. He started his career at Genoa before moving to Fiorentina’s U13 team. It was there that Zaniolo experienced his greatest disappointment. After spending seven years in the Viola system, he was suddenly released after spending a summer training with the Primavera squad in 2016. Being told there was “no room for him” by Fiorentina was a tough pill to swallow.
“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.”
Zaniolo was able to bounce back and move on to Entella. However, things didn’t start out very smoothly there either. In fact, Nicolò recalls nearly quitting football all together when things got off to a tough start in Liguria. Luckily, a push from his father dissuaded him from giving up too soon.
“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.”
Later that season, Zaniolo made his professional debut with Entella in Serie B, before moving on to Inter Milan’s Primavera side for the 2017/18 season. Of course, his stint there lasted just a year before he arrived at Roma in the Radja Nainggolan deal this summer.
Early Roma Days: A Surprise Debut
Of course, Zaniolo came to Roma as a relative unknown. Despite this, Roma and EDF made it abundantly clear early on that Zaniolo was more than a throw in for Nainggolan. Making his Roma debut in the Champions League before ever playing in a Serie A match demonstrated this, but the start against Real Madrid was unexpected even to Zaniolo. He spoke about how that day played out.
“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.”
Zaniolo was aided through the pre-match jitters by none other than Roma icons Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti, saying, “[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.”
The youngster admitted that there has been more attention on him after that debut, but that he’s happy with the way his season has gone.
The Porto Impact and Keeping a Level Head
If the Champions League debut at the Bernabeu put more attention on Zaniolo, then the two goal performance against Porto last week put turned all the spotlights in Europe his way.
Zaniolo though is trying to keep as focused as possible despite all the praise he’s been receiving, including comparisons to Totti. Zaniolo seems to carry himself with a maturity beyond his years and acknowledged he’s not “achieved anything” despite the honor of the comparisons. Fame isn’t something he believes he’s achieved yet.
“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.”
Nicolò was later asked about his recent quote to “Le Iene” stating his desire to stay at Roma forever. Zaniolo reiterated his desire to be a talisman for the club.
“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.”
When asked about Aleksandar Kolarov, who said that he would keep Zaniolo grounded if he ever lost focus ,Nicolò praised Kolarov’s leadership. He also acknowledged that he looks to veterans like Kolarov, Manolas, Dzeko, and De Rossi to learn from, but admitted he has yet to approach Totti for advice, saying, “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.”
Despite all the star players surrounding him on a daily basis, Zaniolo admitted that the best footballing advice that he’s received so far has been from Igor.
“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.”
Zaniolo Off the Field
When Zaniolo talks about his life off the field is when you realize he’s, for the most part, your average teen. You know, starting with the fact that his mom drives him to practice.
“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.”
Unlike many footballers who love to spend their free time playing FIFA and other video games, Zaniolo admits “they’re not my thing”. He’d rather spend his free time going out and chatting with friends. Zaniolo still keeps the same friends despite his move to Roma and spent New Year’s with them in La Spezia. Zaniolo ended his interview with a parting message for Roma fans, one that we all hope has some foresight to it.