Behind the mask is a boy. Just before Christmas 2016, Paulo Dybala missed Juventus’s last penalty in the Italian Super Cup final against Milan. It was still on his mind days later when, watching Gladiator, he had an idea. From that moment, he has celebrated every goal by putting his hand across his face, thumb and index finger extended to imitate a mask. It has been seen often – there have been 64 goals since, starting with a penalty in the next match – instantly identified as his. It is also, he says, “not just a celebration but a message”.
Juventus’s No 10 speaks softly; he is thoughtful and the mask is worn lightly but listening it becomes apparent it goes beyond celebration to become more meaningful, if subconsciously. He says it was inspired by the penalty and the film, that he “didn’t really think about” it as protection or some emotional shield. But in the way he explains it – in everything he says the morning after its latest outing – it is revealed as deeper.
At the end of a long conversation comes the inevitable question, if only for a laugh. Which, by the way, it gets. So, about Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo again … “I’m the only player who shares a dressing room with both and people only see the tip of the iceberg, not the work beneath; they haven’t won all they’ve won because they’ve been lucky,” he says. “And, yeah, I know people have to ask but they must know what I’m going to say.”
Go on then, who’s better? Dybala makes a play of looking out of the window at the Alps. “I can’t answer that,” he says, laughing.
He answers everything else with an honesty and openness that surprises at times, his responses considered, calm. He talks about global warming – “we have to change; this is the only place we’ve got to live” – about books (he is reading Allan and Barbara Pease on body language) and about exposure – “we’re humans: there are 10 positive comments and the one that gets to you is the negative one, but you can’t focus on that.” He talks about football, which means talking about life too; themes crystallise around the mask, as if it expresses his experiences.
“A lot of the time, you have difficult moments and you have to go out there and fight anyway: not just in football, in life,” he says. “Bad things happen, to me or anyone, difficult times in life, but you have to keep going: put the mask on like gladiators do, and fight. Every battle. That was the idea I tried to transmit. People liked it, understood it. And that’s pleasing because the messages you send aren’t always interpreted the way you’d like.”
Which seems a good place to start any article, a rider usefully attached to every interview. Another good place might be Laguna Larga, population 7,437: Paulo’s Town, as a billboard there proudly declares over a picture of him “wearing” the mask. Or Poland, perhaps. After all, although Dybala has never been to Krasniow, he will because, as he puts it, “I’d like to see where it all began”.
Krasniow is a village of 49 inhabitants where Dybala’s paternal grandfather Boleslaw lived. During the second world war he was sent to a Nazi labour camp. Afterwards, there was little left and he departed for Argentina, sleeping in cornfields. He had almost died before someone found him. Boleslaw did not talk about the past much. Dybala wants to know more.
“I’d like to go, although there’s no family left,” he says. “It’s a tiny place, eight or nine houses. Some Polish journalists put me in touch with my grandfather’s daughter but she passed away. There are cousins in Canada and we’ve spoken but not met. I want to. I tried to get a Polish passport but we couldn’t find some of my grandfather’s documents and we got Italian passports from my mother’s side instead. One day, I will. I feel maybe more Polish than Italian. Personality-wise, my dad was more Polish; my middle brother, exactly the same. All of us, a bit. Maybe a bit colder, Polish blood. Italians tend to be more emotional.”
Dybala’s grandfather died when Paulo was four. His father, Adolfo, died when Paulo was 15. A football fan, Adolfo drove his son to Córdoba every day, a 70-mile round trip, to train with the second division side Instituto until, at 14, Dybala went permanently, living in the home of Faustino and Orlando and their grandchildren. But when Adolfo developed a tumour, Paulo asked to return to Laguna Larga. “I was young and it was very hard. My mother suffered a lot, my brothers too. You see the pain but you continue. I’m not the first to go through that and won’t be the last. Sadly, that’s the circle of life. Now we have someone helping us from above.
“I thought: ‘I’ll ditch [football],’” Dybala admits. “‘Ditch it’ in the sense of [not] leaving my family to play in Córdoba. I didn’t want to. I would have kept playing in my town but I wasn’t going to chase that dream any more.” What made you go back? “My family.” Did football provide a refuge, an alternative focus? “My refuge was my family. When Instituto called, I didn’t feel like going. I was 15, I couldn’t hide how hard it was: football was no refuge. I went back because it was my passion and my family pushed me. If not, my mindset was to leave it.”
There were tears but it had been his father’s dream, too, which drove him on. Dybala, a football fan even now who says if there is a second division game in Scotland on TV, it’s on in his home, became the youngest ever goalscorer at Instituto, breaking Mario Kempes’s record, aged 17. He scored 17 in his first season. In April 2012, Palermo came calling, which must have been daunting. “Actually, I was completely convinced,” he says, although the move was not of his making, an early lesson in football’s other side, and nor did it start well, his debut season in Europe ending in relegation.
His registration rights had been sold to an investment fund, which was why Palermo was the only option. “Things eventually came to light. There are still some people with legal issues in Argentina. Football has become a huge business. We’re on the inside but a lot of the time you can’t do anything. I was very young.
“But I was very happy. From the second division to Serie A was an enormous change but I was convinced. My family came and the adventure began in Palermo. The first year didn’t go well. It was all new and in truth it was a difficult dressing room; an older squad which was difficult when things went badly. We were struggling, results were bad. I was a kid, seeing a lot of things. Now I’m grateful because the experience became a lesson. Here, at Juventus, you ‘always win’, right? Everything’s nice. It was the opposite there but the second season was great. We won the second division and personally it was good.”
When he signed, Maurizio Zamparini, the Palermo president, announced him as the new Sergio Agüero – just one of many names thrown at him, including Messi, Sívori, and Tevez. “If you believe that, it weighs on you,” he says, “but I always said I didn’t want to be the new anything, I want people to say my goals, my moves, are ‘like Dybala’, not anyone else. Messi, [Omar] Sívori, and Agüero won incredible things. I wanted to win my things, not theirs. There was criticism because it was €8m for a 17-year-old, their highest transfer ever. I left for €40m and when I got here, the first thing they asked was about the fee. You think about the prices paid now …”
… And you’re cheap. Dybala smiles: “I don’t want to imagine the pressure players have now. That helped in a way: I started to relax then, saw that I couldn’t focus on that.”
It had all happened fast. He left home at 14, returned at 15 and left again at 16. At 17, he made his debut. At 18, he went to Italy. At 19, he was relegated and at 20 promoted again. At 21, he joined Juventus. The national team, too, although becoming a fixture remains elusive, Dybala admitting that what he has done until now “has not been enough”, his club form not always reproduced, a place alongside Messi difficult to find.
And then, suddenly, almost without noticing, he’s 26. “It’s mad. Not long ago someone said: ‘You’re five off 200 Juventus games’, my fifth season and I thought: ‘But I only got here yesterday.’ If everything goes well I’ve got 10 years left but it went so fast.” Four leagues, three cups, a Champions League final: success normalised, almost unremarkable.
Then, last season something shifted. Dybala might not have reached this fifth season in Turin. No longer an obvious fit, he scored 10, five in the league – half as many as his least productive season until then – and in the summer Manchester United and Tottenham bid. Juventus welcomed their approaches. “I was close to leaving,” he says. “That was in the club’s thinking, I knew. Until the last minute, we were waiting.”
In the end Dybala stayed but he speaks enthusiastically about England, a place of “packed stadiums” and “passion”, where open spaces would suit him, inviting suggestions he would welcome the opportunity arising again. “I have two years left on my contract. That’s not a short time but it’s not a long one either. We’ll see what plans Juventus have, if they think I might leave in the next market or if they want me to stay. That’s a decision for the club to make. It’s hard to know because things change in a second.
“But I’m here, at a club that has treated me well; I’m happy, comfortable. [Maurizio] Sarri’s arrival has helped. He wanted me to stay, which gave me strength when we didn’t know what would happen. I knew he could teach me, help me bring out the best in myself.”
Myself may be the word. Dybala has provided seven assists and scored 11, more than the whole of last season and he has been given back the thing he loves most: the ball. “Without it, I get bored,” he admits. “If I go a long time without a touch, it’s like I’m lost, I lose track of the game. I’m fortunate to be in a team that wants possession, where everybody is technically good, with so many players high up the pitch, lots of opportunities to get on the ball. You’re not thinking: ‘I’ve got one, maybe two chances per game, I have to do something good.’ No. You lose the ball and get it back again. [Miralem] Pjanic gets more than 120 touches per game.”
The night before this interview, Dybala had 97. “And most of those are in the opposition’s half, which means less space but more opportunities to play,” he says. “Sarri’s idea helps players a lot – all players. One, two touches. Combine. Move the ball fast. Defensively, it’s mechanised, there’s no freedom there. But with the ball, close to goal, a thousandth of a second to think, it’s improvised – although I know my teammates, their movements, the movements we’ve worked on during the week.
“When I started at Instituto in Córdoba, my coach had the same ideas, so I come with those mechanisms built-in. Latin Americans have that ‘fútbol de potrero’ idea, street football.”
Still? “It’s been lost a lot; it’s harder to find kids in the squares building goalposts with rocks. Football’s changed, technology took kids elsewhere. We’ve lost that picardía, that cunning, that improvisation. [In academies] everything is so structured, so perfect, that maybe – and I really hope not – we’re losing players like that.”
Players like Dybala. “As you get older and football becomes more serious, professional, you understand that parts of your game are left behind. Sometimes you encounter coaches that give you freedom. For forwards that’s the best thing that can happen and I still try to play as I always did, with the ball.
“We should never forget that this is a game too and that when we were little, we played for fun. That’s how we started and who we are. We all have a kid inside of us and we should never leave him behind.”