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New number 10 on the rise

Rory Smith, New York Times News Service, Aug 20 2017, 0:12 IST

Football

young gun: Many feel Paulo Dybala can step into the role that Lionel Messi dons in the Argentina team. AFP

young gun: Many feel Paulo Dybala can step into the role that Lionel Messi dons in the Argentina team. AFP

Paulo Dybala remembers standing on the field in Cardiff, Wales, late at night two months ago, watching Real Madrid celebrate winning the Champions League.

It was a scene he had pictured many times in the weeks preceding the game — and the months and years before that — only with the roles reversed. In his mind, he and his Juventus teammates had been the ones with the smiles, with the trophy, with their names etched in history.

He had dreamed about it so much, in fact, that as Real Madrid started to celebrate, a part of Dybala was convinced that this, too, was not real.

“I kept thinking it was a nightmare, hoping that I would wake up,” he said.

Now, what he remembers most is the silence, or at least a deafness that can be construed as silence. The way he recalls it, after Juventus retreated from view, nobody in the dressing room spoke for a long time; in Dybala’s memory, nobody said a word until the team had returned to the Vale Resort, its hotel on Cardiff’s outskirts.

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Once there, the players split off into groups, to nurse their pain and, in private inquests, dissect what had happened. Dani Alves later said that he and his fellow defender Leonardo Bonucci had stayed up talking until 6 a.m.

What hurt the most, Dybala said, was that Juventus had gone into that game believing it was the “best team in the world.”

“We had beaten very important teams on the way,” he said. “We had never conceded more than two goals, and they scored three in 45 minutes. It was 45 minutes when we were not ourselves, 45 minutes that destroyed everything.”

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The Spanish word Dybala, 23, uses today to describe his revived Champions League ambitions — revancha — technically, in this context, means “rematch.” But the way he uses it is more literal: revenge.

“In football, you always have the chance for revancha,” he said. “There is a phrase in Argentina: It is an espina clavada, a thorn in your side, something that hurts you. The pain of losing that final will be with me until I lift that trophy. I will be a lot calmer then.”

A couple of weeks before the new Italian season started, Juventus confirmed it would be changing the number on Dybala’s jersey. Ever since he joined the club from Palermo, he had worn 21. It had a special resonance for him: He had inherited it from Andrea Pirlo, one of his heroes and a player whose framed, unwashed Juventus jersey takes pride of place in the living room of Dybala’s apartment in Turin.

This season, though, Dybala will wear an even more significant number for Juventus: 10. It is a jersey laden with history, stretching back through Alessandro Del Piero, Roberto Baggio, Michel Platini and further. “Enjoy it, from a true Juventus fan,” Del Piero tweeted when the news was announced.

Jerseys are important to Dybala. He has a collection of more than 300, spread out among his homes in Italy and Argentina. Some of the more meaningful ones are stored under the watchful eye of his mother, who has moved to live near him in Turin.

Among their number is the jersey Lionel Messi gave Dybala in April, at halftime of Juventus’ 3-0 win over Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals. Dybala had signaled his desire to swap jerseys with Messi, a teammate with Argentina and a friend, before the match. Within 22 minutes, Dybala had scored twice, and Barcelona was on the ropes.

“It can be hard, swapping jerseys when you are losing,” Dybala said. “You are in a bad mood, you are not thinking of these things. But Leo is a good person; he knew before that I wanted it, so he came up to me at halftime and said there was no problem.”

In hindsight, it feels a little like the passing of a baton, too — on a collective level, because that performance, more than any other, convinced Juventus it now firmly belonged in the elite ranks of European teams, the equal of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich; and on an individual one, too, because there are many who feel that when Messi eventually starts to fade, it is Dybala who will take his place. Certainly for Argentina, and maybe, just maybe, for Barcelona, too.

Indeed, that has been one of the features of Dybala’s summer. Ever since Paris St.-Germain revealed its intention to entice Neymar to the French capital, Dybala’s phone has been inundated with messages from friends and family members asking if he will take the Brazilian’s place alongside Messi.

“What happened with Neymar will move things,” he said. “Everyone is waiting to find out who will come to replace him. Many journalists say Philippe Coutinho, or Ousmane Dembl, or Antoine Griezmann.”

Many, though, have said Paulo Dybala, too. It feels, from the outside, as if Juventus gave him that coveted No 10 jersey at least in part to reaffirm its determination to stave off Barcelona. It is a measure of where Dybala is, the company he keeps, of what he means.

The path Dybala has taken to this point is, by modern standards, unconventional. Unlike his peers in that generation that will follow Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the finest players in the world — Neymar, Paul Pogba, Dembl, Kylian Mbapp — Dybala has followed a road to stardom that has been a little more winding, a little less illuminated.

Because his first club as a professional, Instituto, missed out on promotion in his only season, he never played in the top flight in Argentina.

“People said I needed to do that before going to Europe,” Dybala said, but he ignored them and crossed the ocean, not “for a team full of stars, but one where I might find my place” — for Palermo, one of Serie A’s lesser lights.

Only in 2015, at the age of 21, did he move to Juventus. Pogba, by contrast, had joined Manchester United as a teenager. Neymar was marked out for greatness at 16. Dembl could well have joined both Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona while no older than 20. Mbapp is still only 18.

Dybala says he does not regret any of his choices. He has learned, he said, not to spend time “worrying about what might have happened if I had made a different decision.” He prefers to focus on making sure he can prove that his choice was the correct one; it has worked out pretty well to this point.

It is those players, though, that he compares himself to, that he sees himself competing against. When he looks at the rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo, he sees a “healthy competition” that has brought the best from both. “They try to do better every year to overcome the other,” he said. “They have transmitted that to me. It is the same for Paul at Manchester United, and Neymar at PSG.”

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