New kid takes big strides

New kid takes big strides


New kid takes big strides

As soon as the tears started to come, Paulo Dybala buried his face into his jersey. Lionel Messi tried to offer an arm around the shoulder as he trudged, bereft, from the field; so, too, did Angel Di Maria. For a few seconds, defender Emmanuel Mas stopped Dybala in his tracks, swaddling him in a tender, consoling hug.

All to no avail: As Dybala would say later, his anguish was too intense for solace. All his life, he had dreamed of representing his homeland, Argentina. On September 1, in a World Cup qualifier against Uruguay in Mendoza, Argentina, he was given his first start. Forty-five minutes later, he was sent off after receiving his second yellow card. His dismay and his disappointment, he said, “overwhelmed” him.

It was only once he was back in the sanctuary of the dressing room that he stopped crying. But it was another hour or so before he could muster a smile, and even then only after the intervention of Marcelo D’Andrea, the team masseur known to all of the Argentine national team as “Daddy.”

After the game — Argentina won, 1-0; Messi scored — D’Andrea pulled Dybala, still distraught, to one side. “Calm down,” he told him. “That’s what superstars do: They get sent off for the national team. Messi did it against Hungary. You’ve already passed the test: You got sent off, so you must be a star.”

The parallel was an apposite one, and the coincidence curious, to say the least. In Budapest in 2005, Messi made his Argentina debut as a 63rd-minute substitute. In the 65th minute, he was shown a straight red card. For the growing number of observers who believe Dybala could be Messi’s heir apparent, his red card in Mendoza was not so much a shortcoming as a sign.

That meeting with Uruguay represented the completion of a dream for Dybala. He had, he said, always wanted to “play a one-two with Messi.” That night in the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, he managed it.

Last Tuesday night in Turin, Dybala reached another milestone: When Juventus hosted Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal, Dybala, the Italian team’s 23-year-old forward, played against Messi, and outshone him by scoring two goals in his team’s victory.

Messi casts a long shadow. For many years, every quick-witted, fleet-footed playmaker from Argentina had to labour under the weight of being labeled “the next Maradona,” a tag that was variously applied to players as diverse as Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar, Juan Román Riquelme and Carlos Tevez. Only when Messi matched and, in some lights, surpassed Maradona’s achievements was the search called off — or, more accurately, reconstituted. Now, whenever an Argentine of delicate touch and impish acceleration starts to rise, he is instantly called “the new Messi.”

Little wonder, then, that Dybala does all that he can to play down the comparison. His line is clear: There will only ever be one Messi. He does not want to be the new anything; he simply wants to be Paulo Dybala and to see how far that takes him.

Sadly, others are not so obliging. His teammate for club and country, Gonzalo Higuaín, has described Dybala as “looking like Messi.” Arrigo Sacchi, the former AC Milan manager and now a sort of freelance agent provocateur for Real Madrid, drew the same parallel. At least Maradona stopped short of joining the acclaim, simply suggesting Dybala is a “phenomenon.”

The comparison, though, is tempting. Their careers have followed different arcs — Messi was taken from his hometown, Rosario, to Barcelona before his teens, only ever donning the colours of one club, while Dybala broke through at Instituto, a club in Córdoba, before moving to Italy’s Palermo and on to Juventus — but there are common threads.
Like Messi, Dybala was a scrap of a child. His first club, in his hometown, Laguna Larga, had only one set of jerseys, which players shared regardless of age. Photographs of Dybala show him drowning in his one-size-fits-none kit.

Like Messi, Dybala’s size did not detract from his ability. “We were taken to see the youth team train, because we thought there might be some players we could use,” said Dario Franco, Instituto’s coach in Dybala’s only season there. “As soon as we saw him, we knew we could use him.” He made his debut for the club a week later, at 17.

And like Messi, Dybala has leaned on his family to shape his career. He has said he would not have made it as a professional had his father, Adolfo, not been determined that he should do so. His brother Gustavo acts as a sort of consigliere, a pattern shared with Jorge and Rodrigo Messi.

“His family was always around him,” Franco said. “He lived in club accommodation when he was in Córdoba, but one of his brothers was always there, too.”

Where the two players diverge, of course, is the speed of their ascents. At 17, Messi was playing for Barcelona; Dybala was still at Instituto, in Argentina’s second tier. Even when the chance to move to Europe came, Dybala did not move straight to a superclub.

“Palermo had a great system of scouting in South America,” said Giuseppe Sannino, Dybala’s first coach in Italy. “There were a lot of teams looking at Paulo — I remember Inter Milan, in particular — but Palermo had a good record of signing players like Javier Pastore and Edinson Cavani. We had a number of South American players there when Paulo arrived, too: Abel Hernández, Arevalo Rios. That makes it easier to adapt.”

Those first few months, Sannino said, were tough. “There was a lot of physical work to be done,” he said. “He was very small, very slight. And it is Italy, so there was a lot of focus on teaching him tactical things, too.”

Throughout, though, one thing was apparent: “His class,” Sannino said. “He has a shimmering ability.”

Franco agreed: “He does not have a ceiling. He can go as high as he likes.”
Dybala’s goals at Palermo made believers of Juventus; his goals at Juventus have convinced almost everyone else. Real Madrid’s interest has been piqued; so, too, has that of Manchester City and Chelsea. His most intriguing suitor, though, is the one he faced in the Champions League on Tuesday evening. Dybala showed that while he might not be the new Messi — nobody is, after all — he could well be the next best thing.