Paulo Dybala: How the Argentine 'Gladiator' went from rough diamond to Juventus 'jewel'

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Paolo Dybala
Dybala's 'gladiator mask' celebration is a reflection of the difficult days that followed the death of his father

On the surface, Laguna Larga looks no different from any other small town in Argentina.

It has an agricultural heart, a main square, two petrol stations, a school, a museum and two football clubs.

But it is probably the only place in the country where Lionel Messi comes second.

"This is Paulo Dybala's town," reads a giant billboard on Ruta Nueve, the road that connects Argentina's three main cities - Cordoba, Rosario and Buenos Aires.

It was a special birthday gift to the 25-year-old Juventus forward two years ago, and symbolises the borders of his kingdom.

Here, no-one would ever use his surname. Only outsiders say Dybala. To Laguna Larga's 7,500 inhabitants, he is Paulo.

This is where he grew up, the youngest of three brothers, in a town otherwise best known for a failed bank robbery that involved 20 hostages, in which gunmen seized the police station and disguised themselves as officers before things went badly wrong.

It is a town split in two by the main road running through it, with a football club on either side, Sportivo and Newell's.

Dybala had a parent from both halves of the divide; his mother's family supported Sportivo, while his father, Adolfo, and grandfather, Boleslaw, were Newell's fans.

Boleslaw was a Polish migrant who had been captured and sent to work in Nazi Germany but found no jobs when he returned home after World War Two. Some of his relatives went to Canada. He chose Argentina. He died when Paulo was four.

Paulo started with Sportivo, until he received an offer to train with Instituto - a bigger team up the road in Cordoba.

Adolfo would drive him there, stay until training had finished, then drive back. A total of 150km (93 miles), day in, day out, dedicated to that football dream.

When Adolfo was diagnosed with a tumour, everything in their life fell apart. Paulo, then 15, arranged a loan from Instituto back to his hometown - to Newell's - so he could stay close to his father in his final days.

"Paulo dreamed that his dad would see him play in the top flight. It was a terrible blow when he passed away," says Pablo Burzio, who made his debut alongside Dybala for Instituto in the B Nacional - Argentina's second division.

"But he kept on going and eventually made a difficult decision that few teenagers would have been able to under those circumstances: to leave his mum and brothers and move back to Cordoba, to live at Instituto's youth academy."

Speaking to Vanity Fair magazine in 2017, Dybala said: "My father's death was an incredible pain for me. I almost quit football.

"I always think about him and dedicate all my goals to him. After I score, I thank him because I'm sure he's watching. It's impossible to replace a father. In my life, family is everything."

The mask celebration that has become so popular is a reflection of those difficult days.

"As a fan of the film Gladiator, Paulo decided to wear the mask of Maximus, to prove himself as a warrior and someone who would never give up," says Marcos Villalobo, author of Dybala's biography.

It was Villalobo who gave him the nickname that still remains today - 'La Joya', which is the title of the biography and means 'The Jewel'.

"He was the rough diamond of the Instituto academy," Villalobo says. "I asked Paulo about this nickname once and he laughed and said he liked it."

As two of the club's brightest prospects, Dybala and Burzio were offered accommodation with a couple in their 70s, Faustina and Orlando, who lived with their granddaughters. It was far better than the alternative.

"We were four players in two rooms and we got VIP treatment with homemade meals and the warmth of a family, compared to the club's accommodation, where you had to sleep in rooms under the stadium's stands," says Burzio.

"Either way, Paulo was ready to endure anything in order to fulfil his dream and the promise he had made to his dad; that he would make it."

The crucial date was 29 June 2011. Pre-season training at second division Instituto.

"Pablo Dyballa, category 1993, number nine," manager Dario Franco wrote in his notebook as he prepared to watch the academy's best players, el selectivo.

Dybala's exceptional talent was so clear such spelling mistakes were quickly corrected.

Two months later, with the league season about to start, Franco had selection problems. The club's record signing was suspended. Another two first-team strikers were out injured.

Franco, a disciple of Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa, turned to the youngster who had impressed him that summer. Burzio, Nicolas Lopez Macri and a 17-year-old Dybala were up front. All of them, with very short hair, looking like military commandos.

"It wasn't a coincidence but a pre-season ritual in which the veterans gave you a haircut," recalls Burzio.

"Lopez Macri used to have short hair anyway, but it was a bit rough for me and Paulo, who had this style with a really long fringe going to one side. They left us looking like inmates."

That season, 2011-12, everyone was watching the second division with keen interest, because the iconic River Plate had been relegated for the first time in their history.

Instituto started well. They beat Huracan 2-0 and Dybala played 71 minutes, receiving a yellow card on his professional debut.

He was about to steal the show.

That season he scored 17 times in the league. Among his goals were two hat-tricks - a feat achieved at an earlier age than Diego Maradona.

"He was a natural left-winger," says Walter Saracho, his first coach at Instituto. "He was so quick and such a great dribbler that he naturally performed better out wide, but he could play anywhere.

"He was a humble boy, he was never rude and coped with pressure naturally, with a smile. Some talented players, especially as kids, are also rebels, but Paulo's rebelliousness always came out on the pitch instead."

Interest in Dybala was building. The now defunct El Grafico football magazine scrambled to organise a special operation: to travel to Laguna Larga to gather as much material as possible, as they had done in Rosario after Messi's breakthrough.

His older brother Mariano respectfully told them the family would rather stay away from the spotlight, because being featured on the cover of a national magazine and compared to Messi seemed too much for a young kid playing in the second tier.

But very soon the wider world would sit up and take notice. Instituto received 3m euros (£2.7m) when they sold Dybala to a private group of investors before the end of that debut season. Palermo ended up paying four times more in April 2012, their president Maurizio Zamparini saying: "We have snatched the new Sergio Aguero from the hands of Inter, Paris St-Germain and Chelsea."

In his first season in Italy, Dybala suffered relegation to Serie B, but his development did not stop. Palermo would return as second division champions at the first time of asking, and finished a comfortable 11th the following year.

But one thing Dybala had to learn was how to cope with the kicks he was receiving with new intensity. Having former AC Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso as manager helped him, even if the methods were unorthodox.

"He would teach me how to dodge tackles," Dybala says in La Joya.

"In training sessions, sometimes he would mark me and kick me so I could understand how to defend myself."

Dybala played his last game in Palermo's pink on 25 May 2015, as captain, and was thrown into the air by his team-mates after the final whistle. It was a celebration of his success with the side, and it was also the end.

Juventus had come calling. They secured the 21-year-old's signature for 32m euros (£28.5m) and a new chapter would begin. It was a move Dybala felt he had to make, to test himself against the very best.

In Turin, the number 21 shirt was available after Andrea Pirlo's departure for New York City. Dybala took it. Then, after Paul Pogba's exit to Manchester United in 2017, came the chance to wear number 10. A chance to follow where Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio and Alessandro del Piero had gone before.

Dybala has not disappointed. He is an instrumental player in a Juve side that this season is looking to win an eighth consecutive league title, having made the Serie A team of the year in each of his three successful seasons in black and white.

Only the most talented, cold-minded players are capable of performing when the ball is like a hot potato. Dybala is one of those.

After all, not many can claim to have played football with a ball that was burning. Literally on fire. Former Newell's team-mate and friend Lorenzo Cortiano can explain.

"One night, we were out in the countryside, cooking an asado [barbecue]," he says. "We found an old ball and sprinkled it with kerosene, set it on fire and then started playing. A little risky game, isn't it?

"With Paulo we used to do those kind of things. The ball ended up exploding just in time to eat the meat."

He shows me a photo.

"This is Paulo, in yellow, see? We used to have these crazy fringe haircuts - fotologgers, we call them."

Paolo Dybala and teenage friends
A young Dybala (second from left, back row) with his friends near Laguna Larga

Fotolog was a very popular social network in Argentina, long before Instagram came along. Messi aside, Dybala is the most popular Argentine player on Instagram, with more than 26 million followers.

There he presents his boots, his brand logo, his famous mask celebration, and shares pictures of himself with his girlfriend, 22-year-old Oriana Sabatini, niece of former Argentine tennis player Gabriela Sabatini.

He opens letters from fans and replies to them with his mum, Alicia. The Dybala Nation, as he calls it. A kingdom that has grown from a tiny town to a population of more than 20 million.

But his public profile turns off into secrecy when it comes to charity. There are no pictures of him giving away blankets and food in the middle of a freezing winter night in Turin, or visiting children's hospitals, or giving away toys to boys and girls of Laguna Larga before Christmas.

"Many people have told me that Dybala helped them but asked them not to say anything because he is not doing it for publicity," adds Villalobo.

Burzio says: "It doesn't surprise us, because Paulo was always like this. If he got a cake, then he would share with all of us. He would give away boots for the younger kids, that kind of thing. He will never change, no matter how famous he is."

Recently linked with Real Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City and Bayern Munich, and apparently valued at 130m euros (£116m), Dybala is one of a fortunate few who can claim to have played alongside both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

But inside the Dybala Kingdom, no-one quite understands why he has received so few chances with the national team.

To score his first international goal, last November against Mexico, he needed 18 intermittent caps under three different managers.

Perhaps some explanation comes from a public declaration he would instantly regret.

"It sounds a bit strange, but it's a bit difficult to play with Messi, because we both play in the same position," Dybala said in September 2017, before a Champions League match against Barcelona.

"I try to give him the space, and I'm sure it's me that needs to adapt to him, to make him feel comfortable."

The now famous quote completely backfired. Rumours of Barcelona trying to sign him ceased, and Dybala's future with Argentina appeared to be crossed out. He no longer figured in Edgardo Bauza's plans, and Jorge Sampaoli almost left him out of his World Cup squad for 2018.

In the training sessions before Argentina's opener against Iceland in Russia, Sampaoli tried 21 different formations. Dybala did not play in any.

He would only feature in the final group game against Nigeria, when Argentina were saved from elimination by Marcos Rojo's dramatic last-minute strike. Dybala did not play again, as France beat them 4-3 in the last 16.

With Messi since deciding to have a break from the national team, and with his long-term international future still unresolved, the time for rebuilding has come. Dybala is cast in the role of leader of the next generation, along with Inter Milan's 25-year-old striker Mauro Icardi.

Of the old guard, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia have retired, while Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria - like Messi - have been absent since the summer too.

Under caretaker manager Lionel Scaloni, Argentina are preparing for the Copa America in Brazil in June under the heavy burden of a 26-year title drought, and having lost six finals in major tournaments since 1993.

The ball, once more, will be like a hot potato.

But Dybala knows all about that dangerous game.

Paolo Dybala breaks down after scoring on anniversary on father's death
Dybala reacted emotionally as he scored his first goal of this season on 26 September, the eighth anniversary of his father's death
A young Dybala in Laguna Larga
A young Dybala in Laguna Larga
Newell's Old Boy's Laguna Larga
Dybala (fourth from right, back row) pictured with Newell's Old Boy's Laguna Larga in 2008
A satellite image view of Laguna Larga
A satellite image view of Laguna Larga
Paolo Dybala
Dybala won a third successive league and cup double in Italy with Juve last season

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