Two years ago, Nicolò Zaniolo was in Serie B, having left Fiorentina at 16 to pursue other opportunities in the game. Where some may have given up on football altogether, or fallen down the league pyramid, the Italian youngster rolled his socks up, rediscovered his love of the sport and went on a new journey to reach the very top.
Within two years he’d joined Internazionale, been named their Primavera Player of the Year, joined AS Roma and scored goals in both Serie A and the Champions League. To crown it all, he’s also become a senior Italy international, heralding a bright new dawn along-side peers such as Federico Chiesa and close friend Moise Kean.
The son of former Serie B player Igor Zaniolo, who turned out for Genoa, Salernitana and Spezia across a solid 21-year career, Nicolò is plotting a path to the very top, lauded by pundits, ex-players and managers across Italy for his potential.
These Football Times headed to Rome to catch up with the starlet, getting to know one of calcio’s finest midfield talents and the man seen as a future lynchpin at Roma.
Last season was an incredible breakthrough for you at Roma. When you joined from Inter, could you have predicted such a rapid rise with Champions League and Serie A goals, or did you back yourself to hit the ground running?
“To be honest, I didn’t expect to have such an impact as I was coming from a Primavera team and had a lot to learn. I also made my Italy debut which was a surprise, but I have lots of targets left and the goal is to keep building. I have learnt a lot from last season but I need to go further now and keep pushing at Roma.”
It must seem like a long time since you left Fiorentina in 2016 to join Virtus Entella in Serie B, who you were with until only two years ago. What has changed in such a short space of time to take you from an academy player and Serie B to Serie A and the Azzurri?
“So much has changed over the past two years, both from a physical standpoint and a psychological one that has enabled to me make a step up. Essentially I’ve changed the way I work, I think, and the way I am day-to-day. I wanted to be a teenager before, doing all the things my friends do, but I’ve learnt to focus on what is important: football. I train harder, I focus more, I have high targets, and all these have helped me improve technically on the pitch but also in terms of my life off it. I am more complete – that’s what’s led to me playing at the top.”
Your deal to Roma was dependant on Radja Nainggolan joining inter – what was it that convinced you Roma would be a better place to make a breakthrough and progress?
“When a big club with so much history like Roma wants you and has plans for you in the first team, it’s hard to turn down the offer. I confess that I thought I’d be sent out on loan as I had lots to learn and a new move is always a risk but Eusebio Di Francesco had confidence in me from the start and helped me a lot. If it wasn’t for him, I would not have made the breakthrough. He is great with younger players and I owe him a lot, as I do with all the people in Rome who have backed me.”
“It’s important to keep your feet on the ground at all times, and I have a family behind me who do that, who understand football and who make sure I work my best at all times. Beyond that, the only way to manage expectations is within myself. I have to work hard and can’t listen to what others say, good or bad. I’m not Totti but one day I hope to be as good. The only way I can do that is every day in training, by working hard, trusting the manager and then taking that into games in front of the fans. Then I’ll let them decide.”
Who was your favourite player growing up?
“My hero undoubtedly was always Kaká, especially during his AC Milan years and for Brazil – I watched him a lot. For me, he was the perfect offensive midfielder: strong, technically perfect and capable of scoring and assisting. That is what I wanted to become as a kid and I still do now. I watch his videos, study the way he moved, and try to take elements into my game as I’m also tall, strong and try to play technical, direct football.”
You left Fiorentina’s academy aged 16 as both yourself and the club felt your journey together had reached its conclusion. What advice do you have for 16-year-olds within the academy structure who’ve been let go by their clubs?
“The main advice is to never give up, partly because if you’re 15 or 16 and have reached that point then you must have some quality that another team will always find useful, even if it isn’t always obvious. One team not wanting your skillset doesn’t mean another won’t. More than that, though, you need to continue to enjoy football. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t have the motivation to keep fighting. Love football no matter what, in good times and in bad.”
Some ex-players and managers in Italy have suggested that your best position would be as a number 8 – a mezzela who can influence the game in both halves – but what role do you see yourself settling in at Roma and with the national team?
“As a kid, because I had technical skills, I always played as a number 10 but I confess that I like playing as an eight or even a defensive midfielder. For now, I’ll play in any position but maybe one day I will settle a little deeper, unless a manager comes in and see me totally as a forward playmaker. I will play anywhere as long as I’m on the pitch.”
Being a footballer is a great job with many perks, but what have you found is the toughest part about being a professional player?
“The journey itself is the hardest as it’s not easy to get the top, it takes a lot of sacrifice and time and you have to keep believing even when you think it won’t happen. And then once you get there, it’s even harder to stay. You are always working harder and harder every day, but as you say, it’s worth what awaits you.
“I always found it hard to leave my family. I had to leave them many times as a young teenager to live elsewhere so I could pursue a football career, and there was travelling all the time. I didn’t get to do the things that my friends were – going out, the stuff everyone my age does. It becomes easier but when you’re younger, you just want to have a normal life and be around friends. It was worth it, though.”
Who are the best players you’ve played against so far, in midfield and in defence?
“Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, he is perfect physically and very hard to mark. Luka Modrić, as well. I was impressed with how he used the ball and the way he moved with it. He’s small but hard to get off it. He turns sharp, moves quick and takes up great positions. I found him hard to control. Defensively I’d say Raphaël Varane. He’s fast, very technical and strong. He is the hardest player to get past that I have come across, almost impossible, especially one on one.”
You were able to play with Daniele De Rossi before he left Roma: what did you learn from experienced players like him that you’ve adapted into your game on and off the pitch?
“Daniele was always a leader, and a fantastic person, so it’s easy to learn from him and other experienced players. In fact, if you can’t, there’s something wrong. Mostly what I learned was humility – he has time for everyone, the fans, the staff, the other players. Off the pitch, he prepares well and is always focused on Roma. I am trying to take that into my life, to make Roma the centre of it. Maybe then I can improve and grow like he did.”
You’ve shared a changing room with De Rossi and Steven Nzonzi, two World Cup winners: what inspiration have they given you to help take Italy to new levels in the international game?
“Winning the World Cup is my childhood dream, as it is for any player, and being lucky enough to share a changing room with Daniele and Steve makes you believe that it’s possible. It focuses you to try to become that sort of player so others may one day look up to me. It’s a boost every day but now it’s time for me to write my own story and I’m ready for the challenge.”
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem
Photography by Umbar Shakir @atomikphotography