Nicolo Zaniolo celebrated his birthday in July and probably reflected that he had experienced more in 24 years than many people do in a lifetime.
Aston Villa’s summer signing was sent death threats and chased through the streets by Roma fans furious at his desire to leave the Serie A club. He has felt the rough end of Jose Mourinho’s tongue and suffered two serious knee injuries, the second of which ruled him out of Italy’s triumphant Euro 2020 campaign.
Impressively, he has also managed to gain a solid grasp of English in just six months, thanks to daily lessons when he was playing for Galatasaray.
Much more importantly, he joined a select group of players to score the winner in a major European Final. Less than 18 months after he struck the only goal for Roma against Feyenoord in the Europa Conference League Final, Zaniolo is starting a new journey in the competition.
The Italy international expects to be involved when Villa take on Legia Warsaw in Poland on Thursday and, as he sits in the cavernous indoor training centre at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath base, he dreams of reliving his golden moment in Tirana.
Nicolo Zaniolo is attempting to reignite his club career after moving to Aston Villa
The Italy international has endured death threats and serious injuries during his relatively short career
Zaniolo has suffered two serious knee injuries, the second of which ruled him out of Italy’s triumphant Euro 2020 campaign
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‘It was a great day – unique,’ Zaniolo tells Mail Sport in his first newspaper interview since moving to England. ‘To score the only goal was an incredible emotion.
‘It was the first trophy I’d won in my career and I will always carry it in my heart. It will always be a wonderful memory. This season Aston Villa are one of the main candidates to win the competition.
‘It won’t be easy as there are a number of very good, organised teams and it’s always hard to play away from home, but we are a very good side and we want to lift this important trophy. If we do what we’re capable of this season, we can make our fans very happy.’
When Zaniolo scored that goal against Feyenoord to give Jose Mourinho his 27th trophy as a coach, it should have been the launchpad for his career. Yet eight months later, he was on his way to Galatasaray after rejecting a move to Bournemouth, due to a complete breakdown in relations with Roma.
Contract talks did not progress and by late January, it was clear that Roma and Zaniolo needed to go their separate ways. Mourinho said he ‘didn’t want to play for Roma’. A banner appeared near the Colosseum calling Zaniolo a ‘traitor without honour’.
Zaniolo was followed by fans to his home in Casal Palocco, an upmarket district on the outskirts of Rome, where he received death threats and called police in the early hours.
Zaniolo is still reluctant to relive those traumatic final days as a Roma player, insisting his love for the club burns as brightly as ever, as does his respect for Mourinho. He even revealed he remains in occasional contact with the former Chelsea and Manchester United boss.
‘There will always be difficult times in life and it’s important that you stay united with those close to you and give each other strength,’ Zaniolo says. ‘But I’d prefer to keep family matters to myself and not talk about my state of mind during that period.
Zaniolo (left) is at Villa on a loan deal but if he impressed then there is a strong chance the move will be made permanent
‘I have wonderful memories of Rome and Roma from my first very day there but things in life have a beginning and an end. Unfortunately that ending happened in January but I want nothing but the best for Roma fans and PSG Trøje I loved the Roma colours.
‘Now I’m at Villa, I’m happy here, I’ve got back into the national team and I’ve rediscovered the joy of playing international football. To go back into the past for me isn’t positive because it’s finished.
‘Mourinho is a great person. I respect him very much and he taught me a great deal. I have to thank him for all the times he picked me and put his trust in mind. Now and then we are still in touch.’
Villa’s move for Zaniolo was driven by Monchi, the club’s Spanish sporting director, who worked for Roma from 2017-19. He is currently alone in a temporary base in Birmingham but has a close family – father Igor was a lower-league player in Italy – who will visit regularly.
Zaniolo was able to keep his favoured No22 shirt at his new club – a tribute to his mother, who was born on the 22nd of the month, as well as his idol, the former AC Milan and Brazil attacker Kaka.
Aston Villa are targeting the Europa Conference League title under manager Unai Emery this season
Zaniolo (right) previously scored the winning goal in Roma’s Conference League final triumph over Feyenoord last year
Zaniolo (left) keeps in contact with Roma manager Jose Mourinho (right) but the pair at times shared a difficult relationship
Though Zaniolo’s performance on first Premier League start, against Crystal Palace last weekend, was sketchy, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. He is a powerful ball-carrier who can operate on either flank as well as through the middle, and he has an eye for goal.
If Zaniolo performs well, there is a strong chance his initial loan move from Galatasaray will be made permanent at the end of the campaign.
‘Football is a job but if you don’t like what you’re doing, you won’t play well,’ he reflects. ‘If you get to the pitch and you don’t feel joy and passion, you’re finished.
Eight months after lifting the Europa Conference League, Zaniolo (left) was on his way to Galatasaray after rejecting a move to Bournemouth, due to a complete breakdown in relations with Roma
‘In my life I’ve never really given that much weight to what other people say or advise. I’ve always acted on what I think and feel. I’ll listen to others but it has to be me who decides.
‘To come here, I didn’t need to ask anyone’s advice because I knew what I was getting into. I was certain about my choice as it’s been my dream to play in the Premier League since I was very young.
‘I would advise anyone who had an offer from the Premier League to think about it very hard. You don’t just grow up as a player here. You grow up as a person in a wider sense. It’s not just about football.
‘Going to Turkey, coming to England… these are life experiences that help. If you stay in the same place, you don’t think about what else is out there. But doing it this way, it opens your mind and helps you stay calmer. That can help you on the pitch, too.’
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