Behind the mask of Paulo Dybala: How the football-loving father’s dream got him playing and now almost in tears at the incredible welcome at Roma


It began with Paulo Dybala’s grandfather lying in a wheat field in Argentina, starving for two weeks before he was saved by farmers. He had fled Poland during the second world war. He would teach his son Adolfo how to nurture dreams.

One day, years later, Adolfo, who in his son’s words was a “calm and silent man who loved football” would declare that “one of my sons would be born someday with one mission. To play football”. When the youngest Paulo was born with turquoise blue eyes, similar to the grandfather’s, his destiny was sealed: he was going to become the footballer that Adolfo dreamed about. For years, Adolfo drove his son on a 70-mile round trip to train with the second division side Instituto until, at 14.

Just when Paulo was about 15, and his dream for his son was about to materialise, Adolfo was stricken with cancer. For six months, Paula was on the death watch, refusing to leave his father’s side – he had got a potentially career-making deal with the Instituto – but he eventually decided to shift for his father’s dream. He was eligible to play for Poland, Italy (his maternal grandmother was an Italian), or Argentina where his grandfather had sought refuge and rebuilt his life. Their life. Paula Dybalo and his mother, who he is very close to, chose Argentina. Now, Argentina’s brightest star after Lionel Messi, will turn out for Roma in Italy. The fans of A.S. Roma, who finished sixth in Serie A last season, have gone absolutely bonkers with his signing.

On Tuesday evening, Paulo Dybala sits on a mound overlooking a frenzied celebration by adults and kids of his new club. Fireworks lit up the night sky, chants ring out, they scream his name, and he is visibly moved by this incredible spectacle. Like a scene from the movie Gladiator, his favourite that he has seen over 30 times, and which also gave rise to his world-renowned and aped celebration of the ‘mask’. Whenever he scores, he spreads his hand over his mouth, the thumb and the forefinger extended to symbolise a mask – “Bad things happen, to me or anyone, difficult times in life, but you have to keep going: put the mask on like gladiators do, and fight. Every battle. That was the idea I tried to transmit. People liked it, understood it,” he once told The Guardian. “A lot of the time, you have difficult moments and you have to go out there and fight anyway: not just in football, in life.”

A collector of football shirts, he was ready to shell out more than 20,000 euros for a jersey worn by Diego Maradona, he once told Vanity Fair magazine, but someone piped him at the end. Instead, there sits a life-styled gorilla in his living room. For a charity project in Africa, he got the gorilla sculpture by Richard Orlinkski.

Now Roma is ready to sculpt him in their hearts. They hope he brings the same touch he showed for seven years for Juventus in Turin where he populated the trophy cabinet, though he has been hit by injuries over the last two seasons. Juvi fans gave him a tearful departure. Dybala too was moved to break down after his final match.

Now, Roma have opened their arms and hearts. Roma won the last of their three Series A titles in 2001, and are hoping that Jose Mourinho, who hired Dybalo, can bring back the old magic. “The first thing I asked the coach was what we aim to win,” Dybala explained to reporters. “I like to win, him too.”

Though he has his moral limits. He says he is not going to throw himself down to coax fake fouls. “I do not throw myself down in the area, looking for a penalty, because I believe we should try to do things without being cursed and angry and without spitting on life.”

Paulo Dybala, AS Roma forward, stated that his contract with former club Juventus had not been revived. (AP photo/Frank Augstein)

He has proven it too. One of his most creative goals for Juventus came against Lazio with 19 seconds remaining in the game. He got the ball on the edge of the box, turned, nutmegged the defender but he still had to hold off another. The two almost seem to be dragging each other, Dybala just about holding him with his shoulder, all the while trying to drag the ball further in before he slips to the ground. The goalie is almost in front. “I could have gone for the penalty but I didn’t,” he says in the documentary “Behind the Mask”. Instead, somehow, from the ground, he manages to scoop the ball with his left-foot up and over the sliding goalie and into the net. The fingers spread into the mask.

The man nicknamed La Joya (The Jewel) seems ready, mentally and physically for some magic at Roma. They are definitely more than ready. In the past, he has talked about how he feels more Polish than Italian. “Personality-wise, my dad was more Polish; my middle brother, exactly the same. All of us, a bit. Maybe a bit colder, Polish blood,” he had told Guardian. “Italians tend to be more emotional.”Now he is among the emotional, moved to almost tears at their exuberant welcome. Perhaps, the Italian side of him will now come to the fore.

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