x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Villarreal and Italy striker Giuseppe Rossi is a man in demand

The US-born Italy football player is happy where he is - at Villarreal - despite being sought after by Europe's leading clubs.

The Villarreal forward, in Italy's squad tonight, talks to Ian Hawkey about his time in England, the death of his father and baseball

Giuseppe Rossi is in demand. If it had not been Tottenham Hotspur frantically dialling and redialling the telephone number of Villarreal at the end of the transfer window, it could just as well have been Juventus or another Serie A giant.

By the last week of last month, Spurs were apparently offering telephone-number sums both to the player and to his current employers to try to persuade him to return to the Premier League, where he played as a teenager.

The answer was "No", even once the offer soared to a reported €37 million (Dh185m). So, armed with a new contract with the upwardly mobile club from Spain's valenciano coastline, Rossi has quietly been telling his fellow internationals as they prepared for tonight's prestigious friendly against Germany in Dortmund, why he chose to stay in the Primera Liga, and turned down London for five more years with Villarreal. Personal fulfilment ranks high on his list of reasons.

"I'm fine where I am here in Villarreal," he said. "Sure, players always want more, but what I think about now is what I can do with Villarreal. We have our objectives for this year, which is to get into Europe, hopefully into the Champions League, and we have started on the right foot in that."

His club sit third in the league, and while the top two - Barcelona and Real Madrid - are too well resourced to seem catchable, the one player that both those superclubs would most envy of their next-best rivals is probably Rossi.

The 24-year-old's 12 league goals so far this season are more than any of Real's centre-forwards have managed, while his contribution to Villarreal's sophisticated passing game and his work in the creative areas can sometimes put an observer in mind of the attacking footballers at Barcelona.

Like a Lionel Messi, an Andres Iniesta, a David Villa, a Pedro Rodriguez or a Xavi, Rossi is short of stature, but nimble and quick-witted.

He is being properly recognised as one of Europe's most effective strikers, too. For Italy's last outing, the friendly against Romania in November, Rossi wore the captain's armband.

After only three and half seasons at Villarreal, he is chasing the status of the club's greatest ever scorer in the top division of Spanish football.

Earlier this season he scored his 50th goal for Villarreal, and did so in his 99th appearance for the club. Another nine Primera Liga goals will overtake the club record of Diego Forlan. Suffice to say, he is popular among the fans.

"It's cool and that target is something that's nice to think about," he said. "Villarreal doesn't have a very long history but we have had some very good players recently, like Juan Roman Riquelme and Diego Forlan. It would be nice to get there."

As important a target for Rossi is to perform in an important championship with his country. It is a noticeable hole in his unusual and varied CV. Though he made his full international debut with the Azzurri back in October 2008, was in Italy's Olympic side in Beijing and at the Confederations Cup in South Africa with Marcello Lippi's then world champions in 2009, Rossi did not make the 23-man party who made the disastrous trip to South Africa to defend their World Cup last summer.

Missing out had been a big disappointment, though he had lost form a little in the crucial months ahead of the tournament when selection issues were being decided, and Lippi was leaning towards the older players available to him.

Rossi also suffered an emotional blow in that period, the death of his father, Fernando.

"He was my first coach," said his son. "There were setbacks last year, personal wise and football wise. These are things you have to overcome, you have to be strong in your character, and personality.

"I always look ahead and see how I can bounce back. And that's what I've tried to do."

The single-mindedness in Rossi is barely disguised: partly, it comes from having grown up as an outsider. He was born in New Jersey in the United States, and like many American "soccer" players of his generation, he often felt he was playing a marginal sport in a land where American football, basketball and baseball dominate.

With his father's influence, he became very good at it, very young, and when his talent became known to Parma, they asked him to join their junior ranks. He was 13.

At Parma, he continued to progress and Manchester United, encouraged both by his skill and a fluent spoken English that would make it easy for him to settle in Britain, signed him at 17.

He moved to Old Trafford at the same time as another gifted teenager, Wayne Rooney. That coincidence would be a block to his progress but also a blessing.

"United gave me a lot," he said. "I was 17 when I went there, it was practically my first experience of being involved in first-team football and I was learning from the best." There was also a long queue.

"Ruud van Nistelrooy was there, so was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Plus Rooney, and I really wanted to play."

He would do so only a handful of times for the first XI. But his confidence grew during a loan spell at Newcastle United. He was then loaned back to Parma, where his goals saved them from relegation.

In 2007, he joined Villarreal, though not without United taking the precaution of inserting a "first-option" buy-back clause in the contract of sale.

In Spain, he settled quickly, picking up his third language easily. He had been friendly with the Iberian group of players at Old Trafford and would resume old Manchester friendships in the Primera Liga, with the likes of Gerard Pique at Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, and the former United keeper, Ricardo, now of Osasuna, whom Rossi most remembers for the lifts he gave the young Italian home from practice.

"He used to play this terrible Spanish music in the car." Worse than that were the effects the tunes had on Ricardo: "He'd be like clapping along to it, cha-cha-cha, with his hands off the steering wheel," Rossi said.

Luckily, he had already become a fearless traveller. By the age of 20, he had already played in the game's three leading leagues, appreciating "the physical, fast-paced style" of English football, where, at 5ft 8ins, he needed to be tough, and "the mind game that is Serie A, very tactical" and then "the technical, possession football, the always looking for the spectacular," that characterises the Primera Liga.

There, Rossi's game has become about much more than pace, which he has, and finishing. In his excellent partnership for Villarreal with Nilmar, the Brazil striker, Rossi is often the creator.

Cesare Prandelli, the Italy coach, wants to harness some of that, grateful that Rossi, despite the frustrations he experienced during the Lippi era, maintained he had done the right thing in declining invitations to represent the US as a senior international.

Yet the American in Rossi is not disguised, neither in his accent when he speaks in English, or his choice of words. Things are "kinda cool," in his argot; he says the word "soccer" as often as he says "football". He has lately been following the Super Bowl keenly, though his favourite second sport is baseball and he admits to having spent a very late night glued to television coverage of the tight climax to the last World Series.

"I couldn't watch it all because it's on at 3am European time, but the very end, which was so exciting, I had to stay up for." He would be stifling his yawns the next day at practice.

The last time Italy played, on a proud day for the Rossi family, with Giuseppe the captain of the side, he had to stifle some anger at a minority in the crowd who chose the occasion to wave racist banners directed mainly at Italy's Mario Balotelli, whose parents are Ghanaian.

Rossi, the US-born Italian patriot, wonders out loud "how these things happen, how people come to a stadium and ruin a show? Because football is basically a show for people to come and watch."

He hopes that the show itself will be more dynamic with a new, younger, post-World Cup Azzurri.

"There are new people coming in, there's a different energy, a different mentality, a new experience. People are curious to see where this new experience is going. We are all showing that we do care and that we do want to be back as world champions."

 

sports@thenational.ae