Watching Ángel Di María in action can be like watching a cartoon – the main man fast and zippy, the rest slow and clumsy. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi move with the ball as though in a video game, but Di María is so nippy he could be any one of Speedy Gonzales, Tasmanian Devil or Road Runner.
His rare dribbling skills and almost super-human pace have made him a master at opening up games. Wide on the left or right, in a deeper midfield role, or even up front, the Argentinian international looks at ease. And fast. He always has. "He would not stand still for a second," remembers his mother, Diana. "Amazing. All the time moving, jumping. He'd never stop. When he was four, a doctor recommended I take him to play football so he could get rid of some energy."
She would jump on her bike and take him to El Torito, a club in Rosario, half an hour from home. "Of course, I never thought he would end up playing for Argentina and Real Madrid. Every time I see him on TV scoring or performing well, I cry," she says. A natural goalscorer, Di María hit 64 in one season before moving to CA Rosario Central for a transfer fee of 40 footballs. In 2005, when he was 17, he made his debut.
Within two years he had been courted by Russian club FC Rubin Kazan before joining SL Benfica where he was presented to supporters as an ideal replacement for the departing Simão. He was getting used to that kind of billing: Diego Maradona had already described him as "Argentina's next superstar". Twelve months later, Di María lobbed the Nigeria goalkeeper to earn Argentina gold at the Beijing Olympics.
"During the Olympics, Fernando Gago was talking to me a lot," Di María tells Champions. "He had already been at Real Madrid for a year and all the time was saying, 'Come with me, come to Madrid.'
I never imagined going to a club of the calibre of Real. Being only 19 and playing for a top club in Europe, Benfica, was already a dream come true. Any Argentinian would tell you that. So imagine how I feel now I play for Real. This club is simply amazing. Everything about it defies imagination – the order, the people involved, the stadium, supporters. I try to do my best because I know this the best thing that has happened in my career."
Shy and low-key, Di María, 22, has not necessarily found it easy settling at the Santiago Bernabéu. "I feel the difference and even if things are going well, I'm still trying to adapt. But, with the training sessions and the matches, and especially lots of work, I'm getting more confident every day."
His signing was a tabloid dream – he was immediately dubbed the 'new Ángel of Madrid' after the exit of Raúl González. "Raúl is a legend here, always will be. I just try to solve some things when the team need me," says Di María, who is known to his colleagues by the nickname Fideo (Noodle). "Fernando Gago started it and some others followed. I love to eat, and I like eating a lot, and I don't get fat." What does Mourinho call him? "He uses my surname, as he does with the rest of my team-mates." Not, then, Cascote (Rock), the name his father used on account of his stubbornness. "That's something my dad used to say when I refused to understand or do something: 'Hard as a rock.' "
Madrid's website describes the No22 as a "versatile midfielder" but he sees himself "as a forward" or "attacking type of player". In Mourinho's team he is asked to play on the right, even if he has always previously operated on the left. "I feel comfortable playing there. Cristiano also feels comfortable on the left, but it's not a fixed position, we can rotate. On the left I can reach the byline and cross, but on the right it's easier to cut inside and take a shot – you have the best angle." And he is full of praise for his coach's training, believing Mourinho will do wonders for his development. "We never repeat the same exercise twice. He always has something new for us."
Di María made seven UEFA Champions League appearances for Benfica in 2007/08 but it was with Madrid that he scored his first goal in the competition, at AJ Auxerre on Matchday 2. "It's true, in Portugal I couldn't score once, but here I came off the bench against Auxerre and within a few minutes had scored to help us get the three points. Imagine my joy." And the focused Di María reveals his softer side every time he scores a goal by making a heart sign with his hands. "I started doing the little heart a year and a half ago. It was a surprise dedication to my girlfriend. I scored twice in that game and have done the celebration ever since."
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