"The best thing about football is the goal. My least favourite is losing," SL Benfica's former Argentinian international playmaker Pablo Aimar tells the latest edition of Champions magazine. "Goals are what a footballer craves. Scoring early is even better – better than scoring the fourth or fifth in a rout. Although if you're scoring that many, it probably means you're winning, so that's good too."
Now 32, Aimar arrived in Lisbon from Real Zaragoza in July 2008 and has become integral to an Eagles side who next Wednesday visit FC Zenit St Petersburg in their UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg, having topped a group from which Manchester United FC were eliminated.
He first made his mark as a teenager in Buenos Aires. Daniel Passarella, then coach at CA River Plate, persuaded Aimar's family to let him leave his home town Cordoba at 16. By the time he was 18, he was scoring his first senior goal.
After a stellar turn helping his country lift the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1997, a move to Europe became inevitable. His destination was Valencia CF. With compatriot Roberto Ayala in defence, Aimar helped form the spine of Rafael Benítez's team that went from underachievers to Liga champions and UEFA Cup winners. Yet it took time to adjust to the European game.
"It may sound silly but the cropped turf, slightly damp, makes it much faster," Aimar says. "There's also more precision in the speed of the game, more one-twos. At the beginning it was hard."
How do the European and South American schools of play differ? "There's plenty of dribbling here, maybe not so many sombreros [flicking the ball over an opponent and collecting it on the other side], but the dribbling is faster in Europe," he says. "There's a lot of skill, maybe less on the ground, but it's very attractive to play in and to watch."
Aimar's unadulterated love of the game makes him a great example. "I'd encourage kids starting out to enjoy every minute. Not wait until they're older or achieving more. Being a footballer is a lovely job and every second should be relished. You never know what could happen so don't postpone the fun."
Like other River Plate alumni such as Alfredo Di Stéfano and Omar Sívori, Aimar is inspired by a romantic idea of football: entertainment through beauty. If he failed to win the trophies with Argentina his talent merited, he is philosophical.
"There are good and not so good times. Players who always play very well are few and far between. I've hit lows, and just as people have elevated me in their praise, they've also said bad things about me. But the important thing is to be the best you can at any given moment. Praise and criticism should not be given too much importance."
Before meeting Benfica in the group stage last autumn, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said: "Aimar is the only player I fear." The player himself responds: "I was chuffed when Alex Ferguson singled me out. Imagine that – a manager with his experience, years working with the very best. It's one of my proudest moments as a footballer."
The Benfica man also influenced the development of the world's best. Lionel Messi once said he had no idols, no footballers he tried to emulate or aspire to, before confessing: "When I was 13 or 14 I loved to watch Aimar. He's brilliant, I enjoy watching him."
Aimar cannot hide his delight: "He is the best player in the world, probably in history, and to hear him praise my game is wonderful. False modesty is worse than arrogance. I've been compared to some huge names. It's not something I aspired to or expected, but it's very reassuring."
But has he thought about retirement? "No, I don't want to stop. I've never said I'd quit. I love it.
I love training, I love the dressing room, where there may be lads who are superstars but actually they're just normal blokes," he says. "On the pitch we are part of a team. I love that. A group of blokes in a team, it's great.
"But it's a contact sport and it takes its toll physically. It's hard to always be in top shape and I've had difficult times. I will always have dreams though, some unfulfilled. You can always think about what hasn't worked out. But it's much better to focus on what has."
This feature is an edited version of an interview in the latest edition of Champions magazine. Subscribe now.
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