Having already tasted league championship glory in such established footballing hotbeds as Brazil and Germany, it might seem odd to suggest that the 2009/10 campaign is something of a litmus test for 24-year-old Diego Ribas da Cunha. Yet despite all Diego’s achievements so far in his relatively short career, a player fighting for titles at a European giant and competing for a berth in the Brazil midfield cannot afford to rest on his laurels.
The former Santos, Porto and Werder Bremen star has thrived on the pressure since his big-money move to Turin, with his efforts over the calendar year rewarded by a place on the 23-man shortlist for the FIFA World Player 2009, an award voted for by the national-team coaches and captains of FIFA’s member associations. Though the gifted attacking midfielder missed out on a berth in the top five, he remains in the running for a place in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI, which is voted for by members of the professional football players association.
In an exclusive interview, the Brazilian maestro took the time to speak to FIFA.com on a number of issues, including adapting to the Italian game, challenging Inter Milan for the Serie A title and proving his worth to Dunga.
FIFA.com: Diego, you’ve been at Juventus for a few months now and must have noticed certain differences between Italian and German football. Which are the most striking?
Diego: The thing which feels most different is the team: going from Werder Bremen to Juventus, who are considered to be a big club. When we come up against other teams you can sense that they set their stall out to be more tactically disciplined and harder to break down. The pitches are also different; I don’t think they’re as good as in Germany.
Are you now fully settled in Italy and with Juventus?
I’ve been really enjoying myself so far. I was given a fantastic reception and I’m loving day-to-day life at Juve. It’s a huge club and I’m really happy. Of course, given the type of club we are, there’s still room for improvement. A team like this should be winning every week and we’re always aiming for top spot.
Which player has most caught your eye since arriving in Italy?
(Without hesitation) [Gianluigi] Buffon. And not only as player, but as a person too. He’s an exceptional figure and it’s a real pleasure to be in the same squad as a man like that, with such a strong character. What is really striking is how he’s always on top of everything, whether it be tactical concerns or all the minor details.
I’ve tried to take full advantage of every opportunity I’ve been given... I never felt like I’d let myself down.
Inter would appear to be the team to beat in Serie A this season. Do Juve have what it takes to challenge for the title?
It’s not mission impossible. You just have to compare the quality of the players we’ve got in our squad. They’ve got a lot of quality in their team, but I see just as much at Juventus. Of course we’re facing an uphill battle, given that they rarely drop points in the league. And even though he’s just starting his coaching career, we’ve got a great boss in Ciro Ferrara who knows Italian football inside out. So I think we’re perfectly capable of fighting for the title.
In recent years Juventus haven’t had many Brazilians in their ranks, unlike Roma, AC Milan or Inter. Does that make their move for you all the more special?
Personally speaking, I’m always proud to be Brazilian and, yes, being here representing my country does make me happy. But none of the board mentioned anything to me about that (not signing Brazilian players). At the moment there’s me, Felipe [Melo] and Amauri, and we’ve been made to feel very welcome.
You were included on the shortlist for the FIFA Player of the Year award and are in contention for a spot in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI 2009. How did it feel to get the news?
It was really satisfying. However much you feel it might happen, when you hear the news of something like that it gives you a real sense of achievement. It’s very rewarding to know that you’re earning people’s respect.
As far as clinching a seat on the plane for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ is concerned, does playing for a European giant and appearing on lists like this give you an edge?
Dunga knows what my qualities are, he knows what I can do. Of course everything I do at Juventus might have a greater weight than what I’ve done in the past, but I’m sure he knows what I’ve got to offer.
On that note, do you think that you’ve been given enough opportunities to show your worth to the Seleção?
Listen, I think that I’ve tried to take full advantage of every opportunity I’ve been given, such as at the Olympic Games, even though we didn’t end up taking the title. I never felt like I’d let myself down. I feel like I’ve had some positive spells with the Seleção, working under both [Carlos Alberto] Parreira and Dunga for a good length of time. If you want to get in the national squad you must never stop working hard and being professional, and then wait and see what happens.
It is unusual to see a player like you nowadays, by which I mean a creative No10 in the traditional mould. Is the position in danger of being frozen out of the modern game? Will players with your attributes have to play as a striker or withdrawn forward in future?
I don’t think so! You can always find a space, especially when you’re a good, technically proficient player and in good physical shape. That position will never die out altogether, players will always get an opportunity. Nowadays, if you want to play in this role you need to think quickly and already know what you’re going to do with the ball even before you receive it. You need to have a good touch and seek out the spaces created by your attackers and understand their movements, both when creating and taking chances.
Who did you base your game on as a child? Which are the players you most admire in today’s game?
I’ve been to loads of games since I was little and there are a number of players that I admired, such as Rai or Ronaldo. But I never based my career or my style of play on any one player. I’ve always tried to develop my own style, by training hard and honing my skills. As far as today’s football is concerned, there are a lot of good players around, not just in my position, but I have to say that [Lionel] Messi is in truly great form at the moment.