Roberto Ayala needs no introduction. The elegant centre-back went to three FIFA World Cups™ with Argentina, played for some of Europe's top clubs for 15 years, and captained his country to gold at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004.
However, the man who now plies his trade back in his homeland with Racing Club has a much more personal story to tell; one which goes beyond his glittering achievements in the game. It is a story that starts in his hometown, Entre Rios, where he started out in the local league playing alongside his father. It is also a story of individual challenges, as the man who was to go on to star for the likes of AC Milan and Valencia, and became a father at the tender age of 16.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the man known as El Raton (The Mouse) spoke frankly about his career, family life and views on South America's latest crop of talented youngsters. Also on the agenda was his country’s South Africa 2010 campaign and his plans for the future.
FIFA.com: Roberto, you have just come back to Argentinian football after 15 years in Europe. Have things changed much?
Roberto Ayala: There have been some big changes, in the country as a whole and also in football. It's hard to say whether they’re for better or for worse, but things do change and you have to adapt as you go along. As far as my football is concerned, I didn’t hit the ground running, shall we say. I hadn't trained for a while, and more preparation would have helped me. But I've got over that, and the most important thing is that Racing avoided the relegation play-offs in the last campaign.
Has the style of play changed much?
It has. Games are a lot quicker now. Apart from two or three teams who try to play the ball out from the back, most teams get it forward quickly, try to win possession from there, and build their attacks that way.
It seems as if Argentinian players always take a little bit longer than Brazilians to come back and play in their own country. Would you agree?
It could depend on circumstances. I'm not saying that this isn't the case with Argentinian players, but I think that Brazilians generally need to be in their own country more than we do. Don't take that the wrong way - personally I've always loved Argentinian football and I've always wanted to be where my heart is. But I think that often we stay longer in Europe because the clubs over there know that they're on to a good thing. Generally, Argentinian players give you a lot, and the more the clubs can get out of us, the better for them. Some players even get the chance to stay with clubs once they've finished playing, and they settle over there.
Talking of changes in the game, do you think young players nowadays are very different to previous generations?
It's not the same, of course. Nowadays, young players will join in with the banter with older players, something that would have been unthinkable even a short time ago. Before, when you started training with the first team, you kept yourself to yourself. That's not the case now, although they are still respectful. The youngsters at Racing are hard-working and respectful, but when you spend so much time together, things can crop up. Without going into detail, there were a few issues in my first month at the club, but the young players have always respected me.
Do you think young players are as committed as they once were to their careers?
It's a difficult situation for them. They want to go to Europe straightaway without paying their dues here. They should play more games here, which would be beneficial for them and for the clubs. It's important not to miss out on that stage of your development as a player.
You must be very aware of the challenges facing young footballers, seeing as you became a father at the age of 16. What was it like coping with that responsibility at such a young age?
It was hard, and more so because I was away. But that's what I had to do and I learned a lot. I think I coped pretty well, all things considered. My daughter is 20 now and she lives in Parana with her mother. We didn't have that day-to-day contact when she was growing up, but things just turned out that way.
With one 20-year-old daughter, and three younger ones, would you describe yourself as a protective father?
No, no... to be honest, I don't even think about it. As long as people respect them, I'm happy!
You're 37 now. Looking back, which would you say is more difficult: playing top-level football for 20 years or being a father to five children?
Being a father (laughs)! Football is about looking after yourself and being disciplined. Being a father changes every day and you're constantly under pressure, especially if you want to give them a good upbringing and make sure that they grow up with the right values. That's the hardest thing. And I'm still learning. As they grow up, I'm still learning.
Your son Francisco is 13. Are we likely to see another Ayala making his way in the game?
He's mad about football! He loves it. He wants me to take him for trials at a club, but the most important thing for me is for him to do well at school. Football is like a reward. Saying that, he's a good player and we will try to get him started with a club in December. He likes to play in midfield. I didn't really encourage him but he got into it himself with the help of his grandfather, although it was always going to happen, I suppose, because he grew up surrounded by football.
You played in both Italy and Spain. What differences did you notice between the two leagues?
I always say that playing in Italy helped me develop as a defender. It was almost like doing a Master's degree in defending! I'm very grateful to all of my clubs for what they gave me in my career. Spanish football is perhaps a bit more expansive, perhaps better to watch if you like that style of play. But I wouldn't say one is better than the other because I've learned a lot from both experiences.
As regards South Africa 2010, what was it like watching from the sidelines after 12 years in the national team?
It was very hard. You're always thinking like a player, what you would be doing before, during and after the games. Instead, you have to think differently, just look forward to the next game and getting together to watch it with friends and family. When you're with the team, you're completely cut off, in a little bubble and you don't really get to know what's going on elsewhere. As a fan, you get to see everything.
So would you say that the players don't realise how people see their performances back home?
Yes, totally. I understand things much more from a fan's point of view now, and how you need to listen and watch and feel everything that is going on with the national team. You want the cameras to make you feel part of things. When I was with the national team, even on days off, I just wanted to stay indoors and not be chased everywhere by the press. But as a player you have to realise that every little thing you say to the press can have huge repercussions for fans back home because during World Cups, Argentina comes to a standstill and all anybody wants to do is see the team play and admire our footballers.
In that context, would you have handled differently the problems that the Argentinians had with the press during France 98?
Yes, completely. But I put that down to experience. It wasn't good for anybody and it was a real pity that it happened. But we took a decision and stuck to it.
How do you think Argentina did in South Africa?
We are all still thinking about our final game (the quarter-final defeat by Germany). Apart from that fixture, however, Argentina played very well and with a lot of intelligence. I don't think we had any easy games and all of the teams we played were sides that we had to respect and then try to defeat. We did just that and the team played with authority and managed to impose its style of play on the opposition. Of course, the Germany game was the exception and we just couldn't get close to them.
There has been a lot of speculation about the identity of the new coach. Who is your favourite?
All of the names mentioned could definitely do the job. Miguel [Russo] is at Racing at the moment, and he has been doing a good job for a long time now. People have also mentioned [Carlos] Bianchi. The most important thing is to think about the type of team we want and stick to that through thick and thin. That's what we need.
Do you think Spain should be the model for Argentina?
You say that, but then Spain play the way they do because they have a team in their league who play in the same way: Barcelona. And because there are a lot of Barcelona players in the national team, that means that they can. Here it's harder. We've got world-class players who play all over the world and we don't quite manage to give the national team an identity. We need to go into games with the confidence that we can beat any team we come up against.
You were part of the same squad as Lionel Messi in the Copa America 2007. What kind of person is he?
He is exactly how you see him from the outside (smiles). Back then, he was still growing up, albeit at a frightening rate. He's quiet, keeps himself to himself, respectful. I suppose that as the years go by he's gaining in confidence. The thing is, it's difficult because that's his nature. Everybody wants him to be someone different, but that's how he is and you have to respect that.
And what are your hopes for the rest of your career?
I want to see out my contract, and then see how I am physically, whether I want to carry on playing and whether any opportunities come my way. Right now, I feel fine and I'm just training and hoping for the chance to play. If I can continue to do that, then we’ll see about the rest.
You once said that you didn't see yourself as a coach. Is that still the case?
Yes, of course. It's a very difficult job and I just don't think it's for me. I love football, I love playing and thinking about a game from a tactical point of view. But I don't see myself coaching. I haven't been bitten by the bug. In any case, there is plenty of time to think about that in the future. What I do know is that I want to work in football in some capacity. I would love to be able to put all of my experience to use in some way.