Ayala: I’ll always love Argentina
© AFP

It has not been an easy season for Roberto Fabian Ayala. After agreeing to join Villarreal in the summer of 2007, he promptly terminated his contract in order to move to Real Zaragoza. And the Argentinian defender had good cause to ponder what might have been when Los Maños slid out of the Spanish top flight while the Yellow Submarines took second place behind Real Madrid. The unexpected relegation forced the former River Plate, AC Milan and Valencia centre-half to take stock of his career and decide whether to help Zaragoza regain their place in the Spanish elite or move on once more.

On the international front, the 35-year-old announced his retirement from Argentina duty following the 3-0 defeat by Brazil in the Copa America 2007 final. Not surprisingly for someone who won 115 caps for his country, the man they call ElRatón (The Mouse) admits to feeling a little nostalgic whenever the Albiceleste run out now, but as he explains in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, he is sticking firmly by his decision to focus on club football.

FIFA.com: Roberto, you have just experienced the disappointment of relegation to the second division with Zaragoza. What went wrong?
Roberto Ayala:
It's a tough question, one that I've been asked a few times already. Relegation is one of those things that happen in football, although the fact is we never really gelled as a team. We went through a few coaches too and the players didn't perform as well as we should have. When you finish off the season like that there always have to be a few factors involved.

Where you would like to finish your career?
I honestly haven't thought about it yet. I'm very happy in Spain and the quality of life is great here. It's a fantastic league, very competitive, but you always feel the pull of home. I'd like to go back but it all depends on how things end up. I don't like making long-term plans because you never know what might happen.

Many players who have spent a lot of time in Europe decide to stay there for good but what about you? Do you think you will go back to Argentina or stay in Spain?
Right now things are a lot more stable in Spain than they are in Argentina and I have to think about my children. If someone tells me tomorrow that my career is over and I have to make a choice, then I would stay in Spain. It's difficult to go back these days and it's even harder when your children are born and grow up elsewhere, although we haven't forgotten our roots and we go back to Argentina twice a year. Their friends and their life are here, though, and they're very settled in this country.

You have pulled on a few jerseys in your career. Which one have you felt most passionately about?
(Pauses) All the teams I've played for have been special. I've had some good times and some not so good times, but I can honestly say I've got positive feelings about all of them. All the experiences I've been through have helped me grow both as a player - which is what you aim for as a professional - and on a personal and cultural level. It would be difficult to choose one team over the rest.

What about representing your country? How important has that been in your life?
It's a love that never dies. I wore the jersey in friendlies, World Cup matches, Copa America games etc and although I never won a major trophy, I fulfilled my dream of playing and forming part of the team and that's what's important. Now I've retired I have to support the jersey and show my love for it from the outside. I have to support my team-mates so they can win the World Cup or the Copa America and make the whole country happy.

Do you feel nostalgic when you see the team in action?
Yes, of course I do, a lot. Sometimes, though, you have to make decisions. It was tough but it was my decision and I'm happy with it. I knew what was ahead of me and that I had to perform with my club because I was going into what I knew could be the last three years of my career. I wanted to perform as well as I could and playing for my country would have taken a lot out of me.

So there is nothing that would make you change your mind.
No, not now. I half jokingly said that if [Diego] Maradona asked me to, I'd go back. But that was just a chat among friends. I've made my decision and out of respect for myself and the guys that are playing in that position I'll stick by it.

Martin Demichelis is playing in your place now. How well do you think he is doing?
He's doing a great job but it's a position in which he's going to have a lot of competition because there are a lot of very good players who are anxious to build a career for themselves.

What advice would a man of your experience give to other centre-halves?
Aside for the individual qualities you need to have, a central defender has to be able to read games well and position their team-mates properly: his partner, the full backs, central midfielders. You need to make sure you've got the connections right because if you get things right at the back that makes the team much more solid. Centre-halves get a great view of the game and you have to make the most of that.

One of the most memorable experiences you had with the Albiceleste was winning the gold medal in Athens. With the Olympics just around the corner again, what memories do you have of that?
It's a wonderful memory because Argentina had never won a gold medal. As a footballer you always want to win major competitions to make a little history and winning the Olympics is something I'm very proud of. It was a unique experience.

What is so special about the Men's Olympic Football Tournament?
It's an amateur event and that makes it special in itself. Football is a heavily marketed sport but when you go there you meet young people who aren't stars and who've dedicated their lives to competing. We fight every year for trophies and titles and because of that you forget how important it is to actually win. They remind you of all that and the sacrifice that winning involves. To me they're an example of the love people have for sport.

Do you think the generation of Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero can defend the title you won in Athens?
Of course they can, but they need to go out there and show it. We were favourites in 2002 as well but we got knocked out in the group phase. With the players and the history we have we can win it again but when you're there you have to go out and prove it. There are some strong sides and they all want to beat you.

Can these new talents kick on and make history at South Africa 2010? We lost in the quarter-finals in Germany and now we've got to clear that hurdle. These youngsters need to develop really quickly to make an impression there. They are big names with their clubs and that's what they need to be for the national team too.

Why have Argentina failed to win anything in recent years?
If we knew what the problem was, we'd be winning things. I really don't know. There's always a different reason in each competition. We play an awful lot of games these days and when we get to major tournaments I'm not sure we're as fresh as we need to be to play well. Argentinian players want to play in every single game. They don't pick and choose. That's just the way they are and the way they feel about the game. But when you arrive at the World Cup and the Copa America you pay for it because you're not in the best condition.

How do you think Alfio Basile is doing as national coach?
El Coco is Argentina through and through. He's been here before and won things. He always knows what players need and as well as being a tactician, he's a psychologist who gets the very best out of players.

And will we see Ayala coaching one day?
I really don't think so. Us footballers are a special breed and I don't know if I've got the character or the courage to be in charge of a team. I love football but right now I can't see myself as a coach. I'd like to stay in the game and I'm sure I'll find something else.