Although his slender physique might suggest otherwise, Angel Di Maria possesses strength in abundance, as he has demonstrated in overcoming the many challenges life has thrown at him. These included his long struggle for a place in the national youth teams, which he finally nailed down with impressive goals and runs, and dealing with the complications arising from the 2013 birth of his daughter Mia, who was three months premature.
“What happened with Mia changed my life. Now, I don’t sweat the small stuff, just the things that really matter. I’m much stronger because of it and have grown as a man and a person,” he told FIFA.com. Through sheer determination, the player nicknamed Fideo (The Noodle) for his skinny physique wowed everyone in 2014, when he swapped the white of Real Madrid for the red of Manchester United and was named in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI by his peers. “It was a real surprise. For years, I’ve wanted to be part of the [Ballon d’Or] Gala. It still hasn’t sunk in,” he admitted.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the Rosario native chatted about Brazil 2014, leaving Real Madrid, playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and a dream he still harbours.
FIFA.com: In 2014 you helped Real Madrid become European champions for the tenth time but then had to leave the club. With Argentina you reached the Final of the FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil but missed their last two games because of injury. On balance, would you say it was a bittersweet 12 months?
Angel Di Maria: No, no… I’m very happy about what happened. Aside from injuries, which can afflict anyone, I achieved big things, like winning la décima with Madrid and helping Argentina reach the World Cup Final after many years. Then there was how we got there – showing immense desire and bravery with a spectacular group of players. It was well deserved and I was more than satisfied with what we accomplished.
If you had to single out one moment from 2014, what would it be and why?
It might sound strange but it’d be reaching the World Cup Final. It’s something I never thought I’d be part of, even as a boy. And although I couldn’t play, it was still the most beautiful moment of my career.
When you picked up that injury against Belgium, did you realise immediately how serious it was?
Yes, I knew it might be a bad one from the pain. I was on a run and accelerating past the defender and about to break clear. That’s when I felt the pain. However, I have great faith and believed I’d be able to play again, and I did everything in my power to be fit for the Final. But football’s like that. It can put you out of the World Cup, and it can also give you a chance to make amends. Hopefully I’ll get that opportunity.
Have you watched those World Cup games since?
No, I try not to watch them. (laughs)
Not even your goal against Switzerland?
That one, yes. From time to time I watch some clips on YouTube, though it’s mostly ones featuring the fans. When you’re actually part of a World Cup, you don’t see any of what’s going on outside, where many wonderful things happen. I heard bits from my family about the sheer numbers who were travelling and how committed they were. You don’t see all that, which is why it’s nice to watch it now and remember it in a different way. We’d have loved to have given all our compatriots the ultimate celebration and taken the final step, and hopefully one day we will.
Have you ever wondered what might have happened if you’d played in that Final?
No, because I firmly believe things happen for a reason. If it was God’s will that I didn’t play in that final, then it’s because I wasn’t meant to be there. The players that started gave absolutely everything. We had every chance of winning that game and many scoring opportunities, but the ball just wouldn’t go in. They had two chances: one hit the post and the other went in. That’s football for you.
But tactically, against a side with such a high defensive line as Germany, a player with your skills might have found the gaps?
Yes, you could think that way after seeing how the game panned out. Both el Pocho [Ezequiel Lavezzi] and Leo [Messi] went at them at pace and got the better of them. I think it would have been a different game with someone in my role. I had a good understanding with Leo throughout the World Cup, but that’s football and God didn’t intend it to be.
2014 was also the year you said goodbye to Real Madrid. What’s your assessment of that chapter now?
Well, I did everything asked of me: I won the Super Cup, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League and the Spanish league. I won every title except the Club World Cup, as I’d already left the club by then. I’d been there four years and the time had come for a change. I really wanted to play in the Premier League, which I’d been watching since I was a youngster every Saturday or Sunday before I’d go and play for Rosario Central. It was always a dream and goal of mine to try out in English football.
Football aside, how are you getting on in England?
Very well. The weather is the only thing… it doesn’t help a lot. (laughs). But I’m very content here. The people have a lot of affection for me, which is the most important thing. It’s what I value most, and I have that here.
How are you progressing with the language?
More like regressing! (laughs). It’s very bad. [I’ve learned] very little and only understand a small bit. That said, I’m trying to learn it bit by bit and I’m taking classes. Hopefully I’ll pick it up quickly.
You’re one of the few to have been long-time team-mates of both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Do you tire of people asking you to compare them?
No, because I always say the same thing: that they’re two completely different players. Leo features in every game, making short bursts and nonchalantly dribbling past one, two or three players with great ball control in tight spaces. Cristiano is more about power, long range shots… they’re different. If I were FIFA, I’d have two Ballon d’Or prizes, one for that pair to fight over, and another for everyone else.
There’s been a lot of talk about Messi of late, even rumours that he’d consider a move to Chelsea. As someone who spent time working with Jose Mourinho, could you see them together?
In principle, I don’t think Leo wants to leave Barcelona. It’s hard to walk away from a club that’s given you everything, where you effectively grew up. But to answer your question, no I don’t think he’d have any problem working with Mourinho. (laughs)
For your part, you’ve played for Real Madrid and now Manchester United. Is there anywhere else you’d like to play one day?
The next step will be to return to Rosario Central, another giant of the game! (laughs). Truth be told, I’ve played for Europe’s biggest clubs, competed in two World Cups and won the Champions League. I represented Real Madrid and before that was with Benfica, which, while a slightly smaller club than Madrid, is a giant of Portuguese football. Now I’m with another massive club in Manchester United. When I finish here, I think it might be time to return to Argentina. Hopefully that happens.
Finally, is winning the 2015 Copa America your top goal this year?
Hopefully we can manage it as I’d love to win something with the full national team. I’ve won an Olympic title and an U-20 World Cup, but it’d be really special to round things off with a Copa title with the seniors. It’s hard, though, as there are many strong teams at present, including Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay, who fight every step of the way. It’s a tall order but hopefully things go well for us and we can finally give Argentina reason to celebrate.