London- Álvaro Morata is very nice. A buenaco (roughly, a lovely bloke), in the words of Diego Mariño, who played with him for Spain’s European Under-21 champions in 2013. There is, Mariño says, “no malice” to Chelsea’s new striker and talking to those who know him, the fondness is clear, almost overwhelming – even if Fernando Pacheco, a team-mate in the youth system at Real Madrid and for Spain, says he’s a “pain in the arse” to share a room with. And rubbish at PlayStation. A coach at Atlético Madrid, where Morata began aged 11, says: “He has a special aura; I have a huge amount of affection for him.”
Talking to Morata, you see it: thoughtful, open, sensitive, there’s something almost gentle about him. And that, some think, might be a problem. “Sometimes in football you have to be more of a bastard and he’s not,” Mariño says. “Maybe that ‘kills’ him in people’s minds, but in the end, it comes down to football … and Álvaro does everything well.” Yet if, as Mariño suggests, image and reality are not the same, if bad-guy-as-a-good-thing is a bit of a myth, others have urged him to be nastier – including those who love him most. Gigi Buffon advised him not to let people see him cry, for a start, telling him not to allow the world to see weaknesses or its pressures to permeate his skin.
“I told him, joking, he had everything a striker needs if he could get over his mental hang-ups. I told him if he stopped feeling sorry for himself he could be a match-winner,” Buffon said last summer. The Juventus goalkeeper was half-joking, insisting he was pleased Morata, emerging from his difficulties in Turin more mature, was “proving” that very striker, but there might still be a little something in that. Spain’s coach Julen Lopetegui told Morata he needed more mala leche, or bad milk: aggression, toughness, edge.
Belief, too. Lopetegui also told him: “You’re better than you think.” Buffon had said much the same. “Morata’s still a young man and not even he’s aware just how good he is at times,” the Italian said. “He has the gift that only the top players have.”
Morata was always good, although growing up he might have been better at tennis, but his path in the game has not always been a clear one. He might not always have believed, but he has battled; this was not easy. Football obsessed and with a thing for boots – he spent hours gazing at them in the sports shop Decathlon as a kid and years spent collecting them as a pro – and an alarming knowledge of every player everywhere, Morata soon stood out, scoring absurd amounts of goals. One season as a benjamín, an under-seven, he scored 120. “He could do things kids five years older couldn’t,” recalled one teacher.
Most years his school, El Prado in Mirasierra in the north of the capital, reached the Comunidad de Madrid regional finals held at Cotorruelo in the south. There, they would be the only school, facing Real Madrid, Atlético and Rayo Vallecano and stands full of scouts. They invariably lost but Morata got noticed. The first time Real came for him, his family would not let him go because his grades were not good and they thought it better just to enjoy playing. He joined Atlético, the club his grandfather Ignacio supports, but enjoyment ebbed away. It wasn’t for him. He left and played for Zona Norte, a local club, then Getafe, aged 14, then Real Madrid. This was more serious now, more professional.
By then he had shot up. He had always been a fast, scurrying striker, and tiny too. Somewhere, he still has a photo of him with Fernando Torres, barely reaching his waist. In the next picture he has of them together, while Morata was tour in Los Angeles with Real Madrid aged 17 and Torres was there with Chelsea, he is the taller of the two. It happened late, but it happened fast, and it set him back. As the growth spurt began at 14, his playing style was left behind: he still took small steps, as if his legs had not grown. So, work began lengthening his stride, rings laid on the floor, elastic cords tying him to the post, pushed all the way.
Goals continued, international football followed: he was champion and top scorer at the Euros at under-19 and under-21 level. “He’s always been a great player, with huge talent,” says Jonás Ramalho, a Spain team-mate then playing for Athletic Bilbao. “Well, he was at Madrid.” For development, there are few places better, but there are drawbacks too. Madrid meant progress and experience, especially with the now-disbanded C team which played in tercera, Spain’s fourth tier, and then Castilla, the B team of players with whom he won promotion to the second division. Naturally enough, it also meant barriers. The final step was the hardest. And for him to believe in himself, he needs others to believe in him.
José Mourinho took him on a pre-season tour to Los Angeles when he was 17 and there was a connection there, but he had the best players in the world standing before him. Seven years have passed since then and by last spring, he had grown a lot: he was older and Italy had been an education. But he did not hide that he had also grown frustrated, a little impatient at limited opportunities. He had fought, but come up against a ceiling.
Players are people too and for a time he had struggled in Italy. He talked with remarkable honesty about how Alice, whom he married this summer, had helped him come through that – how Buffon and his team-mates in Turin had done so too. But that did not resolve everything. He had also seen football from the inside and it was not always to his liking: there were elements that escaped him, the game was not just about the game, and he also talked about how players do not always control their own destiny. “Qué va!”, he said; hardly! Madrid had an option to buy him back, which they communicated to Juventus last year, midway through his second season, meaning that the Italians’ priorities lay elsewhere. Their hands were tied, which meant his were, too.
He did not know what plans Madrid had for him and the uncertainty affected him. Would they exercise the clause and then sell him? It would be their choice, not his. As it was, last summer they turned down a €60m bid from Chelsea and decided to keep him. Morata was told he would have opportunities, but they were fewer than he hoped. Madrid rotated and he was the team’s second top scorer with 20 last season, some of the goals hugely important. He had a better goals-per-minute ratio than everyone in Spain after Lionel Messi but when the big games came, he played little part: just 25 minutes from the quarter-final of the Champions League.
Asked if he is surprised that Morata has been handed the opportunity to go to the Premier League, a £65m signing, Mariño says: “No. What surprises me is that he didn’t play more at Madrid. He is a No9 who has it all. Even with what he has ahead of him – and it’s a lot – he could have played a much bigger role. They’re fantastic but every time he came on he produced. He has to play; every time he did, he proved himself.”
Morata had come to feel something similar. He felt there was a wall standing before him and he thought it was about to get higher: there would be further star signings. Rightly or wrongly, privately the suspicion grew that some decisions were not just about football. Status was not solely gained on the pitch. Publicly, he admitted that he needed more. Asked if he now believed that he was the player that Buffon had said he could be, he replied: “Yes, but I need games as a starter, continuity, and over the last three years I haven’t had that: at Juventus, for certain reasons, and at Madrid its difficult.”
He added: “I want to start more, then I think I can reach a much higher level. It’s difficult to play 10 minutes one game, then 20 another, then two weeks later play again. It’s a difficult situation you have to live with until, one day, it changes.” He was determined that it must. At 24, he has scored more than 100 goals and has won 14 titles, including two Doubles at Juventus and two Champions Leagues with Madrid, but it was not enough; he felt he still had to “take that step”, to be genuinely established. At 24, he was young; wait any longer, though, and he wouldn’t be. Just about to get married, the time was also right to start afresh somewhere else. “I have to play every Sunday,” he said. “But that doesn’t only depend on me.”
England is that opportunity he wanted. The Premier League should suit him perfectly, says Pacheco. “He is direct, quick, and that fits England,” Ramalho adds. Above all because he will get the chance, says Mariño. “At Real Madrid there are untouchable players and it was hard for him as he didn’t have that status,” he insists. “Now he will get opportunities and he has to prove he deserves it. He might not be the best striker in the world [yet], but he can be: he can’t sit on a bench. And as for being more of a bastard, maybe that will come out, but he’ll have the drive anyway: he’ll want to show people, prove himself.
“I admit I’m biased when it comes to Álvaro: I’ve always liked him, all the more so when I shared a dressing room with him, and I’m really pleased for him. English football should suit him because he is a No9 that does everything well, he can play in every style. He scores goals but it is not just that, it’s: combine, battle, associate, link up, good feet, good in the air, strong. I watch a lot of English football and you can see he’ll fit in. He adapted to Spain, to Italy, why shouldn’t he adapt to England?”
On the face of it, he should. Morata had been open about the attraction, convinced he would end up there one day.
At the start of the summer, he had expected to end up at Old Trafford with Mourinho, the man who had sent him a text message when he won the title with Juve saying it didn’t count until he had won it in three countries. But when that deal fell through – Manchester United and Real Madrid could not complete a deal, his fate out of his hands once more – it was natural that Chelsea should come in for him. Stamford Bridge, which he visited on his first morning in London, was where he had originally expected to end up.
“I’m sure sooner or later I’ll work with Conte,” Morata had said three months before. “He’s the manager who has most ‘bet on me’ without even ever having had me in his team. That’s something I’m very conscious of. I feel indebted to him because he is the coach that most trusted in me, that made me feel that I could perform at the highest level, to my very best, and yet I have never had the good fortune to actually work with him.” He is also the manager who promised Morata that he would make a beast of him.
The Guardian Sport