Interviews

Interview: Pablo Zabaleta on Oasis, missing Manchester’s rain and learning English from Corrie

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At this point, we inform him of a video on YouTube, which shows Noel singing Zabaleta’s terrace chant – ‘Pablo Zabaleta, he is the f***ing man, he is an Argentinian, he’s harder than Jaap Stam.’ It’s the first time he’s heard of it but he looks pleased, which is unsurprising given his taste in music that mirrors Manchester’s musical identity.

There is no better place to watch that type of music than in England. The greatest bands come from this country – you can smell rock and roll in every city

- Pablo Zabaleta

“Argentina is a country that loves rock and roll music and I love it,” he adds. “There is no better place to watch that type of music than in England. The greatest bands come from this country – you can smell rock and roll in every city that you visit. That’s one of the reasons I love Manchester, because it’s a part of the culture here.

“Queen are probably my favourite band. When I was growing up, Freddie Mercury and Brian May were my idols – I loved their music. I like AC/DC and the Rolling Stones, too. Around a year or so ago I went to the Palace Theatre to watch Status Quo and was lucky enough to go and meet with them before the gig.

Zabaleta delivers a burst of the Quo

“I’m a big fan of bands who have been together for such a long time. I love that they still have that same passion to perform and make the same sort of music that they had when they were young. If I ever get any time off, then I love going to gigs.”

Like many of his favourite bands, the 32-year-old has become used to life on the road. Pablo Javier Zabaleta Girod was born on January 16, 1985 in Arrecifes, a small, sleepy town on the outskirts of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, with a population of around 27,000.

Leaving home at 12

The eldest of four brothers, he packed his bags and left the family home at the age of 12 to join the academy of Primera Division side San Lorenzo. He lived in a village close to the club’s Pedro Bidegain stadium, which housed between 40 and 50 young boys who had come from outside of the city.

“I had to mature very quickly,” he reflects. “We had to clean senior players’ boots and do chores for them. I had no parents or family by my side and it was a different place where I was now surrounded by different people, but inside I knew that I had to follow my dream.

When you sign your first contract you see players who say, ‘I want to buy this flashy car or this watch’ but mentally you have stay focused on your football

- Pablo Zabaleta

“In life, at some point you have to make big decisions, and for me that happened at a young age. Today, I see youngsters who are 12 and 13 at Man City and I will think to myself, ‘Wow, I was so young when I made that decision to move away.’ Maybe it was crazy but it’s worked out pretty well.

“My decision-making skills got a lot better because I had more responsibilities. When you sign your first contract you see players who say, ‘I want to buy this flashy car or this watch’ but mentally you have stay focused on your football. I made decisions for myself from such a young age and that’s helped me to stay grounded during my career.”

A teenage Zabaleta celebrating a goal for Argentina against Brazil in an U20 international

One of those big decisions was to leave his homeland and move to Europe in 2003 aged 19, four years after his mother passed away, when he signed for La Liga outfit Espanyol. Thirteen years have now passed since he was a resident of his native Argentina, but Manchester, he explains, provides him with a permanent reminder of home.

“There are definitely similarities between Argentinian and English people,” he says. “From my point of view, I can see that the two countries have the same passion for everything in terms of sport and going to watch football games. The passion of the people and the way that we all enjoy the game is the exact same for both.

“Whenever there’s a football match in Manchester, the whole weekend is built around the game for the people here. You will see fans enjoying themselves maybe two or three hours before the kick-off – it is a social occasion. People will drink before the match and then have a few pints after, too – it’s the same in Argentina.”

Look in at the local

Pubs - if not pints – offered an important escape in Pablo’s early days in Manchester. Zabaleta moved into the leafy suburb of Didsbury, an area popular with the city’s young professionals. It’s situated around 20 minutes away from the club’s Etihad Stadium and a safe enough distance to resist the temptations of the city centre.

I’d visit a fishmonger on the corner of my street two or three times every week, which was owned by a Man City supporter

- Pablo Zabaleta

“Didsbury was a great area to live,” he recalls. “It was close to our old training ground at Carrington and not far from Manchester Airport. And it’s near to the Trafford Centre too, which my girlfriend enjoyed when she flew over at weekends!

“I’d visit a fishmonger on the corner of my street two or three times every week, which was owned by a Man City supporter. There was also a pub across the road from my apartment called The Barleycorn. It’s a restaurant now, but back then it was a typical old-fashioned English pub. I would go in there most days to play pool and watch football on television. Me and my girlfriend had many happy times there.”