Interview: Pablo Zabaleta on Oasis, missing Manchester’s rain and learning English from Corrie
The girlfriend he frequently mentions in our chat became his wife in 2013. Zabaleta met Christel Castano – a journalist and model who spent a three-month spell working for the Manchester Evening News – during his time with Espanyol. The pair argued about tactics during their first date.
Aside from their love of football, they also share the same lust for adventure. After she had completed her journalism degree over in Barcelona, Christel joined him in Manchester on a permanent basis and they’ve continued their courtship by exploring every corner of the place they now call home.
“When I first came here, I would always go to Barcelona to visit Christel if I had two or three days off,” he admits. “But after she had moved to Manchester we said to each other, ‘Let’s try something different’ – because there are so many beautiful places to visit in the UK.
“We love travelling around England. It was one of the things we used to do all the time when we first arrived here. We went to York, Chester, Liverpool, Bath, London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Glasgow and the Lake District. We also went to Blackpool Illuminations once, but that was terrible!”
A quick scroll through Zabaleta’s Twitter feed also reveals a recent trip with Christel and their two-year-old son, Asier, to Tatton Park. The 1,000-acre Tudor estate has got a working farm in nearby Knutsford and attracts families from far and wide. He is also a regular at an Italian eatery called Rosanero in Macclesfield. “I’ve celebrated many happy moments there and become good friends with the owner.”
However, he doesn’t pretend to love every aspect of life in England. “I’m not a huge fan of English food, but I will have fish and chips every few months.” FFT also wonders what he thinks of the 140 days of rainfall that descend on Manchester every year – a climate which over the years has seen a plethora of South American players leave the Premier League in search of warmer climes.
I love playing games in the rainy weather when the ball runs fast on the pitch
“I have to be honest, look at the weather outside – I can’t pretend I like this,” he says, gesturing at the gloomy skies through the nearest window. “But this place has definitely changed me. When I go on holiday to Spain for a month in the summer with the family, or somewhere with more sunshine, I find that I miss all the rain in Manchester. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.
“I’ve been here for many years now. In terms of playing football in another country, like Spain, and training in a hot climate – I think I’d find that very hard. I love playing games in the rainy weather when the ball runs fast on the pitch. It’s good.”
Zabaleta’s ability to adapt to change perhaps explains why he has succeeded where many other South Americans have failed to settle in Manchester. Two of his old English classmates – Robinho and Elano – lasted just two years. Alongside captain Vincent Kompany and current Torino loanee Joe Hart, he is one of only three survivors from the side that he first joined back in August 2008.
“My commitment and loyalty has been there on and off the pitch from day one – that’s why I think I have lasted,” he explains. “At the beginning everything is new and you have to adapt to a new style of football and life off the pitch, which isn’t easy. Sometimes you struggle a bit, but for me I’m happy to still be here.
It’s been a big challenge every year to prove that I’m good enough to be here as big money and big players come to the club
“The Premier League was always my dream. It’s absolutely amazing. I thought, ‘Let’s go to England’ – Manchester City was a different club to what it is today but it’s still the same in many ways. It’s been a big challenge every year to prove that I’m good enough to be here as big money and big players come to the club.”
His strength of personality and willingness to embrace local life have endeared him to the club’s supporters, who treat him with the same level of affection normally reserved for players born within the city.
‘Be yourself, but if you can be Pablo Zabaleta, then always be Pablo Zabaleta,’ is a common quote posted by fans on social media. It’s clear that the fans have rubbed off on him, too.
“Manchester City is the club that is in Manchester,” he says with the certainty of a season ticket holder supping a pint down his local pub, while debating the merits of the city’s dominant football teams.
“I remember when I first came here I stayed in the Hilton hotel for three weeks and I saw many City shirts in the street. Everyone told me Manchester United was the biggest club but I saw the City shirts everywhere and the supporters would always come up to me and remind me, ‘Remember, Manchester is blue!’”
At 32, the next chapter of his life isn’t far away and his thoughts have already turned to the future. Retiring to a house in Barcelona with his wife and child is one option. Returning to Argentina to be closer to his family and particularly his father, who was involved in a serious car accident in 2011, is another. But a tale about his son Asier suggests the traveller may now have found a new home.
“Asier was born at St Mary’s hospital, and so he is a proper Manc!” Zabaleta concludes. “We could have had the birth in the sunshine somewhere, maybe in Spain or somewhere closer to family and friends, but we thought, ‘We have built so much here and lived in England for such a long time, let’s have the birth right here.’ I think that showed the love that I’ve got for this city.”
The city – well, the blue half – loves him back.
This feature originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of FourFourTwo. Subcribe!