He has played in a European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid, the team who owned him, before 78,000 at the Bernabéu; in consecutive Champions League finals, against Barcelona in front of 70,000 at the Olympic Stadium, Berlin and against Atlético Madrid in front of 61,000 Lisbon; and at the Stade de France, Paris, standing before 76,000 fans and the men who warned him to wear a helmet.
But Álvaro Morata says he was most scared the night he stood in front of barely 1,000 people at the Teatro Calderón, Madrid – even though, that night, everyone was on his side.
During a show conducted by the magician Antonio Díaz – “El Mago Pop” – Morata was called on stage with his girlfriend, Alice Campello. Díaz made Alice face one side of the stage, telling her: “This’ll be the best trick you’ve ever seen.” She turned back to find Morata on one knee, ring in hand. “I was more nervous that day than any other,” he says. “When you’re taken away from your pitch, your territory, the nerves are greater.”
There is something in that line, coming from a 24-year-old in whom some have seen vulnerability even on his territory and who talks honestly about pressure, insecurity and fallibility. Morata engages with the psychology of football in a quiet, considered voice, expressing a simple but often forgotten fact: players are people too. Sitting at Spain’s Las Rozas HQ, gently pulling the cuffs of his training top, Morata discusses talent and ambition success too, but conversation also drifts to the dark side, to frustration and uncertainty, the bad times to be overcome. Which is where Alice comes in.
Morata had joined Juventus from Madrid for €20m, aged 20 (signed by Antonio Conte, who left the same summer to manage Italy). He won the double in his first season as well as scoring in both legs of the semi-final and again in the final as Juventus finished runners-up in the Champions League. But in his second season, he was struggling, 100 days passing without a goal and he had tried everything, from cutting his hair to changing car. Things were not right; he wasn’t right. “People think we’re machines; they don’t realise that behind a bad run there’s almost always a personal problem, some family issue,” he says. “You have feelings, you make mistakes, you’re a person.”
“I was a bit lost. It wasn’t just the goals; I was arguing with people who are important to me, not bothering with things that truly matter,” Morata continues. “It was a bit of everything. I’d left home young, I’d fought to play for Juventus and I was ‘conditioned’ by Madrid, having a buy-back option that didn’t depend on me. I didn’t know my future. All that affected me and I let myself slide a bit, became distracted.”
Morata was down, his mood impacting his play. It did not go unnoticed. “I’d just finished training one day. It had been a terrible, terrible session – one of the worst in my life. I couldn’t even control the ball. The physio asked what was wrong and I told him I was sad. I was crying. I was there on the treatment table and Gigi Buffon was next to me. Afterwards he took me aside, alone, and said that if I wanted to cry, do it at home. He said the people who wished me ill would be happy to see that and the people who wished me well would be saddened by it.”
“I was lucky: I met Alice and my life changed. We’re going to get married. Thanks to her – you never know what might have happened had she not come along – and to me too, I got back on track, felt important, scored goals. Now I’m better prepared to play at the highest level. I feel that more with every passing day.”
Buffon always thought he could, claiming Morata had everything to be among the world’s best “if only he could get over his mental hang-ups”. Morata describes the 39-year-old goalkeeper, who recently played his 1,000th game, as like a father, the gratitude palpable, and insists Buffon sought to protect and toughen him. He also believes this was not about enemies within, but opponents detecting weakness on the pitch, admitting: “They could see my head go down in games.” Yet hearing the conversation recalled, it’s difficult not to be drawn to it. And if Morata moved beyond those dark days, some of the issues remain.
Buffon’s advice paints stark, a harsh portrait. Is football so unforgiving, weakness so preyed upon? Was Morata especially vulnerable? Is he? Alice arrived and he says he has matured but talking to him, sensitivity shows. That experience, a realisation of football’s realities, make him even more interesting company. Morata is intelligent, introspective, unusually willing to discuss aspects of the game that are not just the game – and which he believes have impacted his career.
Football is not exactly as he imagined it, he admits; life isn’t. “The good things are incredible, better than you ever imagined – scoring a goal at the Bernabéu, or in the Champions League; the bad are harder.” The work, sacrifice, the exposure. A short career, which may be no bad thing: “Thirty, 40 years like this and some people would go mad.
“ Sometimes I go home, put the game on and think: ‘How can I miss that?’ It affects you; it also affects you to know your career also depends on the opinion of journalists, fans, directors, and sometimes they’re not really qualified to judge. In my position, what matters is goals. ‘Did he score? No? Una mierda de partido [a shit game].’ They don’t know the movement, everything you’ve done. Your life can change in a moment, depending if the ball goes in. In a week, I went from people shouting, ‘Leave Madrid!’ to scoring against Sporting and then, ‘Hey, saviour!’ You can’t think you’re God when you score an important goal or the worst player around when its going badly.”
The balance is not so easily found, the doubts so easily dispelled or control taken back, and there’s a touch of sadness as Morata talks about a sport where “there are even players who sell their rights to investment funds, just pieces in a puzzle with no voice and no vote, [where] the sentiment football always had is lost a bit. It’s marketing, contracts … footballers are more like singers or rock stars than sportsmen with feelings or belonging, a love of the colours. Before, a club wanted to sign a player and said: ‘This guy scored 20 goals, he plays well.’ Now, they look at sales.”
“But,” he says, “when the ball starts to roll, that rescues everything. Thankfully – because if not, it would be more of a business than a sport.”
It remains a business, though. For Morata, life improved: Alice appeared and goals came, his head cleared. But uncertainty remained and opportunities decreased, contracts intervening: he had gone to Juventus but Madrid had him “tied down”. “In the first season at Juventus, Madrid told them well before the end they weren’t going to sign me back,” Morata says. “They wanted me to stay, and I played almost every game. After that …”
After that, Juventus knew Madrid would probably pay the clause and Morata’s involvement dropped – partly a tactic to keep him, convincing Madrid he was not worth that much; part preparation for a future without him – and there was nothing he could do. Small wonder he challenges the assumption that players go where they want, swiftly interrupting: “Far from it.” The portrait he paints is, by contrast, one of a powerlessness that is taken to the pitch. At Euro 2016, for example, when he was still theoretically a Juventus player, phone calls were constant and he says it was difficult to focus on football not knowing his future.
“That first game, I had lots of chances [that I missed], I wasn’t resting, things went around my head…” he says. “Eventually, I said: ‘don’t tell me anything, I don’t want to know’. And that’s when I started to score. If we hadn’t been knocked out so soon – and Italy were the only opponents who could knock us out – maybe we’d have won it, maybe I’d have been top scorer.”
Many of the calls came from England. “Various Premier League coaches called to tell me to play for them. I said yeah, I’d like to, that if I had to leave I would almost certainly go to London, but that I didn’t know what Madrid would do. I knew they’d bring me back but I didn’t know if it was to keep me or sell me. I spoke directly to Mauricio Pochettino and Antonio Conte, although the norm is clubs call my dad or agent. Madrid said they didn’t want to sell, so here I am.” Chelsea had offered €60m and Conte made a particular impression. “I remember talking to my dad then and him saying: ‘This guy’s going to win the league there,’” Morata says. His dad was right.
Back in Madrid, Morata may win the league too. Madrid are three points clear with a game in hand. There is hope in the Champions League as well, despite facing Bayern Munich, the team everyone wanted to avoid. Well, almost everyone: the team Morata did not want was Juventus. “No, no, no. I didn’t want them at all,” he says. “It’s very hard to play them; tactically, they’re great. People will think: ‘Better than Bayern? Is he mad?’ But for our style, I think so. Juve are a great team. Up front, they’re flying.”
If he is not flying too, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that he feels his wings have been clipped. His third final in four years remains a possibility, hugely impressive for a 24-year-old or indeed any player, and he already has 10 winners’ medals, including a European Cup and two doubles – the second clinched with an extra-time winner in the Coppa Italia final – and yet he cannot escape that nagging feeling he is yet to really make it, that he could do more – if only he was given a chance.
Buffon once said Morata was a better player than he realised, and asked if he realises it now the striker replies: “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. I have that desire 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.”
Last week Morata scored a hat-trick at Leganés, taking him to 11 league goals. In Europe he has scored three. The problem is those have come in 1,000 minutes and 162 minutes respectively. He has started only 10 times in the league, once in the Champions League – away at Legia Warsaw. He knows Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo stand ahead of him. He also knows there may be attackers among the summer signings.
Morata may be only 24 but he made his debut in 2010 and he admits that, despite the trophies, the 27 goals at Juventus, 27 more at Madrid, he is yet to definitively take off. “I made my debut young with José Mourinho, but if you wait two more years you’re not so young: it’s seven years now. I have to take off now. I have to play every Sunday, but that doesn’t only depend on me.”
So, what if the phone goes again, the Premier League on the line? If Chelsea call back? If the season ends with no sign of change will he decide he needs to go? “I can say that, but …” he starts. He knows they may not listen. “I’m very happy at Madrid and they support me,” he says. “But if an offer like that came again and they want to sell, I shouldn’t close doors. I loved Italy but if one day I have to leave, I’m sure it will be to the Premier League.”
It is not just the league, the country, it is something else, too: a thread that runs through the conversation is confidence, the need to feel needed, appreciated, secure. “Conte is the manager who most ‘bet’ on me, without even ever having had me in his team,” Morata says. “I’m very conscious of that: he bet on me for Juventus but left before I arrived; then he wanted me at Chelsea come what may. He knows me better than I could imagine, I’m sure, and that’s important: it motivates you to work hard, train well.
“I feel indebted to him because he’s the coach that most trusted in me, most wanted me, who made me feel I could perform at the highest level. And yet I’ve never had the fortune to actually work with him. I’m sure sooner or later I will. The future excites me, whether that’s Madrid or somewhere else. I still have to learn, improve. I can do a lot but I need to play more and for someone to really back me. Either I take off or I end up in a position of comfort, playing games occasionally. I’m no longer the youngest, I’m 24, it’s a big moment.”