'New objectives': Paulo Dybala isn't done climbing mountaintops

Paulo Dybala has been to soccer’s mountaintop, winning a World Cup with Argentina before his 30th birthday. And once you’ve made it to top of the mountain, there’s only one direction you can go.

Yet Dybala insists he’s not done climbing.

“Every soccer player wants to win a World Cup,” Dybala said in Spanish from Rome, where this month he will finish his 11th season in Italy’s Serie A. “That already happened. But there are always new objectives, both at the club level and at the national team level.”

The most immediate concern is trying to win his way back onto the national team after missing Argentina’s last 10 games because of injury. Injuries and fitness problems have plagued Dybala throughout his career, but the last year has been particularly tough, with multiple muscle problems limiting him to 37 games for club and country. He missed Roma’s Serie A loss to Atalanta on Sunday because of a lingering thigh issue.

When he’s healthy, however, Dybala can be a game-changer.

A five-time Serie A champion with Juventus, Dybala has scored in double digits in league play eight times, finishing third with 22 goals in 2017-18. In the 2022 World Cup, his second, he came off the bench just ahead of the tie-breaking penalty-kick shootout in the final and made his try, helping Argentina to its first title in 36 years.

“Obviously when you achieve something like that, the question arises if there is something more,” said Dybala, 30. “I think so. A World Cup is the most important trophy for a footballer but one is always hungry.

“I had the bad luck of losing both the Europa League final and the Champions League. I feel young and obviously I want to compete again to win those titles.”

Dybala is an excellent dribbler and a quick, elegant attacker whose talents earned him the nickname “Jewel.” He’s been in Italy for so long, signing with Palermo at 18, he has Italian citizenship, something he was able to obtain through his maternal great-grandmother, who was from Naples.

“It suits me very well and I am happy here,” he said of Italy. “That’s why I always gave Italy priority for my football career and for my life as well.

“I am very grateful to Italy for [helping] me grow both as a person and as a soccer player,” he continued. “But my heart will always be Argentine.”

His playing style, however, is arguably more Italian than South American. And in his time there he’s seen Serie A evolve, climbing back to the top of the UEFA rankings as the best league in Europe.

“Many young coaches have arrived, coaches who have modernized football a little, trying to play something different from what Italian football has shown in the past. I think it has paid off,” Dybala said. “As a player who is in Serie A and who wants Italy to grow in football, that makes me very happy.”

He might come to regret that happiness because the Italian national team, which missed the last two World Cups and exited after the group stage in the two before that, is benefiting from Serie A’s rise. As a result it could pose a challenge to Argentina’s quest for a second straight title when the tournament comes to North America in 2026.

“Football operates in cycles and now, with [coach] Luciano Spalletti, Italy can return to the level it deserves, that of a national team that has won the World Cup four times,” said Luigi De Siervo, Serie A’s chief executive. “Spalletti has reignited passion for the team, knows how to highlight individual talents within the collective, expressing an entertaining yet concrete style of play.”

The first big test for Spalletti, who took over the national team last August, will come in this summer’s European Championships. Dybala, if he can get healthy, could spend his summer with Argentina in Copa América. That tournament will be played in the U.S. where it will serve as a kind of dress rehearsal for a World Cup in which Dybala hopes to reach the top of the mountain again.

“Otherwise,” he said with a grin “it would make no sense to continue.”

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