Despite a tough start to his career in the Premier League, the former Roma star is happy at Liverpool
World Soccer: You were born and raised in Rome, and then spent 10 years with Roma. How hard was it to leave your home-town club and sign for Liverpool?
Alberto Aquilani: It was – and it is – very difficult for a Roman, a romanista, such as me, to leave the city and say goodbye to Roma. Rome is in my heart and it will be there forever. I go back home whenever I can. I grew up there, it is where all my friends and my family live, and where my roots are. But it was a conscious decision on my part to sign for Liverpool and, though I still miss Rome, I am so glad of my experience in England so far. I would not change anything – except the results the team have experienced on the field and the long months I endured on the sidelines as I worked to regain my fitness.
Were you worried about moving to England?
To be truthful, before I arrived I had a terrible fear of the English press because everyone I spoke to warned me they could be very dangerous. But I have experienced no problems with them yet, so perhaps it was just an exaggeration.
You are over 6ft tall, yet your nickname is “The Little Prince”. Can you explain this?
The name has nothing to do with my height. As a child, my football idol was Giuseppe Giannini, a superstar no10 and captain of Roma. I had his poster on my bedroom wall and loved his style of play. He was so smart and skillful; beautiful to watch and brilliant with a dead ball. He never gave away possession. They called him Il Principe [the prince] and when I played at the Roma academy, people said I resembled him and so began the story of Il Piccolo Principe or Principino [the little prince].
How did you feel when you saw Liverpool fans unfurling banners at Anfield, proclaiming “Il Principino – A Hero has Arrived”?
It filled me with incredible pride. I was already accustomed to the Roma supporters saluting me with their own songs and banners, but for the Liverpool fans to do the same, even though I had not proved myself in the Premier League, was amazing. It is now my job to repay their support and love. Giallorossi fans are extraordinary and unique, the best in Italy for sure. There are no more passionate fans in the country. But from what I have seen in England, Liverpool supporters come from the same mould. They have a great reputation in the world of football and I now know exactly why.
An ankle injury decimated the start of your Anfield career. How frustrating was it not being able to figure at the start of the season?
It was one of the hardest, darkest times of my career. Injury is a nightmare for any player, but to be unable to play just after I had joined a new club was terrible. The time seemed to go so slowly as I tried to get fit. Every match I was forced to miss was agony. But I am now trying not to dwell on what has happened and focus purely on the future. I am finally fit now and desperate to show the club, my team-mates and the fans exactly what I can do.
Critics have called you injury prone. How do you react to such allegations?
I cannot agree with these people at all. Injury is a part of life for all footballers, but I do not believe I have a greater predisposition to injury than anyone else. The problems I have had have been caused by desire to do well for Roma last season and now Liverpool – and perhaps returning too soon and hurting myself again. Both times the team needed me and I was desperate to make a contribution. But I would do the same again if I felt I could help achieve a good result.
Both Arsenal and Chelsea reportedly tried to sign you at the age of 16. Why did you reject their advances?
It is true, there was talk of interest from both clubs, but I am not sure how serious the rumours were. However, at that time my only focus was to sign a professional contract with Roma and I did not want to abandon that dream. Perhaps it was my destiny to come to England to play for Liverpool and not Chelsea or Arsenal.
The media have described you as the player signed to replace Xabi Alonso. Does that increase the pressure on you to succeed at Anfield?
Not at all. I am Aquilani not Alonso. I am a different person and have a different style of play. Of course I know what an influential player he was for Liverpool, but I do not think of following in his footsteps, only of making my own path. It is obvious to me and anyone who knows anything about the game that we are two different kinds of player and I hope soon I will show the Liverpool fans what I can achieve here.
The World Cup is looming on the horizon. How would you assess your chances of making the Italy squad for South Africa?
It is obvious that I must play regular games for Liverpool between now and the end of the season if I am to have a chance of making the 23. After that, we shall see. The good news is the Premier League is so strong, perhaps the most important in the world, so if I can do well here it will prove my form is good. It is the dream of every player to perform at the World Cup and I am no different.
But nothing will happen for me unless I begin to shine for Liverpool and, for now, that is my only focus. The club has been very patient with me and I feel that I owe them for that.