During their time together at Genoa, Gian Piero Gasperini constantly told Diego Perotti: “Smile, Diego, have a laugh once in a while.” When he brought Perotti to Genoa, the Argentine was a shadow of the man who had once been one of Europe’s hottest properties. Just a couple of years ago, it seemed like he was finished – so much so that Sevilla, who had previously set his release clause at €48m, were prepared to let him go to Genoa for just €350,000 plus a 10% sell-on fee. Now, Perotti is a new man, capable once again of taking on players with ease and confidence. As Roma and Perotti prepare to face Gasperini, currently in charge at Atalanta, it’s worth reflecting on his rise to fame at Sevilla, his downward spiral through injury, and his hard climb back to the top.
Things were difficult for Perotti right from the off. When he was young, people said he was too fragile for a footballer, and his physique was a problem in Boca Juniors’ youth teams where he was often sent flying by the slightest contact. He was accused of being too mentally fragile as well – he didn’t seem to have the steely determination that a Boca player should have. “I didn’t like it at Boca,” Perotti later told Sport. “Their treatment of me made me doubt whether I could play football. I didn’t want to quit because that would make me feel like I’d failed, but I haven’t forgotten the times I came back from training in tears or the struggles I went through when it was time to go back to training.” Even his team-mates weren’t any better. Perotti was bullied for being the son of a legend, for being ugly, even for his height. “They were 2 years of absolute agony. I don’t remember a single day when I wasn’t made to feel like a failure.” At 14 he left the Boca youth system and considered quitting football altogether to continue his education. But he wanted to prove to himself that he could make it as a footballer, like his father Hugo, and he was prepared to play for anyone in order to prove it.
As a result he applied for a trial with Deportivo Morón, a third division side from the suburbs of Buenos Aires, and they wasted no time in signing him up. “You could tell that he was different,” the club president said, “with a quality and ability of a top player.” After a few years in their youth teams, he was a first team regular by the age of 18, made his debut in 2006, and was soon in the Argentina youth teams as well. After his first full season Perotti was contacted by Atalanta, but after playing with Sergio Batista’s Argentina Under-20s side at the 2007 Toulon Tournament he was snapped up by Sevilla for €200,000.
After a year and a half in Sevilla’s B team, he made his first team debut on 15th February, 2009 against Espanyol. He played 9 league games that season, scoring twice (against Real Zaragoza and Mallorca), and he soon found he could longer continue studying. “I went to university in Seville. I enjoyed my lectures in criminology, but I had less and less time to study. During lectures everyone was looking at me as well, I didn’t feel comfortable.” Then, in November 2009, he received his first call up to the Argentine national team. “I was in a lecture – I had to go out of the room to take the call,” he revealed. “I wasn’t expecting it at all, but ever since I joined Sevilla everything moved very quickly: from the youth teams to the first team and playing in the Champions League… I would never have imagined I’d get this call up.” Perotti never went to another lecture, and instead was given his Argentina debut by Diego Maradona 2 weeks later as he replaced Lionel Messi in a 2-1 defeat to Spain.
By the age of 21, Perotti was a regular in Manolo Jimenez’s team on the left side of a 4-man midfield. He was heavily involved in the build-up play, creating chances for Alvaro Negredo and Luis Fabiano, as Sevilla’s tactics relied on using the wingers to supply the two forwards. On the opposite flank to Perotti was Jesus Navas who, coincidentally, made his international debut in the same Spain-Argentina match that Perotti made his international bow. Perotti scored a rare goal with a header against Deportivo La Coruna in the second last game of the season to seal Champions League qualification, and after rejecting a €14m bid from Juventus in the summer Sevilla gave Perotti a new 6-year contract with a €48m release clause. Perotti’s career was clearly on an upward trajectory, but no sooner had it reached this high point that injury after injury caused it to nosedive.
His first injury, a tear to his hamstring, came at the end of the 2009/10 season and kept him out for just over a month. Another tear brought another spell on the sidelines in December 2010, but he kept his place in the team for most of that 2010/11 season as Sevilla finished 5th. In October 2011 came another muscle tear, and after returning for a couple of games he sustained yet another hamstring injury. A further setback came in February 2012, and as the team struggled the fans started to turn on him, frustrated with his injuries and his inability to help the team on the pitch. It reached the stage where they whistled and jeered him while he warmed up, when he went onto the pitch and even when he scored against Slovan Liberec.
The end seemed to be in sight when he underwent an operation for a slipped disk towards the end of 2011/12, as it was believed his hamstring injuries were caused by a back problem. However, that wasn’t the case, and 2 more injuries in 2012/13 sidelined him for much of the campaign. “There isn’t a muscle in my legs that hasn’t torn,” Perotti told El País. “They’ve done everything they could for me, even a biopsy. If they had told me to go and see a witch, I would’ve gone.” He suggested giving up his salary and even asked to be loaned out in February 2013, but coach Unai Emery refused. Perotti was increasingly fragile, psychologically as well as physically, and his father’s own career didn’t give cause for optimism. Hugo Perotti had been a great talent at Boca Juniors, helping them to win the 1978 Copa Libertadores and the 1981 league title, but he was forced to retire at 25 due to injury. Aged 25 himself in 2013, Diego was desperate not to go the same way.
As he continued to sustain injuries in late 2013, he was eventually allowed to join Boca Juniors on loan in February 2014 – a year after he had originally requested to go. But it didn’t go the way he envisaged. Perotti made his Boca debut at the Bombonera against Estudiantes from the bench, playing for 18 minutes, and made another substitute appearance the following week in a 1-0 defeat to Velez Sarsfield. He stayed on the bench against Racing Club (after getting injured in the pre-match warm-up) and All Boys, and as his body failed him again he became a forgotten man. In total, he played for just 31 of a possible 1760 minutes for los Xeneizes. Boca had been the scene of his first nightmare, and now it was the scene for another after he had failed to establish himself in their first team.
Perotti’s career was drifting, but there were clubs showing an interest in him. One day, while he was struggling with more physiotherapy, he saw a number he didn’t know calling his mobile. It was Genoa’s coach Gian Piero Gasperini. After a long phone call, he convinced Perotti to accept Genoa’s offer. It was said to be Perotti’s last chance; as he departed, the headline in the local Diario de Sevilla newspaper declared that it was ‘The last train for Perotti’. But, thankfully, under Gasperini, Perotti rediscovered his desire to play football again, and with a careful recovery program and a strictly controlled diet, he was able to start playing regularly again. His Genoa debut came in the Coppa Italia at Virtus Lanciano in August 2014 on the left wing in a 3-man front line. He had nearly always previously played on the left hand side of a 4-man midfield, but Gasperini’s system provided the perfect position for him. He scored his first goal against Parma on 5th October, 2014, his first goal in over a year, and it’s impossible to know the relief and joy that he felt at that moment.
It didn’t take him long to establish himself as the team’s most technically gifted player, and Gasperini was singing his praises: “Diego could play in any top European side.” Perotti was a pillar of his side at Genoa, whether they were playing 4-3-3 or (more often) 3-4-3. He was tactically flexible enough to play when they were switching between systems, and even in a 3-5-2 (where he would play on the left side of the front 2 but remain in a fairly wide position). It wasn’t just his tactical flexibility that meant he was such a mainstay, but also his natural ability which was far above the team’s average. His effect on Genoa was clear: in the 2014/15 season he played 27 games, in which they picked up 44 points (1.6 per game) – without him, they got 15 points from 11 games (1.36 per game). At the time Genoa played with a fairly rigid style, but Perotti was the one who had the greatest creative freedom, and often Genoa’s other players would use him as an outlet, confident in his ability to receive the ball and take a player on, even when it wasn’t either the easiest option or the most obvious. He was clearly enjoying himself again, and had rediscovered his confidence.
Perotti’s talent didn’t go unnoticed by other Serie A clubs, and in January 2016 Roma signed him on loan for €1m with an option to buy for €9m (which was soon taken up). His style was much needed. When he joined, the Giallorossi’s attack was sterile and lacking in ideas, with target man Edin Dzeko incredibly low on confidence and woefully misfiring, but Perotti gave it some much needed creativity and invention. At first, new coach Luciano Spalletti took his time in deciding exactly where to utilise him, playing him on the left wing and in the centre, both as a false 9 and behind Dzeko. He soon found his role though, enjoying a prolific first 6 months, and he later revealed the secret to his success. “I feel great here because everyone had confidence in me as soon as I arrived, my team-mates have always helped me and I want to pay them back.” Perotti is now one of Roma’s best assets, capable of creating space where there doesn’t seem to be any with a quick shimmy and a burst of pace. His pace is deceiving, as is his style of taking penalties. He got the idea to take a short run up at Sevilla after keeper Javi Varas told him that goalkeepers find shorter run ups difficult to read and more difficult to save. So far this season he’s scored 3 from 3, and has 5 from 5 in total in Serie A. It’s clearly working.
He may not smile much on the pitch, but he is now a far cry from the man he was 3 years ago. Every time he goes onto the pitch he makes the sign of the cross, though he says: “I’m not particularly religious, but having faith helped me when I had that string of injuries.” It wasn’t just faith that helped Perotti though, the effect that Gasperini and his coaching staff had on him cannot be understated. Thanks to the belief that Gasperini had in him when he brought him to Genoa, since added to by Spalletti since the Argentine joined Roma nearly a year ago, Perotti is now playing regularly again and demonstrating his true ability. He may once have considered leaving the game, but now he is in a much better place and is relishing every moment. “I’ve been playing football since I was 10 and every time I’m about to go out onto the pitch, I start feeling nervous and apprehensive, but in a good way. My fear is that when I retire I won’t be able to show what I can do any more, so I’m trying to make the most of every chance that I get.”