From Salto to the Stretford End: The Edinson Cavani Story
Edinson Cavani has taken a long and winding road to Old Trafford, amassing a wealth of top-level experience along the way.
In this exclusive interview – first published in Inside United magazine – the well-travelled, highly decorated goal machine retraces his steps…
You’ve had a remarkable career that has taken you around the world and had you play alongside some of the greatest players in the modern game. Could you have ever envisaged that when you were growing up in Salto?
“I think that when you are young and just a kid, you never really have much time to think and reflect. When you’re a child, all you think about is having fun and enjoying yourself, you just think about the present and enjoying the moment. You live from day to day. You don’t give so much thought to things like that, I think that comes a bit more with age, when you get to around 13, 14 or 15 years old. That’s when you start to think about and have an understanding of certain things. Which then allows you to dream and to have a desire to achieve things, to really want to be able to make it through to play at this level. I never honestly hoped to be like such-and-such a player. What I did do, though, like I’ve mentioned on many occasions, was to watch players like Gabriel Batistuta and other strikers, in order to learn. But what I really wanted most at that age – as I began to understand a little better about just what football meant to me, and the passion that I had for it – was to be able to make it as an elite footballer. Playing at this elite level of the game meant coming to play over in Europe and representing one of the top clubs. So your career gets under way and little by little you begin to discover and become part of the world of professional football. You start to learn and develop and discover what it’s all about, and begin to enjoy moments of the kind that maybe only the Lord himself knows why he creates such circumstances and life opportunities for you.”
What are your outstanding memories of playing football as a kid?
“Out of all the things I always remember, one thing always comes back to me. There was a manager, Carmelo Cesarini, who was my very first coach from when I was a very young kid, and he used to come to my home to pick me up. That’s something that remains a very clear memory for me to this day. He took the time to come and collect me because my mum and dad couldn’t take me as they were too busy working. So he’d come by in his car to pick me up and then take me to play football, and then bring me back home again afterwards. And apart from that, playing for a proper team, there were also those games we used to play on the campito, as we call them in South America. Those small patches of green where you put down a stone for each goalpost and then at the other end, 30, 40 or 50 metres away, two more stones, and that’s where we’d play our football, for hours on end with all our mates. These are the memories that stay with you, things that you remember right up to the present day, memories that you look back on fondly and with a lot of sentiment as you reminisce.”
What marked you out as different to the other players?
“I honestly couldn’t really tell you. I’ve never enjoyed talking about myself or my attributes as a player. I’d say that the various coaches I had would be better placed to give any details about that period of my life and my childhood, which indeed they were a big part of, being the guys who coached me. But I think that one of the things that I did have in my favour when I was a youngster was that real passion for running, for working hard and that desire to give absolutely everything, and for wanting to score goals too, because that was something I loved to do. I think every youngster, every footballer is excited by scoring goals. It’s the big attraction about the game, isn’t it? But it was that ambition that I had to always give one hundred per cent, always do your best, to always be on the field and playing at all times. Wanting to win, wanting to compete. I believe that these were some of the things that drove me on to keep growing and improving bit by bit, growing more mature and gradually becoming more and more of a footballer.”
Did you watch European football growing up, and did you have any impressions of United?
“Yes, just at that time when I was still quite young. Although we didn’t watch the football all week, as I don’t think there was as much on the TV as there is nowadays, with three games a week on sometimes. But it was the weekends when we really lived and breathed football. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, especially so on Saturday and Sunday. It was all about getting up in the morning and the first thing that you heard on the TV was the footy. If it wasn’t our own league, it was the English football because there was a lot of coverage of the Premier League in South America. That was the time when United were doing so, so well. That was their heyday. They were going well and winning trophies and so on. It wasn’t just all about sitting there watching the football. You were aware that it was on the telly, with English and Italian football featuring most, so football was in the air! We weren’t just glued to the television set, though. No, I’d be off out to play football, all the time, to play outside. But I realised that all the matches were on the TV, and that at night there’d be all the highlights of the weekend’s fixtures. And so, that’s when I’d watch it a bit more.”
You left Uruguay for Serie A at just 20 – what are your memories of that period in your life? What were the easy parts of adapting to Europe and what were the hard parts?
“I always talk about that period, and it was what I’d always hoped for, to come and play in Europe. And one of the things that I’d particularly thought about and hoped to do at the time was to go and play in the Calcio, partly to do with my family background, and my grandfather’s Italian heritage. My father always made me aware of that Italian ancestry, and my grandad had always wanted to see his children and grandchildren play football. So it was something that you were drawn towards, going to play and live in Italy. But when you arrive in Italy, it’s almost as if you are still in that dream, the dream that you haven’t yet awoken from. It’s like you’ve accomplished something that you really wanted and desired. So you start off in your first season and first year there, you don’t come back down to earth. And it’s the same in the second year too, as you’re still not so aware of it. It’s like you’re in that wheel that just keeps turning and turning as you search for your dream. Then you realise it and suddenly you’re living it. But as time goes on, you begin to grow as a person, you know, as a family, you begin to have new experiences and you start to become aware of the distance involved. That distance that separates you a bit from your family and your friends and it keeps you apart for quite a long time too, from your loved ones, from your roots, your country and your customs. And that’s when you begin to feel it and to miss things a little bit more. I’ve always done my best to settle in to places really quickly, but settling in is always quite tough. Irrespective of whether or not we have similar cultures, settling in somewhere and getting used to any kind of change is always difficult. And as the time passes, at least in my case, it starts to get more complicated. The longer and more years that you’re away from home, it starts to get even tougher, being out on a limb. That’s why I say, at the beginning it was one thing, and then you start to miss one or two things. I guess I probably have settled in quite well and maybe I was still always chasing that dream, that desire to be involved at the highest level in football, and to remain there. And for better or worse, I’ve always been right there, competing and giving the absolute best of myself.”
During a strong spell with Palermo, you were first linked with a move to United in 2010 – were you aware of interest and, had a bid materialised, would you have come?
“(Smiles) Just imagine it! I can’t remember exactly what happened. I do remember there was talk about one or two different teams – but hey, if I’d had that opportunity, I would have taken it, of course I would, without giving it a second thought. I don’t remember definitively if that was the case. But what I do remember is that I was due to travel to the World Cup in South Africa, and during that tournament, I had a conversation with Napoli. And well, I told them if they had faith in me and wanted me to go there, trust and confidence are worth a lot to me, so I made my decision and after Palermo I made the move to Napoli.”
You went on to enjoy an incredible few seasons in Naples. Talk us through your time there as part of a famous forward line alongside Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik…
“What I got to experience at Napoli was genuinely a lot like how things are in our national team. It wasn’t quite the same, as we’re all from the same country and have the same customs and culture in the national team. We all really know how things are and how they run there, and it’s like just a big group of friends. It’s a big family, really. But at Napoli, it turned out to be a very similar situation for me. At Napoli, a great group of players had come through the junior ranks and grown up together. The time I spent with that group of players, that team, was always amazing. The three years I spent there, I think, on a personal note, represented a career-changing time for me. I really came on as a player, and I think the faith that the manager [Walter Mazzarri] had in me at that time helped me to become the player that I am today. He got the absolute best out of me. That self-belief. That’s why I always say that confidence and trust is so important in life. So yes, we had an amazing forward line and in addition, we’d be playing all the time. We were all very young and were always full of energy, we were always at it in every game. Maybe we didn’t win that many trophies, but we certainly lived through some special moments. Great times with our fans, and times when we felt we really could dream and aspire to achieving certain things. We won the Coppa Italia, beating Juventus in the final, which I believe was of huge importance, given that they had been crowned champions after going the whole season unbeaten. We found ourselves up against them in the final of the competition, and we beat them 2-0. I think that cup is a really prestigious trophy to win, personally speaking at any rate, it had an extra special meaning for me, after all we went through that season as well as everything I experienced in my time at Napoli. (Smiles) But yes, with those team-mates, we definitely provided a decent three-pronged threat up front, didn’t we?”
You were idolised by supporters in Naples – how fondly do you look back on that relationship between yourself and the fans?
“I think that the supporters make up a huge part of what is and was your life. I also think that the fans leave a big mark on your journey through certain clubs. Honestly, that time at Napoli was just fantastic. From that very first moment, I can remember that I’d just signed for them and I was off to be presented officially at the club, and the fans were just going crazy. I’d joined from Palermo, where I’d scored one or two goals, but it’s not like I’d been the league’s leading scorer. I’d been amongst the goals and I was just back from the World Cup in South Africa, but during and after the official club presentation, the fans were already showing me an incredible amount of love and affection. They were banging on my car, waving at me from outside in the crowd, saying they loved me. The first thing I said to a family member who was with me was: ‘This is giving me a strange sensation inside. They’re expecting a lot of me.’ So, I was getting that feeling of butterflies in your stomach, but that kind of fear that is positive at times. It’s that ‘good’ fear that helps you get the most out of yourself, so you don’t mess up or make a mistake, if you understand what I mean. And so, it turned out that the affection they had for me had a positive effect on me. I could feel it, I could experience it for myself, And so I was able give a good account of myself back in that period.”
When the chance came to join PSG, you became a fans’ favourite once again in Paris. What do you think it is about you that supporters identify with?
“PSG was a little bit different. It ended up in the same way as Napoli, but it started out much differently. Right from the start, Napoli was just this amazing thing that kept growing even more but had been fantastic right from the off. Paris was different in that I was coming to a club that already had its star players. Some really big names in the world of football. In addition, whether I wanted it or not, back then, mine was the most expensive transfer fee in the French league’s history. It was a bit like a love that was starting out from nothing. Little by little I had to make my mark at my new club, and I’d do that gradually by always being myself, and sticking to my playing style and how I was as a person. But it was an affection that was gradually on the increase. And it’s nice when it develops over time because it’s then synonymous with determination, hard work and acknowledgement. And so it was a bit of a different experience to the one at Napoli, but it shared the same ending, with the love of the fans and with my affection for them too. Because from my side, too, it was really positive to see that the love had flourished over time because it was a love that gradually revealed itself as that connection was made. I have a massive amount of affection for the PSG supporters. Like I was saying, the fans really define the moment in time of the period in your life that you spend at a club. That connection with the fans really does impact hugely. That’s why I enjoy the opportunity of going to celebrate a goal along with the fans directly behind the goal, because it’s a real release of emotion and a special connection when player and fans can share the passion and the love they are feeling at the time.”
In France you played with some unbelievable forwards – Lavezzi again, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe. What did you learn from playing with them?
“Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to have played alongside some great footballers. And when you do play with top players, it allows you to grow and improve. I’ve always had that desire to improve and develop my game, and to take things from one player or another. If I were to start listing each of their attributes, I reckon it would be an awfully long interview! Because they all have their own individual qualities. You had a player like Zlatan who was highly competitive. He was always up for the fight and he really hated to lose. None of us like losing but he has always shown that even more than most, through his character and how he is. Everyone knows about Ney, don’t they… he has magic in his feet. Kylian has huge skill and technique as well as great pace. They are really top-class players. And you really enjoy lining up alongside guys like that. Of course, their qualities and attributes were different to mine, and we had different personalities too, which is fine. But it’s something you enjoy and really think it’s always an honour to play with great footballers.”
Your most recent move, of course, brought you to Manchester, where you’re the most experienced forward in the squad. What’s the most important thing, in your opinion, that our young attackers can take from your game?
“Honestly speaking, I don’t really like to just give out advice. I’m just here to do my absolute best and to support this team and to leave everything I have out on the field, whether that’s in a game or a training session. Then, if a young player comes up and asks me something or they see me do things during a training session that they’d like to incorporate into their game, then that’s great. I believe that there are lessons all around you, not just from players in your own position. You can always take the best bits from someone else and see if they work for you in your own game. If they want to take something I say or do on board and take it as an example to use in their future development, then I’d be very happy, because it’s important to leave something positive behind.”