Laguna Larga, Córdoba is in the middle of nowhere. Go look it up on Google Maps – the town is a 10 x 15 block rectangle with 7,500 people. There are two gas stations, a couple of grocery stores, a bank, and well, let’s just say, nothing you would drive out of your way to see. It is an agriculture town.
A quarter of a century ago, on November 15, 1993, Paulo Bruno Exequiel Dybala was born in Laguna Larga. Paulo started to play football for the local club when he was four. Even before he knew how to play, his God-given talent made him stand out above the rest. Paulo’s father always dreamed that one of his sons would become a professional footballer. His first two sons could not achieve what their father had planned for them, but the third showed extraordinary promise.
At just 10 years old, Paulo was identified by Instituto, one of Córdoba’s three largest clubs. For the first several years, Paulo’s family had to drive him an hour in each direction to Córdoba to train for Instituto. As he continued to improve and show promise, he eventually was brought in to live in their academy.
As Paulo continued to grow he moved up within the club until he got his debut with the first team at the age of 17. Paulo would become the youngest ever to score a goal for Instituto, breaking the record previously held by the great Mario Kempes. After just his second match with Instituto, a local journalist gave him the nickname La Joya (the jewel) because he knew Paulo would become a diamond.
During his season with Instituto, La Joya led the club to a third-place finish and a promotion playoff against San Lorenzo. However, the club from the B Nacional was defeated by El Cuervo and failed to gain promotion. One of the highlights of that season was facing off against River Plate, who was relegated the previous season to the second division. In those matches against River, the eyes of the country and many European scouts were watching. As scouts viewed River’s high-profile stars, their eyes were drawn instead to the 18-year-old kid from Instituto. Paulo played just one season with the first team before European clubs began calling.
We all know what happened to Dybala since leaving Argentina, first he went to Palermo and then to Juventus where he has become one of the brightest football stars in the world. Paulo has both blazing speed as well as the ability to slow things down and create for his teammates. And of course, he has an ability to convert goals that few others on the planet would ever attempt.
Paulo’s grandfather fled from Poland to Argentina to escape World War II and his grandmother was from the province of Napoli in Italy. Dybala even became an Italian citizen in 2012. La Joya could have shined for any one of three nations, but his dream was always to represent the country of his birth.
On October 13, 2015, Dybala played his first match for Argentina. He was subbed on for Carlos Tévez in the 74th minute of a World Cup qualifying match against Paraguay. Dybala would not be included in either the 2016 Copa America Centenario squad or the Olympic team (possibly due to protests from Juventus). Since his debut with the national team, La Joya has struggled to find his place on the squad.
Since joining Juventus in 2015, Dybala has scored at a rate of nearly one goal every two matches. Yet with Argentina, his production has been the complete opposite. He has now made 16 appearances for the Albiceleste and is still awaiting his first goal.
Even prior to his debut with Argentina, Dybala was given the mantle of being the heir apparent to the greatest footballer of all time, Lionel Messi. The future of the national team looked bright with the hope that when Messi’s career began to sunset, Dybala would be able to slot right into the number 10 role and continue doing Messi-esque things. So far, that plan has not come to fruition.
In the lead up to the 2018 World Cup, Dybala said, “It’s a little difficult to play with Messi for Argentina.” This singular statement put his immediate future with the Albiceleste in doubt. Would he be part in the World Cup squad in Russia and if he is, would he get any playing time? He was eventually included in the squad but only played 22 minutes of Argentina’s four World Cup matches.
Though Jorge Sampaoli’s tenure as Argentina’s Manager as a whole is considered to be a great disappointment, perhaps his single greatest failure was not figuring out how to get Messi and Dybala, two of the greatest talents in the world, to play together. Enzo Perez, Maxi Meza, and Cristian Pavón are undoubtedly good footballers as well, but the fact that they were regularly preferred by Sampaoli over Dybala will forever remain a mystery.
After the 2018 World Cup, Messi made it known that he needed some time away from the national team and would not be joining them for any of the upcoming friendlies. Messi’s absence along with the retirement of other long-time members of the squad has given interim manager Lionel Scaloni a chance to be experimental and give callups to previously ignored talent. It has also given Dybala a chance to slide into the area on the pitch previously occupied by Messi.
Injuries left Dybala on the bench for the first two friendlies against Guatemala and Colombia in September. For the next two matches against Iraq and Brazil in October, Dybala was included in the starting 11 but still could not find himself on the successful end of a goal.
Today Paulo Dybala celebrates his 25th birthday. His face hasn’t aged since he debuted with Instituto in 2011. Because he still looks so young, we continue to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that his time with the Albiceleste will come soon enough. But it’s time we face reality, Dybala is not a young kid anymore. By the time Messi completed his 25th birthday, he had already scored 26 goals for Argentina.
Even though Dybala has and will continue to be compared to Messi, the same way Messi has always been compared to Maradona, Dybala is not Messi. He is one of the best talents Argentina has to offer with a similar skillset to La Pulga, but he is not Messi.
La Joya will travel on his birthday to Córdoba where on Friday he is expected to start when Argentina plays Mexico in the Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes. Yes, the stadium named after Argentina’s World Cup hero whose goal scoring record Dybala broke while at Instituto. Once again, Paulo will have the chance to finally convert his long-awaited first goal wearing the sky blue and white striped shirt of his homeland. And what a time it would be to do it, in Córdoba in front of family and friends the day after his birthday. The hope is that once he sees the ball go into the net for the first time, the flood gates will open, and many more goals will follow.
It remains to be seen if La Joya will be that diamond that Argentina so desperately needs in the upcoming months and years. Dybala will be 28 at the next World Cup, the age many consider to be the prime of a footballer’s career. Supporters can only hope that between now and 2022, both Dybala and Argentina will have finally figured out how to utilize his unique talent. The time is now for Paulo Dybala to wear the crown and exercise power over his domain, the pitch. And not just any pitch, one made of the same Cordobés dirt he started playing on when he was four years old.
Dybala’s future is still bright, but it’s time for his future to begin, today.
Jimmy lived in Córdoba, Argentina as a teenager and is still an active Socio for his beloved club, Belgrano. He currently lives in Seattle, WA and loves to write about football when he has a break from work and family. He also runs the Belgrano – English twitter account.