Sun Shiiiiiiiiiiiine !
FourFourTwo UK|March 2017

He’s a big fan of Oasis, learnt English watching Corrie and even enjoys the rain. It’s clear Pablo Zabaleta loves life in his adopted city – Blackpool Illuminations on the other hand...

Alec Fenn

It’s 3pm inside Manchester City’s Etihad Campus and FFT is beginning to wonder whether we’ve been stood up. We have spent what seems like an absolute age gazing outside, as the rain falls from a mass of black clouds and bounces off the first-team squad’s fleet of expensive cars. Welcome to Manchester.

Slowly, the club’s flock of stars begin to emerge down a set of stairs leading to the main reception. David Silva comes shuffling along, clutching his designer washbag. A grinning Nolito then struts on through, his hair slicked back with a Spandau Ballet-sized serving of wet-look gel. However, there’s still no sign of our man.

Our heart sinks as we take another nervous glance at our watch, when a rugged-looking figure with a closely shaven head and designer stubble appears at the top of the stairs. Wearing a black roll neck, grey jeans and some worn black trainers, he looks like a cross between the Blues’ supremo Pep Guardiola... and a nightclub bouncer.

Pablo Zabaleta apologises for running slightly late – even though it’s not his fault. He’s a model of efficiency on and off the pitch, but has been held up after the day’s training session crept into the afternoon. “I’m so sorry – Thursday is always a very hard one,” he explains.

FFT is immediately struck by his accent, which is a blend of Argentinian and Mancunian. “I just think that I sound English,” he laughs. It’s nearly nine years since Zabaleta first set foot in this city. He’s since become a cult hero at the Etihad and an adopted Manc – we’re here to talk to him about how Manchester has become his second home. His local twang seems like a good place to start.

“It was very important for me to learn English as soon as I got here,” he says about his early days at the club. “Foreign players should make the effort when they move over to a new country. When I first arrived, Mark Hughes was the manager and 95 per cent of the coaching staff were British. I had to learn quickly so I could be a real part of the club.”

The 32-year-old was one of four South Americans who met up once a week for a two-hour English lesson to aid their integration to life in England. Zabaleta was joined by Brazilian pair Robinho and Elano, as well as Ecuadorian striker Felipe Caicedo, on a row of desks inside an old classroom at the club’s former training ground.

“I took English lessons at the club for one year; but after three lessons I started using a private teacher as well,” he says. “Sometimes there is a temptation to go home, have a shower and then just spend the rest of the day relaxing, but I wanted to use the time productively. I didn’t have Spanish TV and my girlfriend was studying in Spain, so each day I would try to read English books and watch the TV.

“The first thing that my teacher told me to do was to watch BBC News. Even in the car I was listening to BBC radio. I know it sounds boring, but the presenters talk at a slower pace, which helps you to pick up new words and phrases. I watched The X Factor and a few episodes of Coronation Street – but not too many!”

Zabaleta will often act as a translator for the Blues’ foreign imports, but he has little patience with those who don’t make enough effort. “Players often know a lot more English than people think, but they won’t talk in public as they’re afraid of saying something wrong and then making a mistake on camera in an interview.

“Sometimes a player will need to say something and if I’m there they ask, ‘Zaba, how do I say this?’ and I say, ‘You’ve been here for five years, you should know that!’ There have been times when Kun [Sergio Aguero] asks someone how to say something and I just say, ‘Kun, don’t be lazy!’”

Sensing he’s on good form, FFT asks him to put on a long navy blue parka jacket and channel his inner Liam Gallagher for our snapper. He does so with relish and quickly works his way through a range of moody poses of which the former Oasis singer would be proud, while laughing at regular intervals. Something tells us he might have done this before.

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