Over 12,000 Kilometres separate Argentina and Austria. It definitely was not an easy step for Nicolas to make when coming to Salzburg a few months ago.
"Both" is his answer to the question of who the biggest Argentine football hero is for him – Messi or Maradona? The discussions in his homeland, or even across the world, on the topic do not enthuse him though. The most important thing for him is just football.
Football is a religion. Messi and Maradona are two absolute legends, of course. There are still a lot of other sports that Argentina has produced fantastic athletes in though, for instance in tennis or basketball with Manu Ginobili.
While he enjoys following basketball in his free time, it was a football that he dribbled through the streets from an early age. Having grown up away from the big cities, the young Nicolas barely thought of anything else in the Argentine province of La Pampa:
I went to football school for the first time when I was five or six. I was always playing with my friends on the street too. We made goals out of stones and played non-stop. In the summer the mothers would come just before midnight and tell us we had to go to bed. We probably would have played through the whole night if it wasn't for them. My parents were always annoyed that my feet looked so awful as we played barefoot for hours on concrete.
The midfielder made his first big steps in the game at the age of 15. He left his home for Buenos Aires, 600 kilometres away, to realise his dream of becoming a professional footballer in the youth set-up of the legendary Boca Juniors. It was his first big test - spending time away from his family and his rural home in a 13-million metropolis:
The problem was not so much the difference between the places. It was just difficult in general to leave my family at the age of 15 in the first big challenge football presented me with. I knew Buenos Aires before my move as l had relatives there, who we visited from time to time. Daily life in this huge city was absolutely new for me at the time, however. I grew up around farms, farmers and cows. It was the typical small town or even village life.
Nicolas raced through the Boca Juniors youth ranks before making his professional debut aged 20. Fans soon gave him the nickname Capaldios, a word play on his surname featuring the Spanish word Dios - God. He made 65 competitive appearances for the Blues and Yellows, and in 2020 won the Argentine title. The Argentine capital hosts one special footballing encounter in particular, Boca Juniors v River Plate. The Superclasico, no less:
They are the biggest clubs in the country, of course, and you dream as a child of playing for one of them. It's quite simply a special match. There is so much talk about them in the build-up. There are so many interviews, there's tension and banter. When it kicks off it is like any other game though - you just want to win it.
In summer this year, it was time for Nicolas to take the next step of his career to Europe. He had gone on holidays to some European countries before, but Austria was a new one for him:
My entire family was happy, and really excited. When the contract was signed, we were all aware that we would be living really far from one another from now on though. That was painful. From day to day here in the club and in the city I have felt increasingly at home, however. For the first few steps when I came here, my father accompanied me. From the medical check to the introduction to the club and sorting out the apartment, he was here. My mother and sister have visited me here too, and my girlfriend just came for a long visit from Argentina.
The young Argentine is definitely well at home by now on the green grass of the Red Bull Arena. The generally defensive Nicolas has developed his attacking attributes here and scored the first goal of his professional career - a winner in the Austrian Bundesliga against Hartberg. Our sporting director Christoph Freund was clear at the start that his style would suit us well, and he therefore predicted a short settling-in time:
It was definitely a big change. In terms of the football too. In Argentina I wasn't used to working off-the-ball for 90 minutes and putting the opponents under pressure for 90 minutes with pressing. You need a little time, of course, but from day to day I have increasingly gotten into it, and I now feel I have our philosophy fully on board.
There have been adjustments required off the pitch too. With the language, of course, but the mentality was also rather unfamiliar for Nicolas.
Life is just completely different between Argentina and Austria. It's very normal in Argentina to meet up in a big group after the match and barbecue together, for instance. People look to socialise a lot more than here. I am still fairly quiet in the dressing room though as there is still a bit of a language barrier. That doesn't mean that I can't have some fun with my team-mates though.
The challenge was made greater by the fact that our squad is not exactly packed with Latin Americans. Nicolas quickly developed a good connection with our Brazilian defender Bernardo, however:
Our integration manager Ratinho is an important contact person for me, of course. In the team it is Bernardo, first and foremost. He speaks good Spanish and knows a nice group of Spanish speakers here. I am trying to talk to people in English too though and improve my language ability. It's important to me. Bernardo has become a person who offers me a bit of a feeling of home off the pitch too though.
He may not have picked up the language yet, but Nicolas does have one key attribute to ensure a quick integration into Austrian society - skiing. While he has taken it easy in recent years to avoid an injury risk, winter sport has long been a passion of his:
I often went skiing in Argentina. Only until I was around 15 years old though. After I moved to Boca Juniors, it wasn't allowed by my contract. I am already tempted by the mountains here though. When my dad next comes to visit, he would really like to try skiing in the Alps.