A journey man of sorts, Valentino Lazaro is a man created from life experience. Now with the Austria squad at the Euros, his travels are part of what has formed him. But football is only one facet to this intriguing character, as we found out for SoccerBible Volumes SU21 – ‘Utopia’.

The flair of Valentino Lazaro is backed by good sounds. A creative of the multi-disciplined variety, while football - elite at that - is very much his focus, his energy additionally stretches into music with pure passion. He’s someone to look at with huge respect. Confident in who he is, empowering in his exploration and determined to keep rising - here’s to a character of brilliant individualism.

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Tino, visually you come across as a player who likes to express himself. How would you describe yourself?

It's tough to describe myself. I just feel like I have always been myself. I know from an outsider's view I came up in an area when my look really started to stand out. So I think that is where people got that from. To me it was always just about being myself and trying to be comfortable within myself. That goes with your whole appearance towards other people and being confident and who you are. That's something that not a lot of people can do and I think that goes into the scheme of standing out a little bit.

I think your tastes are considered as well as creative. How much do you like to show your personality through what you are wearing? That is another way of expressing yourself.

Definitely. I do like fashion a lot. I think it's a bit sad right now, with covid and everything you do not get to show it a lot. I'm just normally in sweatpants and that's about it. I have a lot more in the future to be worn so I'm ready to go out again and show what I've got.

Fashion and football, especially in the changing room can often be quite similar. Do you like to stand out in that environment?

It feels good. Like we said now it has become a part of me too to be a bit different from other people. Sometimes you see teammates or other people wearing the same shirt or the same shoes. But I think every piece you are wearing, especially with clothes, you can add your own kind of touch to it. To me I am never really trying anything special. I think my character takes to the clothes I'm wearing and carries it a little bit differently to other people maybe.

Going back to the beginning in terms of growing up. Your dad was Angolan and your mum was Greek. Taking inspiration from different parts of the world. How much did each of them shape your personality?

A lot. Because even though my parents got divorced I am talking to both of them. Especially growing up when I was living in my hometown until I was 12. Seeing both of my parents all of the time they were my biggest influences. They did everything they could for me too to pursue my dream and to play football. My dad was a passionate coach and also played at an amateur level. My mum is a huge football fan. So they definitely gave me inspiration to become a football player.

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What about the sounds and the music you are listening to from a young age? What was being played in the house and how big was that for you?

That's the next part of my character, music. Besides football it played a huge part in my life. I like to listen to music all the time. Growing up in Austria with an Angolan dad, a Greek mum who is also a big Bob Marley fan, there were different styles of music playing in the house all of the time. I was listening to a lot of different music and I just love the art of music. I even started to pick up the guitar during this pandemic. I'm starting to learn that and to produce a little bit. I have all of the equipment now and I am building a home studio.

How is that all going? Picking up a guitar is one thing but then producing is great…

I've got all of the equipment now and I've started to learn a lot through tutorials on the internet. But to really get into it you need somebody looking over your shoulder. I've got a friend, in London, that can do that. But with this pandemic it is tough to get together. So we are just waiting to get together and he can teach me all the stuff I need to know. l.

Moving into other passions do you think you would like to explore that further? Setting up a label or something like that in the future? Just releasing your own music?

I have a lot of friends in the music industry. So the idea already came but never really anything more serious. You never know what is going to happen in the future. You pick it up, start to take it seriously and then maybe do something. You never know what's going to happen but it is definitely a possibility in the future.

A lot of players will say they are into fashion but it doesn't go any further. Or the same with music. But to have done what you have shows that it is deeper…

I'm just really interested in the whole process that goes into making music. If you really put the work in, it's not that hard to learn. For me, because I'm so interested in it, I know it's something that I can put my heart and soul into.

Where did that come from? Can you remember that spark?

I don't really know. I think it's just a general love I have for music. Everywhere I go, even at home, I do not turn it off. I did for this interview but there is always music playing in the background somewhere. In the car, before the games, after games, there is always just music around. Especially if you get to meet some people in the industry you get more and more interested. You start to think “Why would I not try and pick it up.”

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Have you been able to experience a behind the scene element of music thanks to your rising profile?

It has happened to me in the past. I've been to a couple of concerts, met some artists and all of these impressions that you get. You can go backstage, get to see what's behind the music and what a person is like. It's really interesting to me as well. I think that whole thing just got me into discovering it.

I can remember a couple of times when I was in Los Angeles I met DJ Khaled. Who is probably one of the biggest producers out there right now. Artists like Tory Lanez, Trey Songz, I can really count a lot of concerts, Drake as well. It's a lot of fun to watch the process behind it as well.

In terms of football where did you cut your teeth? Was it those small pictures playing with friends? What did your football childhood look like?

I was living in a three room apartment, pretty small for a big family, there were five kids. We were living there on the third floor and downstairs in the backyard we had a little garden. All of the other kids in that building we would play around the sand castle. The sandbox was our goal and we used to kick the ball against that. Then the washing lines were another go so we would use that. Even though on the other side of the building was a local football club. That was where my dad was a player in the senior team and he also managed the youth team.

The youth team was for six or seven year olds. So when I was three or four years old it was the first time I walked over there and started to kick a ball around. While he was training the six-year-old kids. Everyday I was going downstairs and kicking a ball of my neighbours kids. Sometimes going on the pitch to watch my dad do his work and kick it into some real goals.

When you got picked up by Graz, the first team you played for, what was your headspace like then? Back then do you remember feeling like you have made it? Or was it, this is where the work starts?

I remember when I was 5 years old and actually tried to enter the rival team in Graz. My older brothers had played there in the youth teams and I wanted to join that team. They said I was a year too young to start in a youth team. So I had to wait a year and then that's when I actually went to the other team in Graz.

They said “Yeah just come and play with us.” So that was fun. I started out there and I was the first of our family in the rivalry team. I just grew up there playing football and it was fun. I went to school then straight to practice. My mum took me to practice which was an hour every day. Which was hard for my other siblings as well because most of the time I'm she would spend with me taking me to practice and then getting back. I am very grateful for that.

The first time I realised I needed to put some work in and I want to be professional was when I was 12 years old. I had a guy from the Red Bull Salzburg team come over to Graz and asked me if you wanted to join their team in Salzburg. I declined the offer and I didn't go because I thought that it was too early for me. But a year later our team, which was in the first Division back then, went bankrupt and the whole club just shut down.

It was maybe a year later I called up that same guy, from Salzburg and said I want to try it. Everybody knew Red Bull Salzburg was the biggest team in Austria and he said you can come here to have a trial for 2 days. I went there and unfortunately my age group had an off day. I had a trial with 18 year olds and I was 14. I remember I was really nervous going in there but I really wanted to do this and work hard for it. After about 30-minutes he pulled me out and said “You are going to come here.” I was really happy. When I was 13 or 14 I moved to Salzburg and that's that's where my whole journey of working towards that professional business started.

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To hold your own, against all those kids that are four years older, must have been a quick learning curve.

It was the first time I've been away from home for me. In the beginning it was a bit easier because I had somebody over that used to play in Graz before. After a couple of months they advanced me to the next age group and I ended up playing with the guys one year older than me. I didn't know anybody and it was a little bit harder in the beginning. The work turned out everything went so quick full stop at the age of 15 I already started training with the first team and my debut was at 16. It wasn't to be expected.

What is that like? Was it hard to stay focused and keep on the right path?

With the Red Bull Salzburg team, even today and how professional they are. You look at their work and the Academy for younger players is just amazing. I think it's the best in Europe right now and I've got to give them credit. You are really so isolated and surrounded by people who only had one goal in mind which was football. I grew up and was surrounded by those people who had the same mentality I had. Even if I wanted to be out there, to be with friends wanting to party, there would not have been a time.

I remember I got up at 6:15 a.m. I took my bike to school, in the cold, there was training and then you would get picked up after school. There would be a second practice and then you would come back to the academy after you have done your homework. By the time you are done it was around 9 p.m. The next morning it's the same again from 6:15 a.m. so your whole life was just focused on football and school. I think that really helped me a lot.

Credit to you. All that graft is the stuff that people necessarily don't see. How have you found the challenge of moving into new dressing rooms at the clubs you have been?

I would say I was a bit nervous. For my first big move I took from Salzburg to Berlin. I had played my whole life in Graz to Salzburg at such a young age. I turned professional and played there for almost 4 years and that was already home. I played there until I was 20 so that's 6 years all together. Then you are right in front of your first big move to a new country, a new professional team and at 20 years old. It's a bigger and better league so I was a bit nervous. I quickly realised that football is such a universal language.

When you enter the dressing room you are surrounded by people who love the same sport as you. You already have that in common. So when you step on to a training pitch with your teammates, they can see what you can do, they see you love the sport as well as much as they do. Then it puts you closer together and you find some new friends. I've always been a person who is open and I love to talk to people. It was never that hard for me to adapt to new situations.

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Austria, Germany, Italy and England. It's a great map that you have managed to cover. In travelling to those places are there things you have learnt about yourself and your character?

I think travelling, just in general, develops your character. It doesn't matter if you do that privately, for business or with your job. I love the whole new culture full stop for example in Italy I quickly picked up a lot of Italian. I think after 3 or 4 months I gave my whole first interview in Italian. That was pretty nice and it's something you can take away for the rest of your life.

Is it like muscle memory? If you went back would you be able to fall into it quite easily?

I've always been good at language. Where I go I am really interested in learning a language and the culture. So picking up languages would be pretty easy to me. In school I was always the guy that was worse in maths, biology, chemistry and all that. Languages and cultures are the same as music, I find them so interesting. Which makes it easier for me.

What suits you most? In terms of where you would like to live? Is it important to live in a creative city? Do you look for that life?

Berlin, especially Milan, are great cities. But no it doesn't play a part in my decision making. The main reason I would switch to a different team is always because of the football. But it definitely fits my character. A nice great city with a lot of opportunities. Because that is just what my personality would like. I would definitely enjoy that more if I was in an area where I can go out and enjoy things that I like that bit my personality. It always plays a big part in people's lives to have an area where you feel comfortable in. I think I could live anywhere in this world but it would definitely be a lot easier if I lived in a city like this.

With your creative influences, when you came to Newcastle you got the number 23 shirt. How much was that inspired by Michael Jordan at all? Or was that not the case.

The whole Jersey thing with me was I had number 10 when I was playing Austria. I went to Berlin in the number 10 that was already taken. Then I decided to take number 20. I just doubled it up and had 20. After that I went to Inter Milan they told me numbers 10 and 20 are taken. I took the next one that was next available which was number 23 and I've been rocking that now. The same again I went to Newcastle and all of the numbers were taken. So of the options I had, Michael Jordan made the number 23 legendary and it was the one that was free so I took it.


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Who else do you look at in terms of role models and inspiration? Whether that's how you dress or what you listen to. Who else in the game do you think is doing great things right now?

Football-wise Ronaldinho. He is somebody that I've always looked up to. The way that he plays the game and the fun he had. Personally in life, besides my parents, there are a lot of people in different areas that can take something away from. I like the mindset that Jay-Z has out there in America. I like him a lot and I follow him so it's dope to see people like that. He's definitely somebody that I love to keep watching and to learn his mindset. The way he went through struggles, ups and downs in his life. How he came out of it is something that I admire.

He particularly is fascinating. How he was able to break into other industries and able to expand his music business as well. Do you take that into consideration and get a buzz off of him?

Yeah definitely. Because for me my passions are football, music and fashion. But it is not always easy for a football player to express all of your side hobbies or passions. You are always pressed into the role of, shut your mouth and play football. You are still a human being and you have the same issue with Jay-Z. He had doubters and people told him to just stick to music. He was never afraid, always just being himself and went with his idea. Just look at where he has gone.

That's such a good message, it's a great mentally to have. How would you like people to think about you?

Right now it's not the best time to judge me now. After my career I want people to look back and to judge the person. Not just the football player. I will still be the same Valentino after my career. I think in this business a lot of people forget the person behind the player. They see one game at the weekend and judge your whole life but hat's just not the case. We go through the same highs and lows like every other person in this world.

I started football because it was so much fun for me and I was lucky enough to make it my job and make money with it. I just want to inspire all the kids coming after me maybe. To really enjoy the sport they are growing up to love. After my career I want to remember that I maybe inspired the kids, to be yourself and confident.

All those achievements and we have not mentioned things on the international stage. How would you describe your relationship with the national team and that as an experience?

It was something that was special as well. Early in my career it all happened so quick. I was 16 and started to get regular appearances, in Austria, in the first team. But when I was 17 I picked up an injury that kept me out for a couple of months. I thought it was going to take me a while to pick all of that up again. But I immediately started playing again and all of a sudden I got a call up for the first team, in the national team. Even though I had only played for the Under 18’s, in the national team, before that. I totally skipped the Under 19’s, 20’s and 21’s. It was so special.

I expected to go there and the coach would want to see me in training and just learn who I am. I remember we had two games against Sweden and Iceland, I think, I had two appearances in both these games. It was so overwhelming, the whole time and how quickly it all developed.

Like you said, you go through highs and lows like any other human being. What goes through your head and how do you feel emotionally when you walk out onto the pitch? You hear the national anthem and then you score in an international game. What does the body do?

It's just crazy. To be honest it's the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life. Scoring goals and all those endorphins you get scoring for your national team is such a proud feeling. It's one of those little moments where you think “Wow I have made it.'' This is what I have been working for. I remember my first goal for the national team was against Northern Ireland and I scored the winner with literally the last kick of the game. In the 93rd or 92nd minute. The score was 2-1 and seeing all Austrians cheer with me was such an amazing feeling.

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Where does your mind go when you think of this summer? How much of a dream it could be to be involved in a European Championship?

A very big dream! I was pretty young, in the first team national team and had regular appearances there as well. But when the Euros came I remember I picked up an injury shortly after that and I just got it again for the Euros. So he called me up and I was in the Euro team camp. It was a 27 man squad he called up but could only bring 24. At the last moment he decided to cut me out. So I missed out on the 2016 Euros. Now I am fit again I have played the whole qualification and all the games. I have contributed goals, assists, so now it would be nice to finally go there and show up and show out.

Final question then. As someone who takes the moment we can't not talk about THAT goal. That scorpion kick. Tell us in your words what it was like when it went in…

It was just my second game for this club. We had a difficult game and I think I came on a 2-2. Quickly they scored 2 goals and we were down 2-4. I was thinking this isn't going the right way. But for me personally I think I played a pretty good game. When I came on I just wanted to show myself to this new team and my teammates. I came in as a striker, we had an injury and he put me on the left side, then the right side as a right back. Then 5 minutes later he put me on the left wing. I had three positions to play in 25mins. I've always been a pretty versatile player and can adapt very quickly.

I knew we had to attack the balls on the right. I just stormed up front, saw the ball come in, my teammate wanted to go and head for it. I remember shouting “I got it" he ducked away and I tried it. All of a sudden it worked! I was like “Oh wow!” Already in that moment it might be the nicest goal I will ever score. But unfortunately we were still down by 1 goal so I couldn't really celebrate. I wanted to from what I was feeling on the inside, but the next thing, which was really sad, is there were no fans in the stadium. It was a weird atmosphere. I think a couple of hours later I looked at all the messages and videos I got, then I quickly realised this was something special.

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Photography by Nelson Ndongala

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