Lucas Alario is having his best season at Bayer 04 so far. The Argentinian has regularly scored in all three competitions and is the top goalscorer in the team. In an interview with the Werks11 Magazin, the 28-year-old talked about the reasons for his impressive form, the significance of the numerous South American players at Bayer 04 for personal well-being plus what it feels like to be on the pitch with Lionel Messi…
Lucas, you grew up in Tostado, a small village in the north of Argentina and your father had a farm. What was life like there?
Alario: "My father worked as a farmer and had a number of fields. When I was little, I used to spend a lot of time there and that's how I grew up. I still like to be in natural surroundings and have the chance to get away from it all and switch off. I enjoy peace and quiet and I'm happy when the only thing I hear is birds tweeting."
As a boy you definitely wanted to have a rooster. Why this animal, which is known for disturbing the peace?
Alario: "I don't know either. I was a child and got on my father's nerves for so long until he bought me one. I was very happy when I got him. I don't have them anymore. If I think about it today then it does seem a bit crazy," (he laughs).
In contrast to another predilection: You still like to play in bare feet…
Alario: "Of course, I most prefer playing without boots. Contact with the ball without boots is the best thing there is. That's what makes football so much fun – that doesn't only apply to the Brazilians on the Copacabana but also to us in the north of Argentina."
You were a fan of Boca Juniors but then, as a player, you went on to win the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, with arch rivals River Plate. These two clubs possibly have the biggest rivalry in world football. How did you deal with that?
Alario: "My family comes from Santa Fe and there you are a fan of my hometown club, Club Atlético Colón. But, of course, the big clubs are also very popular. My father and my brothers always liked Boca Juniors so I liked them as well. But when I joined River Plate everybody became a River fan. That isn't an absolute exception in Argentina. But my family are obviously primarily fans of the club where I play. This connection is even stronger to the club even if that is considered to be the most constant thing in life in Argentina. (He laughs). I'm very grateful to River as they had the confidence in me to fetch me from Colón in the second division, turn me into a better player and give me the chance to win titles. I'll never forget that and I will always have the club in my heart."
There is also great rivalry between clubs in Germany and you've already played in a derby. Argentina is considered to be the most passionate football country in the world. What's the difference?
Alario: "In general, it's very difficult to compare the fan culture in South America with the one in Europe. Fans in Argentina are much crazier. A lot of people's lives are dominated by football and sometimes this mania leads to bad events, which is the negative side. Here the fans are very emotional and, above all, the derby against Köln is special. But overall, players and fans are more respectful of each other."
Bayer 04 have a long tradition of signing South American players. Diego Placente even became a club legend. What was your perception of the club during your childhood?
Alario: "Diego played here for many years in possibly the strongest period for this club. He had a great time at Leverkusen and in Argentina he's famous for wearing that shirt. In Argentina, Bayer 04 are seen as one of the really big clubs who are always competing at the top and are regularly in the Champions League."
The Bayer Group advertised in South America with the sentence, 'es Bayer, es bueno' (it's from Bayer, it's good)…
Alario: "Everybody in Argentina knows the adverts and Bayer have a good reputation. It's funny that I'm now playing with the Bayer logo on my shirt. I'd never have thought that would happen. I've known Bayer almost all my life."
You wear the number 13 shirt at Bayer 04. A special number that was previously worn by club legends like Michael Ballack and Rudi Völler. Was that a conscious decision?
Alario: "I took the number at River Plate because it was available. It was probably the only one I wasn't afraid of (he laughs). I'm not superstitious and I won big titles with it so that's why I kept it. Rudi Völler was an outstanding striker who won everything. I've got great respect for him and I would be happy to talk to him at length about football and his career."
What does it mean to you that there are five players from South America in the current squad?
Alario: "There are a lot of us (he laughs) – from Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Brazil. That's very important to me. Humour is a bit different between us and it does us good. We laugh in training and help each other as well as spending a lot of time together off the pitch. We like having barbecues together if time allows. Drink mate tea, a real Argentinian asado: Those are things from back home that I can't do without here in Germany. I was very happy when Exequiel (Palacios; ed.) joined us a year ago. We played together at River Plate and get on brilliantly. It's something quite different to be able to have another Argentinian as a friend in the team."
In the past, countries have been engaged in big and small conflicts – including on the football pitch. Being so far away from home, are rivalries forgotten here?
Alario: "The sporting relationship with Chile in particular was very strained after the defeats in the final of the Copa America in 2015 and 2016. But I don't have any problems with anybody. If people behave decently to me then everything is okay – regardless of where it comes from or where he plays. Our captain, Charles Aránguiz, is Chilean, he is very important for the whole team but especially for us Latinos. His experience, his temperament and his personality are absolutely exemplary."
There have been regular defeats in finals against Germany since 1990...
Alario: "That's what happens in football and you have to learn to handle it. I like German football and am very grateful that it's opened the door to Europe for me. I've become an even better player here and have also developed personally. I'm living here now and I'm doing very well. Nevertheless, it was very important for me to play for Argentina against Germany in Dortmund in 2019 and even score a goal. It was really important for the whole country not to lose to Germany again. I was very happy after we were 2-0 down that we secured the equaliser, in part thanks to me."
You've played alongside Lionel Messi for the Albiceleste, the Argentina national team. He is one of the best players ever to emerge in football and a national icon. Does that make an established and international experienced player like you nervous?
Alario: "It meant a lot to me and I really looked forward to it. When you watch him, you can see he's one of the really great players of world football and sport in general. Leo is known in every corner of the world. It was a strange feeling when I saw him for the first time and spoke to him. Like everybody else, I felt like I knew him from the years on television and countless number of games and then I was standing with him in the dressing room and he was a really normal bloke. If you spend a lot of time with each other, breakfast together, train and eat together in the evening then the other reality slowly becomes normal. I hope I can play alongside him again."
Did you feel particular pressure when you were on the pitch with him for the first time?
Alario: "Without doubt, you always try to produce your best possible performance and not make mistakes to avoid annoying him. (He laughs) Of course, you can't just force him to do something on the pitch. But everything that makes him stand out as a football player and world star shows in his football: He loves the game and is not aloof, which is remarkable with everything he's achieved. But, obviously, you can't just ignore it at the first training session and your nerves are on edge."
On 25 November last year, Diego Maradona died at the age of just 60. In contrast to Lionel Messi, you didn't know him. The images of the funeral from Buenos Aires went round the world and it very much touched a lot of people including beyond Argentina. What did you feel?
Alario: "The news came as a big surprise. Diego Maradona had a lot of lows and dicey moments in his life but he managed to deal with it again and again. And we all thought he'd recover from his heart attack this time. His death is very sad – for me and the whole country. It would have meant a lot to me to get to know him but unfortunately I never met him. We loved him for what he gave to Argentina on the pitch. He made the country very proud and Argentina famous all over the world. The worldwide homage from professional football again shows what an outstanding and special player he was and what he brought to this sport. We will have the best possible memories of him: in the stadium, which is where he always wanted to be and was always happy."
Maradona or Messi – can an Argentinian answer this question?
Alario: "Of course, this question was often asked after Diego's death. But I don't compare the two of them. It's better to enjoy both of them – Messi for as long as it lasts as a current player and Maradona on old videos. As Argentinians we should be grateful and also a little bit proud to have produced two such exceptional players."
In Argentina, Messi is called 'La Pulga', the flea. Your nickname in Argentina is 'El Pipa', the pipe. Where does that come from?
Alario: (He laughs) "I played alongside Jorge Higuain in my youth team in Santa Fe. His father was called 'El Pipa' due to his very long and pointed nose. Because I had a similar nose to Jorge Higuain, I was given the same name by my youth coach. I've had it since then and I like it as well. My big nose doesn't bother me and nicknames like that are really normal in Argentina. Nicknames, as with Messi, are often funny and make you smile. We don't mind the mickey being taken and there are lots of players who are affectionately called 'El Gordo', the fat one. That's never meant to be derogatory."
A lot of players who come from the other side of the Atlantic have to adapt in the Bundesliga. What were the big differences for you?
Alario: "To be honest, you have to say there are also players who hit the ground running straight away. I had to work very hard at the start. The high physical demands cost the most strength. The league is very evenly balanced and the games are hard-fought. It took a while for me to get used to the intensity in training. I had to work on having more strength in the final stages of games. That's the biggest advance I noticed. I've got more power."
Is that a reason for your improvement this season? Or how do you explain your outstanding first half of the season?
Alario: "It's a mix of a lot of things. Kevin Volland and Kai Havertz, two important strikers, have left the club. That created an opening. There was a lot of competition and both played brilliantly and that's why I had less playing time. But the coach also knew he could always rely on me. Patrik Schick unfortunately got injured at the start of the season and I was there when the team needed me. It did me good playing regularly. And then I had the fortune to score regularly. Now it feels really good. For a striker, goals are the best endorphin boost you can imagine."
Your goalscoring record is formidable in all teams and competitions – and not just since this season. You're a classic number nine, a type of player that is becoming ever rarer...
Alario: "I've always played right up front and was the one to finish attacks. My game has never been to move out to the wings. I like the inside positions up front but I'll do the work that the team needs: running, working back, winning possession. But the penalty area is my office. Close to the goal, ready to shoot."
You've now been in Leverkusen for three and a half years. Have you discovered a couple of typical German characteristics for yourself?
Alario: "Definitely. I've learned a lot here and seen why the country is so successful as it is: quality-of-life, discipline, everything works, and upbringing and education are exemplary. Both are at the highest level early and that helps people develop enormously. Florian Wirtz, for example, comes to training straight after school, hardly misses a session and is doing his final exams alongside professional football. That doesn't happen in South America. There you are confronted with the decision: football or education. Germany makes it possible for people to do a lot of things."
And what else is missing from home?
Alario: "That's difficult to say. Of course, there are things I miss. Starting with family, friends and the sunshine. On the other hand, people live in a different reality in Europe and particularly in Germany. You don't have to live with four eyes, as we say Argentina, and continually have to look round out of fear of being robbed. For us Latinos, that sense of security here is an important plus and a big difference from back home. You probably can't understand that if you've never lived in South America."
Your parents have often come to visit you in the Rhineland. Do they like it too?
Alario: "Yes, but unfortunately they've only been here in the winter up to now. And then it's a different country. It's cold outside and the people are colder. I'd be happy if they can get to know the sunny Germany when people here move life outdoors, everything is green, everybody's happy and there are barbecues outdoors."
Is there something that you still find difficult in Germany?
Alario: "Talking. (He laughs) I'm making great progress and I understand a lot. But I'd really like to speak German better to be able to have real conversations in that language. At the moment it's still a struggle. But it's worth it. Communication is very important for people to get to know each other and to show what really makes you tick."
The interview was in Werks11 Magazin number 29.