When Álvaro Morata reaches the Spain dressing room at the Stade de France on Monday afternoon, he will pull on a white shirt, shorts and socks and then put on his boots, his shin pads and a helmet. He will if he has listened to the advice his Italian friends have given him, anyway – and if there is one thing Morata has done recently, it is listen to his Italian friends. “I’ve learnt more in two years at Juventus than in my entire life,” the Spain striker says.
It is six days since Morata bade farewell to Juventus, a brief statement confirming Real Madrid had unilaterally paid the €30m buy-back clause in his contract. Now, unexpectedly, he says hello again, but as an opponent. Seven of Italy’s squad were his team-mates in Turin, including the men with whom he will have to do battle, and “battle” is the word. Juventus and Italy’s own BBC: Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini, have told him so. “They’ve told me to wear a helmet,” Morata jokes.
That is the kind of game it is going to be; the kind of game Morata knows. If he is here with Spain now, the tournament’s top scorer, it is in part thanks to his opponents. And if he can beat them, he can beat anyone. If he can beat them he must still beat the man who stands behind them: Gigi Buffon. And he, Morata says, is “enormous, intimidating”. As for Buffon, he says: “Morata is still a young man and not even he is aware of just how good he is at times. He has the gift that only the top players have.” There is a message in there; one that Italy’s goalkeeper transmitted during the striker’s two years in Turin.
Not long after he joined Juventus for €20m, Morata was interviewed from Spain’s Las Rozas HQ, northwest of Madrid, by the Spanish radio show Al Primer Toque. At the end of the interview, he was played two clips from former team-mates Dani Carvajal and Nacho Fernández, wishing him the best and telling him they were proud of him. As he sat listening, he could no longer hold back the tears. Aged 21 when he left, it has not been easy, but Morata has learnt about the game and himself.
If there was a fragility there at first, of which there are still occasional, fleeting glimpses, he encountered support, experience and plenty of friendship too, the fondness towards him clear. Giorgio Chiellini calls him a “special boy”, to whom saying goodbye “feels bad”; Simone Zaza says he is a “brother”. Morata talks of “affection”, insisting: “I have grown in football terms and in human ones, too.”
His first coach, Max Allegri, wanted to make him nastier on the pitch, while Buffon advised him to cry if he needed to but not to let people see him do so: too many would seek to take advantage. Morata has talked about a lesson he will “never forget”.
“I told him, jokingly, that he had everything a striker needs if he could get over his mental hang-ups,” Buffon said. “I told him that if he stopped feeling sorry for himself he could be a match winner. I am pleased that is being proven to be the case. He is a young, intelligent man who listens.”
Consistency remains the battle. In February Morata scored a goal that ended a run of 115 days without a goal. “It was driving me mad,” he admitted. He had tried everything from cutting his hair to growing a beard, to changing his car. He had kept it all in and let it out. He admitted he had had “personal problems”: no more than any normal person, he said, but he had. Yet, ultimately, his time in Italy has been successful and one for which he is, he says, “grateful: I needed all sorts of help and they helped me a lot; they did all they could to improve me as a player”.
Although he was not a guaranteed starter this season, he left Italy having won two title wins; had also reached the Champions League final, scoring in both legs of the semi-final against Real Madrid and in the final against Barcelona; and got an extra-time winner in the Coppa Italia. Above all, he had completed the toughest apprenticeship there is. “That was good for his development,” Vicente del Bosque said, both personally and professionally.
“Scoring lots of goals in Italy is much more difficult: they are experts in defending,” Morata says. “In Spain, you get seven clear chances a game to receive the ball and shoot. In Italy you get very few clear balls and you have to fight everyone to score; that makes you improve and develop.”
It has been useful when it comes to playing up front for Spain where, by his own admission, “you can sometimes feel like you’re another spectator; there can be 40 passes and you only touch it two or three times, and one of them has to be a goal”.
In Paris, especially. “This is one of the most important games of my life,” Morata says. It is also one that ruins his holiday plans. Morata speaks to Zaza “virtually every day” and they were due to go away together as soon as the European Championship ended. On Monday night, for one of them it does; the other will stay head to Bordeaux for the quarter-finals.