Star man... AC Milan's Spanish midfielder Brahim Diaz (right) challenges Cagliari's Italian defender Edoardo Goldaniga during the Italian Serie A match at the Sardegna Arena in Cagliari. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The majority of professional footballers will go through their entire careers and never get the opportunity to play for one of the world’s biggest clubs. But Brahim Diaz has already played for three of them. He’s starred for English giants Manchester City, Spanish titans Real Madrid and now wears the coveted number 10 jersey for Italian goliaths AC Milan – and he is only 22.

Some of the biggest names in the game have had that famous number – Gullit, Boban and Seedorf to name but a few. It carries a lot of weight and expectation but the talented Spaniard likes the pressure. “It’s a very important shirt and comes with a big responsibility and a lot of pressure but I like the pressure,” says the midfielder who has helped take the team to the top of Serie A with some scintillating displays. “You need pressure to give your best and be able to perform at the top level. AC Milan is a legendary club and has achieved so many things. It is an honour to wear this number.”

Amazing journey

We are at The Palace at One and Only Royal Mirage, Dubai, where coach Stefano Pioli, defender Fikayo Tomoro and Diaz are in town to visit the local Rossoneri fanbase through a number of fan-centric events which will take place at Expo 2020 Dubai. “It’s been an amazing journey so far but there has been a lot sacrifice,” continues the naturally gifted star. “I have had to work hard and I had a bit of luck too. But I am fortunate to play football because it is what I love, it is my passion and to play in these kind of teams is amazing.”

Fikayo Tomori (left) and Diaz arrived in Dubai for the Expo 2020 to continue the club’s representation at the event. They - along with coach Stefano Pioli - will be present tonight for a special Q&A session at the Festival Garden.

He’s experienced the top three leagues in Europe - the Premier League, La Liga and now Serie A - and says they all have their own unique challenges. “You don’t stop running in the Premier League - you need to be a box-to-box player there while in La Liga it is slower pace and a more technical game. Serie A is more tactical and I have loved playing in all three leagues.”

Brought to England in 2015 from Malaga by Pep Guardiola, he picked up a league winners medal with City but feels he wasn’t given enough chances to show the fans his real ability. “Guardiola is a top class coach and I loved my time at City. I can understand why I didn’t get too many minutes there because I was very young and there was a squad full of top players there. But I am thankful for the chance he gave me, it allowed me to make a step up in my career especially at such a young age.”

Top coaches

He’s worked with some of the best coaches in the world such as Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and now Pioli and has learned valuable lessons from them all. “They are the finest coaches in the game and have so much experience and knowledge. They know exactly how to get the best out of you as a player and how to improve your game. They have been great with giving advice such as where to win possession of the ball and how to play between the lines. They are fascinating to listen to.”

With a short running stride, low centre of gravity and the ability to ghost past opposition players like they’re not even there, Diaz has been likened to Argentine legend Lionel Messi, but he laughs at this comparison. “I just want to be the best version of me.”

AC Milan are having an incredible season and are on course to win the Scudetto for the first time in 11 years but there are still a handful of games to go and the pressure is building. They have won their last 2 matches by just the solitary goal and Pioli has mentioned the need for his team to be more ruthless. “AC Milan has such an illustrious history of winning titles and silverware,” continues Diaz. “We need to win. It is what is expected of a club of this size. We are taking it game by game and we will see what happens. Our focus is only on the next game and we cannot look further than that. We will do our best and treat it as a final and hopefully by the end of the season we will achieve something great.”

He had a great start to the season and scored 4 goals in the first 9 games and was in his best form, but then tested positive for COVID-19 and was not just out of the team, he wasn’t allowed to participate in training sessions either. “That was a tough period. I was playing well and feeling good and then suddenly I had to stop.” He fought his way back to fitness and has returned to the team but recalls playing in an empty San Siro during the height of the pandemic. “That was a strange time. We have such an incredible stadium and our fans are the most passionate. The atmosphere in the ground when it is full is amazing and we missed them a lot when we were playing there without them.”

World Cup

The Qatar World Cup kicks off in November and Diaz, who made his senior debut last year, is hoping to catch the eye of Spain coach Luis Enrique between now and the end of the season and to force his way into the team. “We talk a lot and I just have to make sure I am playing at my best for AC Milan and hopefully I will be in the national team squad. It is a dream for every player to play at a World Cup.”

AC Milan will visit the Expo 2020 Dubai site today where they will meet 15 children during a special training session at the event’s AC Milan Academy and there will also be a special Q&A session at the Festival Garden.