About to embark on his seventh season in UAE football, Sebastian Tagliabue has history in his dead-aim sights.
The Al Wahda forward is a record-breaker already, secured two campaigns ago when he became the highest-scoring foreigner in the history of the UAE top flight. Last season, he struck 27 times to climb to 137 goals overall, moving to within 28 of Fahad Khamis’ long-standing mark. The haul clinched Tagliabue another Arabian Gulf League Golden Boot.
At 34, the Argentine is railing against age and the convention that the lifespan of a foreign player in the UAE’s lead division is a short one. He has stood resolute to its caprices. Then again, demanding chairman and fans do not particularly daunt him. Not when there’s family – wife Mariana, sons Facundo and Gustavo - to answer to.
“Much tougher, believe me,” Tagbliabue says, laughing. “Sometimes after the games I don’t want to come home. My sons are 10 and 8. Maybe I score two goals and when I go out the youngest one says ‘Why you miss one goal?’ I say ‘But I scored two’. He says ‘I don’t care, you missed the third. And this comes from my wife, because she’s like this. She’s killing me – I could score four and she says ‘Why not five, why not six?’
“In our first few years together, she would get angrier than me. And I’d say, ‘Listen I should be the one who gets angry’. But this is because she has a lot of passion for football and especially for me. It’s our life, our job, but you reach one moment the job is second: you play for the passion, to feel good. It’s not about the money. But honestly, this part of my family, they put so much pressure on me, make me improve so much.”
You can tell Tagliabue thrives on it. He has always been competitive, determined to make it in football from a young age. When his mother died when he was 13, he left the game for two years until his best friend persuaded him to come back. Some time after, he spent a miserable six months not playing while at Once Caldas in Colombia.
Almost a decade on and enjoying a late-career bloom, Tagliabue seems as hungry as ever. His edge is what has carried him this far; it drives him still. Strangely, it is at odds with the guy sitting here now, refreshed and relaxed following a late-night training session at Al Nahyan Stadium.
Tagliabue is calmer these days, he stresses, since his move to the Middle East. Before Wahda in 2013, he represented Saudi Arabia’s Ettifaq and Al Shabab, spending three years in the Kingdom.
Before that, his combative spirit would often get the better of him. Once, an over-zealous leap with an opponent preceded a trip to hospital; another challenge ended with his nose broken.
“Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost,” Tagliabue says, smiling. “Now I treat it like a game. If I fight with someone, I try to make him nervous.”
Still, it’s in stark contrast to the figure he cuts when on the other side of the white line. He is engaging, courteous, humble. Most certainly, Tagliabue the player and Tagliabue the person are very different beasts.
“Because when I go into the pitch, I want to win and I don’t care about anything,” he says. “Always in a good way, but if I can make an advantage in any way I will. In Argentina we live every day for this. Every day in training as well. If we can kill the other team, if we can get some advantage from them, we will.”
Even fatherhood hasn’t diminished the devilment.
“No, no, no,” Tagliabue repeats. “Sometimes when I come back home my wife says ‘Hey, there’s a few things you have to change, because your son is upstairs’. I say, ‘I don't care’. But I try to explain to them that it’s football. Also it’s our life, it’s our money, it’s Daddy’s job. So if I don’t get angry I will lose.”
Family is one of the three things Tagliabue believes has contributed to his longevity. Experience – knowing when to use his energy – and professionalism have played their part also. Tagliabue employs the former nutritionist of Makhete Diop, the former Al Dhafra and Al Ahli striker. When he has to focus on training or matches, he sacrifices family time.
Once before, when he felt his legs were lagging, he told Mariana that he wished to call it a day. Mariana responded by telling Tagliabue she would decide that, and since then the qualified fitness instructor has taken on dual roles of partner and personal trainer.
Given how Tagliabue feels at present, and despite approaching 35, he doesn’t imagine having that conversation with Mariana for a while yet. Although he understands that, sometimes, it isn’t a player’s choice to make.
“I expect to play maybe two, three, four years more,” he says. “I expect, but you never know. This is football. After two months I can get an injury, and can’t come back. I have one year left on my contract here, so I don’t know what will happen. But today I have power to continue.”
He hopes those days remain at Wahda. When he renewed his contract in 2016, then-team manager Abdul Basit Mohammed predicted Tagliabue would retire there. Tagliabue thought the very notion was “crazy”. Turns out it might not be have been so far-fetched.
“Al Wahda are in my heart,” he says. “It’s a big part of my life, because my youngest son came here when one-year-and-half, or two years. My other son was four. And the biggest one, when I had to renew my contract, he told me ‘Daddy, we never move away from another country, why we have to move now if you don’t sign?’ For me and my family, it’s not only seven years in one country; it’s part of our lives.
“For one of my sons it’s almost all his life and for my other son three quarters. So I have to say thanks really to the Sheikh, to the [chairmen], thank you for the fans, even if we fight sometimes. We are a family here.
“Sometimes people ask me ‘why you not come to Al Ain?’ Because I cannot. It’s the same as one player from Barcelona going to Real Madrid, I cannot. Because my heart is in Al Wahda.”
Asked what he has left to achieve at the club – he has won the President’s Cup and League Cup - Tagliabue interrupts before the question has reached its end.
“The league,” he says. “I want the league with Al Wahda.”
He describes winning the Asian Champions League as a “big dream”. Wahda take on Saudi champions Al Nassr in the last 16 this month, with the first leg in Riyadh on Monday. The club have not reached this stage of the competition in 12 years.
Then there is the all-time record. Tagliabue aims to break it this season, although he does not set goal targets. As usual, his family will be pushing him towards it.
“If I put pressure ‘oh I have to make 30 goals’, and after six months I have only 10, I will die,” he says. “I will say I don’t play any more. I don’t put target as a pressure. But I say ‘yeah, we will go for everything’.
“I didn’t tell my sons anything until now - they are on holiday - but when they come back I will tell them ‘If Daddy makes 29 goals he is the top scorer in history’. Then if one game I don’t score they will say ‘Daddy you have to make 29’.
“Last year I was top scorer. My wife said ‘OK, now this year, top scorer and best player’. Now we play Champions League it’s ‘You have to win against Al Nassr and you have to reach the final’. It’s good for me, because they are with me.”
Becoming the leading goalscorer in UAE league history, for the boy from a Buenos Aires province, who arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2013 with little English and unsure of what path his career would take is, understandably, hard to put into words.
“It would be something more than great, more than amazing,” Tagliabue says. “More than anything. Because it’s difficult to be in one country, any country – Spain, Italy, England, UAE, Saudi – more than four, five years. It’s very difficult to play in one club more than three, four years. So all these things together will be almost unbelievable.
“But if you ask me on the other side, I know I can do it. Because since young, when people asked me what you want to do in the future, I always said I will be a football player. As with some people, I didn’t say ‘I will be a footballer, because it’s my dream’. I knew I will be a footballer. Since young, I feel and I know that I will live for football. And finally, I got what I want.”
He has got that and more during his time in the Emirates. It is why Tagliabue did not hesitate when he was approached last September to represent the UAE. He says he was honoured. Made possible by President Sheikh Khalifa's degree the previous November, Tagliabue was willing to play for his adopted country having spent the mandatory five years there. He had never been capped by Argentina. Eventually the residency never transpired.
Yet it doesn’t detract from his affection for the Emirates.
“This seven years in UAE - you can see my skin when I speak - I live amazing times,” Tagliabue says. “And amazing news, like when they almost give me the UAE passport to play. That time, I called my father and said ‘You understand if they give me the passport of the UAE, where is our name? You can imagine your last name, Tagliabue, will be in one national team?’ But OK, after they weren’t successful, I didn’t know why.
“But in the UAE that never happened before. So when they called me I say ‘Wow’. Now everyone told me years ago that you are the top scorer of the club it was something ‘Wow’. ‘Wow, look where I’ve reached’. Now after last season they say I’m 28 goals to reach the history of the country, which I never expected. First, to be in one country for so many years. Less, in one club. I’ve never been in one club more than two years. So it’s unbelievable.
“When I start to think that I say ‘Wow, I’ve reached so far. I say thanks to my family first of all because without them or their support I cannot [achieve it]. But not because of what I tell you before: the pressure. Because if they don’t adapt themselves here in the UAE or they don’t like the UAE, I will go away. What I achieved in the last five or six years here in the UAE was amazing. It’s because of them.”