The Monday Interview: Attilio Lombard: English on the menu for Popeye

Ian Stafford meets Attilio Lombardo, the Italian bald eagle who wants to be a Zola, not a Ravanelli, for Crystal Palace
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The Independent Online
Attilio Lombardo is sitting up in his hotel room chair smiling, while his interpreter, Dario, explains how they have learned a new song in the Crystal Palace dressing-room to greet their big summer signing from Italy.

Moments later Dario has launched into "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man". On he goes until we get to Lombardo's part. The pounds 1.6m signing from Juventus shapes his hand into a trumpet, places it to his mouth, and lets out a "Toot, toot." They then both collapse into more laughter.

Seeing my bemused, if not disturbed expression, Lombardo, via Dario's translation, explains that his nickname in Italy was always Popeye. "I was known in Italy for being a strong player, both physically, and also in the way that I run up and down the pitch all afternoon. That's what the guys call me at Palace. Outside the club it's Bald Eagle but in the dressing-room it's Popeye."

The sight of Popeye running out in Palace colours, with pipe in mouth and a can of spinach in hand, would only be slightly stranger than seeing Lombardo, a man who has won honours with Sampdoria and Juventus, as well as 17 Italian caps, plying his trade for the south London pre-season favourites for an instant drop back into the First Division. He understands this point and, not for the last time in the ensuing conversation, lets out a short chuckle.

"I know that some people can't believe that I've joined Palace," he admits. "But I wanted to play regularly, and this wasn't happening at Juventus. They were happy to let me go and I fancied the challenge of lending my experience to a good, but young team, and to giving a strong contribution. I know I've not joined the biggest nor the best team in England but it will be fun."

Then there was the football factor. "English football's not what it used to be even five years ago," he continues. "It's richer now, in terms of technique, skills and tactics. I watched England play in the Tournoi (Lombardo played for Italy against France and Brazil, but missed the England game) and saw beautiful football. I was very surprised, because I saw a different style altogether to what I expected.

"And I also wanted to play in front of English crowds. Whenever I've seen English football on television, the atmosphere has always appeared to be wonderful. The fans seem to be so close to the pitch and it's great to see so many women and children at matches. It's not like that in Italy."

At least Lombardo had heard of Crystal Palace. "I played for Sampdoria against them in the early 1990s in a small club tournament," he explains. But his wife, Paola, still needed a great deal of persuading, and advice taken from Gianluca Vialli, before the Lombardo family agreed to give English football a go.

"My wife, and my two-year-old son, Mattia, always come first and she was a little sceptical about leaving our home and our country but London was a big incentive. I spoke to Luca, who is an old friend of mine from both Sampdoria and Juventus. I think a lot of him, both as a player and as a person, and I value his opinions. He told me I should come over."

So that was that. Or it should have been, except that a spate of stories referring to Lombardo's excessive demands for maids, butlers and mansions nearly scrapped the whole project. The ever-friendly face, at this point, changes into a glum expression as the 31-year-old explains how hurt he was by such comments.

"I hope people believe my word," he begins. "I have strong views on all of this. I never, never asked for anything like this. I didn't have these things in Italy because I don't like other people in my house so I'm hardly going to have them here, am I?

"Someone must have put these rumours around so that if negotiations broke down I would have been the culprit. They would have blamed me for asking for all that. But I'm telling you that it never came out of my lips and I never even thought about it.

"It bothered me a lot because I was reading about a Lombardo that just wasn't me. I was depicted as someone I'm not and I was so discouraged by it all that I almost abandoned coming to England."

But didn't Sheffield Wednesday turn him down last year because of his excessive wage demands? "No," he insists. "My agent went to Sheffield and asked the club what was on offer. They made an offer inferior to what I was earning at Juventus so my agent thanked them and left it at that. To move to a new country, and a smaller club, for a lot less than I was already earning, was obviously not on but there was never any mention of money from me."

Happily, for Palace supporters, and all fans of good football, Lombardo signed up this summer and has thrown himself into the good cause, both on and off the pitch. Determined to learn the new lingo as soon as possible Lombardo has to make do with one sentence he has picked up so far - "My target is to avoid relegation and to score many goals" - which may be apt in a sports interview, but pretty useless in a restaurant. Oh, and he has also been taught that extremely relevant English word for all occasions - "Dickhead" - which he happily calls everyone on the Palace training ground.

"I've no problem with my team-mates at all," he explains. "They've all been wonderfully friendly to me, even though our relationship is based on sign language. And I still can't get over making my home debut. The crowd were fantastic. They kept on chanting my name, even though we weren't doing so well in the game. It gave me goose bumps."

The home defeat to Barnsley followed Lombardo's debut at Everton, where he scored one and earned Palace's winning penalty. "It couldn't have gone better for me," is how Lombardo saw it.

After the Barnsley disappointment, Palace and Lombardo bounced back at Leeds, where the follically challenged midfielder scored a wonderful solo goal.

So far, then, so good, and already Lombardo sees signs to suggest that his new team are far from relegation favourites. "It's a rule of football that those who come up a division normally go down again but I have a strong belief that if my team-mates continue having the attitude they have now, then we will be OK.

"There are sides like Manchester United and Arsenal who are obviously superior to Palace but that doesn't mean to say that we have no chance against the big teams. If we can take to the challenge with the proper spirit then I'm sure we will be able to catch some of them out.

"Having said that, I appreciate that more is expected from me than from some of my team-mates because of my name and my experience. That's OK. I'm prepared to meet this responsibility."

He laughs again when asked whether he will turn out to be, in terms of English football success stories, a Zola or Ravanelli? "I hope to be a Zola," he says, almost instantly. "I don't want to be a Ravanelli because I don't want to end up playing in the First Division. Anyone as big as Ravanelli would be unhappy about playing there. It's been a lot easier for Zola because he plays for a good team. If I turn out to be as successful as Zola, then it would mean that Palace have had a good season."

Time will tell on all of this. Right now Lombardo has more immediate matters to deal with, like increasing his English vocabulary, and finding an apartment so that his family can join him from Turin. His hotel room is nice but it has the look of being lived in by a man who needs more space. Suitcases lie on the floor, newspapers are spread across the sofa, and a large hairbrush (I kid you not) lies on the dressing table.

Still, at least living temporarily in Chelsea Harbour means that he is near his great mate Vialli, who has taken no time to introduce Lombardo to the delights of our capital. "Life's quieter here than in Italy and although I'm a person who thinks and acts at 100 miles per hour I appreciate that I'm now living in a country which is calmer and more thoughtful.

"As for Luca, he's been lecturing me on life in London. The number one thing he always says is that life here is very expensive but he still enjoys himself and he keeps on taking me out."

Popeye, it appears, is fast becoming a hit both at Palace and in London. If he carries on the way he has started in the Premiership, then he will be able to toot his imaginary horn wherever he likes and if he can help steer his new club safely through the season then being called "dickhead" is a small price to pay for everyone else on the Palace staff.