Ola Aina interview: Chelsea loanee discusses his ‘leap of faith’, life at Torino and his future beyond the bubble

Exclusive interview: The 22-year-old full-back has established himself as one of Serie A’s best young players

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Saturday 27 April 2019 08:57
Chelsea reach Europa League semi-finals after beating Slavia Prague

We accuse footballers of living in bubbles but no-one could say that about Ola Aina. The Chelsea full-back was surprised to start this season on loan at Torino FC but he has jumped at the chance, immersing himself in the Italian language and life and in Serie A.

And it is paying off already. Aina has been Torino’s best player this season, a spark of energy from wing-back in Walter Mazzarri’s well-drilled 3-5-2 team. He has attracted the attention of the two Milan clubs and is likely to stay in Italy next season, whether at Torino or elsewhere.

Aina is already being rewarded for the brave decision he took last summer. He had just finished his first loan season, at Hull City. That was his first taste of regular men’s football and he wanted more of it. He knew that at Chelsea there was not going to be a lot of it, as much as he had valued Antonio Conte’s attempts to integrate him into the first team group during Conte’s first season.

So Aina needed something new for this season. And then the phone rang. “It was even a shock to me really,” Aina remembers over coffee in a hotel in central Turin. “I just got a call one day saying Torino are interested, what do you think? I was a bit hesitant, because it’s a whole different country, by myself out here, I wasn’t too sure. There was a place in me that was a bit uneasy. I just wasn’t sure about anything.”

But Aina was encouraged by those close to him to take what he calls “a leap of faith”.

“I spoke to my family, my agent, my agent about it. Everyone had the same answer for me: they all said it’s a sacrifice. Sometimes you’ve got to do things that you don’t like, to boost yourself. This was an opportunity to be in a top league, and to get some good experience. And to try to do well for myself. I just took a leap of faith, and I just did it. Thankfully it has turned out to be more than what I expected.”

Aina loves his life in Turin. The manageable size of the city, the feeling of privacy, the fact that he can walk everywhere from his place just off Piazza Solferino, not even needing a car. But he loves it because he has opened himself up to it, rather than trying to replicate his London life out here. He is learning the language, taking lessons every day, and speaks to Mazzari in Italian rather than English, which Mazzarri never picked up at Watford. He used to use DuoLingo but he has moved beyond that now, and he watches Italian television and reads Italian newspapers.

What shines through is Aina’s curiosity about the world beyond football, his sense of a hinterland, and his interests in religion and art. In his spare time Aina likes to draw and paint to relax, and on Sundays he streams sermons from his church in south Wimbledon.

Aina stars in Chelsea’s youth team

So Aina has always admired players – like Cesc Fabregas or Didier Drogba - who took the difficult decision to leave their native country young in pursuit of a football career. And he has wondered why young English players should not do the same. Jadon Sancho has set the standard, leaving Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund in 2017 and making himself into a top player over there. And now Aina wants to establish himself abroad too.

“Coming out here is really good. You always hear about these other foreign players – Spanish players, African players - leaving home at a young age to come and play. But you never hear from young British guys who’ve gone out to Spain at the age of 15 or whatever and learned his trade. You never hear that. There’s always a question mark. Why not?”

“For example, Cesc Fabregas came to Arsenal when he was very young. Didier Drogba was very young when he went to France. I just think why can’t English players do that as well? Why can’t you go to Germany or Italy or Spain and make a good name for yourself?”

That is what Sancho and Reiss Nelson are doing in Germany and it is what Aina is doing in Italy. What he learns here will set him up for the rest of his career. “Right now, it’s the way forward,” he says. “But going into Europe, it’s a whole different mindset. It’s a whole different football to English football. That’s an experience you can keep with you for the rest of your career.”

Aina impresses on loan at Huddersfield

It took Aina “two or three months” to adapt but soon enough he felt settled here. Mazzarri plays a 3-5-2 system that relies on the wing-backs for speed and width. Aina has been able to provide that, whether on the right or the left, and has started 20 Serie A games so far. He loves Mazzarri, “he’s a great manager, a good coach, a good person, he’s really trying with me.” And he loves the tactical challenge of the football too.

“The football here is really good, very different. You may not know every side as well as Juventus or Napoli, but all of these sides have good players that challenge you.” He picks out Fiorentina’s Federico Chiesa and Udinese’s Rodrigo de Paul as especially dangerous opponents. “The football is very tactical. Everyone seems to think Italian football is slow and boring, just passing. But it’s not like that at all. There's so much that I didn't expect, and the football is really good.”

So it is no surprise to learn that Aina is likely to stay in Italy next year, even though he has two years left on the Chelsea contract he signed last summer. “Why not?” he says when asked if he will stay at Torino, who have an option to sign him permanently. “It’s a good fanbase. It’s a very cultured club. You can tell by the fans and how everything is run here. It’s a nice place to be and I am very happy right now

Maybe it is not what Aina was expecting back when he was in Chelsea’s all-conquering 1996 generation, along with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kasey Palmer, winning two FA Youth Cup finals and losing another. And he looks back on his time at the Chelsea academy with only love and positivity, as “one of the best things that has ever happened to me in my life”. But every young player needs to find his own way, and Aina has found his at the second club in Turin.

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