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Facundo Pellistri: ‘I wrote to Ole. He gave me the chance to play for United’

Announce Pellistri. The transfer window was into added time, the clock was ticking and they were getting nervous, watching the seconds slip away and hitting f5 over and over. They were at Facundo Pellistri’s place, anyway. It was after midnight, deadline day October 2020, and Manchester United had said one more signing was coming, keeping supporters – and him – on edge. An extension had been requested but even that was running out. All because he wrote his name wrong.

“I had sent off the paperwork, ‘done’,” Pellistri recalls, sitting in the canteen at Deportivo Alavés, where he is on loan, teammates eating at another table. “But they came back: ‘No, no, the signatures don’t match.’ I had signed the contract with my signature but they said it had to be the same as my national ID card – and I’d had that since I was 10. I had to re-do it: scan everything again, print it off, sign it with a kid’s signature – write my name neatly, basically – and send it back.

“We thought it was all done, but we got no answer and no announcement. We’re looking at the clock. There was no response. Of course not: they were busy checking everything. My girlfriend was updating the United Instagram page but there was nothing. Eventually, on the limit, she shouted: ‘Announced!’ We threw the papers in the air, started celebrating. And then, chaos: messages, posts. I’d already signed off with Peñarol: if it hadn’t happened, I would have been an unemployed footballer.”

The son of a paediatrician and an accountant, Pellistri grew up on the “wrong” side of a musical family – “the side that wasn’t as talented musically,” he says, smiling. His godfather Sebastián Teysera is lead singer in La Vela Puerca, one of Uruguay’s biggest bands. “I would go to all the rehearsals, the concerts. In fact, they’re just about to bring out a new record and hopefully they’ll go back on tour.” Mostly, though, he went to sport: tennis, basketball and above all football.

Pellistri tells stories of crossing the water to see Uruguay win the Copa América in 2011 and travelling to the 2014 World Cup. A Peñarol season-ticket holder from birth, he travelled by bus to Libertadores matches in Argentina and Brazil. Soon it was him they were watching. Joining his club at 11, he made his debut in August 2019, aged 17; a little over a year later he was gone, following the path of the man who had coached him.

Facundo Pellistri in action for Peñarol against Colo-Colo in a Copa Libertadores game in September 2020.
Facundo Pellistri in action for Peñarol against Colo-Colo in a Copa Libertadores game in September 2020. Photograph: Sandro Pereyra/Getty Images

“I was nine during the 2010 World Cup and what Diego Forlán did was incredible: he’s an idol, so it was amazing when he came,” Pellistri says. “He’d been in Europe and was different. He did a lot of individual work, specific to positions, which really improved you. Practice, practice. He talked to us a lot, especially about spaces, positioning. He was also the one who told me about United.

“He had been [Ole Gunnar] Solskjær’s teammate. Solskjær called him and said: ‘We’re interested in this lad, what’s he like? How does he train?’ Diego told me about the call and said it was an incredible club. I talked to him a lot. I’d been about to go to Lyon, in France. I don’t know why it didn’t happen but once United appeared that was it. I spoke to Solskjær: he called to welcome me, talked me through everything.”

Pellistri was 18, about to cross the Atlantic, and in the midst of the pandemic too. Yet if he still looks like a kid, fresh faced, eyes as wide as his smile, he doesn’t sound like it: there’s a sharpness and intelligence about him, a maturity. There’s an awareness and patience that’s unusual too, wisdom. It almost makes sense when he describes a scenario in which he initially acted as host to Edison Cavani rather than the other way round, as if he were the veteran and not the then 33-year-old.

“I was already in the bubble because of the Sudamericana, which meant that when I got to Manchester I could train sooner than Edi. He got there before me but had to do quarantine so instead of him welcoming me, it was me welcoming him.

“It was the first time I had met him. He’s incredible. Everything you heard about him is true. He trains like no one, he’s a leader, he advised me. We spent Christmas together and I talk to him all the time. My English is good: I went to a bilingual school. But there’s always a bit of embarrassment speaking English and you gravitate towards Spanish speakers. Edi, David [de Gea], [Juan] Mata. [Paul] Pogba speaks Spanish, Eric Bailly.”

Derby try to halt Facundo Pellistri during a pre-season friendly in July.
Derby try to halt Facundo Pellistri during a pre-season friendly in July. Photograph: Matthew Peters/Manchester United/Getty Images

Loaned to Alavés in January 2021, Pellistri played 12 games, meeting and swapping shirts with Luis Suárez the day his countryman reached 500 career goals – “Luis had a shirt for each half and I got the historic one,” he grins. Then he returned to Manchester for pre-season before heading back to Alavés for this season, opportunity reduced by Cristiano Ronaldo’s and Jadon Sancho’s arrivals, except that the winger doesn’t see it like that. “I’m not thinking, ‘I have to play here tomorrow’, so you don’t worry about signings,” he insists. “In fact, you like it because you train with players who raise the level, helping you improve.

“I left Manchester feeling good about pre-season: I scored at Derby, the sessions were good, I was adapting. It’s hard to change because they’re totally different leagues: in Spain the football is more closed, more defensive. In England, it’s more open, more space, more one on ones. A diagonal ball and you’re in. But a player has to look for that, learn from everything.”

After one start in the opening seven games, in which Alavés won once, things are falling into place: Pellistri started wins against Cádiz, Elche and Levante as they went five unbeaten and climbed out the relegation zone. It may not be enough to keep him there. “There’s a clause where if I don’t play a certain number of minutes, they can take me back [unliterally], and mathematically I can’t reach that even if I play every minute until January,” he explains.

Facundo Pellistri shields the ball from Eric García during Deportivo Alavés’s game at Barcelona in October.
Facundo Pellistri shields the ball from Eric García during Deportivo Alavés’s game at Barcelona in October. Photograph: Ricardo Larreina/REX/Shutterstock

Whenever he goes back, it will be under a different manager, Solskjær sacked last month. “I wrote to Ole,” Pellistri says. “He gave me the chance to play for United and always taught me. I thanked him and wished him the best. Sadly, in football results rule. When things aren’t going well the easiest thing to sack the coach – that happens everywhere. Football’s like that. It can be cruel.”

Pellistri says the biggest challenge is maintaining emotional balance. “Switch off, get away from football sometimes. If not, things can be very stressful. The worst thing is the hours before a game. Once you’re on the pitch, you don’t feel the pressure, not in the moment. The adrenaline means even the kicks don’t hurt sometimes. And all the bad things are nothing compared to how lovely the game is. You have to ensure that none of that gets in the way of enjoying it, of sharing those moments with fans. You have to know the bad moments will pass.”

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And the good moments will come. So now what? “I’m trying to get used to Europe, to improve. Then of course you’ll see what decisions you can take, where the path leads. I have a five-year contract at United but I’m trying not to look three years ahead. At the same time, you can’t ever feel like that’s a long way away. If I play for United, that’s a dream but it’s best not to focus on that yet. It’s about feeling like you’re getting a little closer all the time.”