Di Maria, one of three children born to Miguel and Diana, grew up in the city of Perdriel in the Mendoza district of west Argentina. He was obsessed with football and spent every waking hour taking to the streets with friends in his neighbourhood. When scouts from Rosario Central first spotted him there was a minor issue as he was already committed to playing for the local side Torito.
“They drove a hard bargain to release me,” recalled Di Maria. “The transfer fee was 35 footballs. That probably puts into perspective where I was and how much it took to get me. Mind you I was very young, about four so I’m not sure it really counts.”
Mind you, the hyperactive youngster was lucky to make it past his first birthday. The family had moved to a new home which was falling apart and Di Maria fell down a well in the garden. “My mother always recalls the story,” Di Maria added. “I was a year old and had a baby walker and went outside and fell into a well. I was lucky because they saved me in time otherwise I wouldn’t be here to talk about it.”
That was the first of many incidents that prompted Di Maria’s mother to take him to a doctor because she was concerned there might be something wrong with him. However, he believes it was the start of his career in the game.
“My mother got tired of me breaking everything in the house so she took me to see a doctor when I was three. I was running around the examination room breaking everything. The doctor just said ‘Sign him up for a sport’ and that is where my career began.”
Growing up in relative poverty has taught Di Maria to appreciate the finer things in life. “I had a humble upbringing and grew up playing on the streets of Perdriel. We didn’t have much. Our house was small and I shared a room with my sister. But I don’t feel angry. There are people who are a lot worse off. My values come from my upbringing. Humility, to become someone in life. My childhood was about having enough to eat, having the bare necessities.
“My parents worked so they could earn enough to buy me a pair of football boots. It’s something I will always keep inside me. For me to play football and have boots meant my two sisters went without.
“My father worked at a coal yard with my mother. It was a horrible existence and when the weather was bad all they had was a metal roof over their heads. But both me and my sisters worked at the coal yard as well. I started aged 10 and by the time I was 15 I was helping with deliveries. It was hard work.
“I often think how lucky I am to have football. I was a terrible student. If I didn’t have football I would have continued to work in the coal yard. What else would I have done?
“My father worked at that coal yard for 16 years until I made him give up work when I joined Benfica. It was nice to be in a position to be able to do that and say ‘Dad, you don’t have to do this any more’.
“I was heartbroken for my father because he could have played football but got a serious knee injury playing for River Plate reserves. My mother always reminds me how lucky I am and that I am doing what my father wanted to do, I am living his dream.
“None the less he is a very kind and wise man. Family means everything to him and I feel blessed that I am now in a position to repay him and my family and make sure they don’t have to struggle. My father made so many sacrifices for me. I will always remember what he said when Benfica made a bid for me: ‘Son, this train only passes by once in a lifetime so you have to get on and go forward.’”
Di Maria’s mother also made sacrifices for her son. “When I began to play for Rosario Central when I was six it took us 30 minutes to get to the training ground,” he added. “She took me on a bicycle, three of us on that bike. I would sit on the back and my younger sister would sit on a seat on the handlebars and my mother would ride the bike. It was hard during winter. Can you believe we did this for seven years?
“My mother is religious too. She is the one who blesses me and gives me strength before games. She lights candles for me before every game. Religion is important for all of us. My wife, Jorgelina, also lights candles for God to bless me and look over me.”
On the field Di Maria has a reputation for being a relentless runner with extraordinary stamina. “I have frequently left the field when an opponent asks where I get the strength to run so much. But I have always been the same, it’s just the way I am. I never stop running.
“I’m very focused, rarely get emotional. I think I have only ever cried once in my career when I got injured playing for Argentina in the semi-final of the Under-20 World Cup against Chile. I was heartbroken to miss the final and wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Naturally I get goosebumps in big games but in general I don’t let emotion give way to weakness.
“I like to think I have given my family back something by buying them houses and gifts. Hopefully I will be able to continue doing that until my career ends.” With his cut of the transfer fee, he will.