One of these days I really need to say thank you to Sergio Agüero.
For a long time I have been like, I need to play against this guy, just so that I can talk to him. Not just because my grandfather is Argentine, or because Sergio is one of my family’s favorite players, or because at the World Cup two years ago we all sat in front of the TV rooting for Argentina.
Nah. I have a story to tell him. Many years ago Sergio scored a goal that gave me one of the happiest moments of my life.
To understand why, you need to know about my older brother, Jack.
Jack was my hero when I was a kid. Some people think that my dad, Claudio, made me a good player, since he was a pro himself. Sure, he gave me great advice and some pretty good genes. But when I was growing up in Manchester, where Dad was playing for Manchester City, the one who always played with me in the backyard was Jack.
We had the old Samba goals, you know? One-on-one, nowhere to hide. I was four years old and Jack was three years older, so he would sometimes let me win by letting a few shots slip under his foot. Most of the time, though, Jack would make sure I lost. And I’d get angry. I’d kick him, bite him, fight him. Then I’d cry and run to my mum, Danielle. Those games made me grow up a lot, and Dad will tell you the same thing. My competitiveness, my feistiness, all that came from trying to beat Jack.
He was the perfect brother. I was always a shy kid, so he would include me in whatever he was doing with his friends, which meant that I got used to playing against kids who were several years older. That gave me confidence. When I wasn’t around, he’d say nice things about me. When he realized that I was going to be better than he was, he pushed me to become the best I could possibly be. And if I had played a good game, he would be the first person to call me to tell how well I had played.
In 2007, our family moved to New York, where Dad played for the New York Red Bulls. In the summer of 2010, Jack was diagnosed with brain cancer. He was 11 years old. At one point it looked like he was going to make it, but in December 2011, the doctors discovered that the tumor had come back. Shortly after that, when we went on a vacation to Mexico, Jack started to get sick and put on pounds because of the chemotherapy. He could still walk and swim, but he got tired very quickly. That was when I figured out that this could end in a very bad way.
Over the next few months I did everything I could to help him. I had to grow up fast. He couldn’t pull himself up. There was a point where he had to wear diapers. I learned how to microwave food, I did the dishes, stuff like that. I also hung out a lot with my younger brother, Joah-Mikel, and my younger sister, Carolina, who were having a tough time, too. I just wanted to make my family happy, and to make Jack happy, of course. All of us did, especially when we knew that he only had a few months left to live. Every night at the dinner table we would tell each other stories and laugh. Every night. Somehow, even in such a devastating situation, we managed to have some fun.
One day in May 2012, when Jack was 13, we gathered in the living room to watch the final day of the Premier League. I think even my grandparents were there. We are all big City fans, because Dad played there, and on that particular day City could win its first league title in 44 years by beating Queens Park Rangers at home. If City didn’t win, we had to hope that Manchester United, which was behind City only on goal differential, didn’t win either.
He was so sick at that time that he couldn’t walk or talk. Now he wasn’t going to see City win the league either.
We were all pretty positive that City was going to beat QPR, one of the smaller teams in the league. When City scored in the first half, the win, and the title, seemed like a formality.
But QPR turned the game around and took the lead in the second half. Since United was winning, City needed two goals. In our living room nobody was smiling anymore. I felt bad for Jack. He was so sick at that time that he couldn’t walk or talk. Now he wasn’t going to see City win the league either.
Two minutes into stoppage time Edin Džeko equalized. That gave us some hope, even though the game was almost over. Two minutes later Agüero scored the winner.
You’ve seen the goal. You’ve heard the commentary.
We went crazy in the living room. We were jumping around, shouting and celebrating and hugging each other. A first league title in 44 years! Won in the most incredible manner. We looked at each other in disbelief.
Suddenly we heard someone gasping for air. It was Jack. He was rolling around on the floor, which came out of nowhere because he barely had any energy left in his body. We got very concerned. For 20 seconds it looked like he couldn’t breathe.
Then, slowly, Jack broke into a smile and began to laugh. We realized that he was celebrating the goal. He was just as happy as we were.
I’ll never forget that moment. It was so amazing, so funny, so crazy.
A bit more than nine weeks later, on July 19, Jack passed away.
Losing your older brother when you are nine years old changes the way you view life. You learn not to take anything, or anyone, for granted. The next few years after Jack’s death were very difficult for the whole family. Personally, I just felt lost.
Sports became my getaway.
It was important for me to just enjoy whatever I was doing. I had played lacrosse. Now I was playing tennis, a bit of Wiffle ball and a lot of basketball. Playing different sports helped me become a better soccer player. Basketball, for example, improved my footwork and athleticism. And anyway, I don’t think it would have been healthy to focus just on soccer. Actually, I would say that to all kids and parents: Just enjoy different sports until you are 13 or 14, then you can pick one. There is no need to get too intense too early. I think a lot of parents in America are a bit hard-core. I’m definitely glad that my dad never put any pressure on me. He was always there as a dad first. Soccer always came second.
My goal was to turn pro, of course. I’d watch the big games and the big players through the generations: First Messi and Cristiano, then down to Neymar, then De Bruyne, Sterling, then Mbappé. I wanted to play in World Cups and Champions League finals. Being like these guys was always my dream.
I kept playing with kids who were two or three years older. In 2015 I began playing for New York City, where Dad had been sporting director for two years. One of the players there was Nico Benalcazar, who became my best friend. I was one of the youngest players there, and still feisty — a bit of a knucklehead, if you want to call it that — whereas Nico was a year older than me. So when we roomed together at tournaments, he would keep me in line. Whenever I’d get into fights in training, he would back me up. He became like an older brother to me.
My game changed at New York City. Over the first few months I was a right winger, fast but small. After our Christmas break that season, we got a really good coach from Spain named José Manuel Lara, who had worked at Real Madrid’s academy. By then I was 13 and already one of the best players on the team, but José Manuel showed me how not to just rely on my speed. He worked on my first touch, my linkup play, my whole understanding of the game. He taught me the Spanish way. I cannot thank him enough for that. Without him I definitely would not be here.
Around this time I also had a growth spurt — I became taller, stronger and more confident. Then José Manuel switched our formation and moved me from the right wing to a central number 10 role. Come February we travelled to Madrid to play a tournament against some of the best youth teams in the world. And I just took off. Suddenly, I was this powerful playmaker who wasn’t scared of anyone. We lost the final on penalties to Atlético Madrid, but I became the tournament’s top scorer, and people said I would have been named the best player, too, had we won the final. I had never been on a European stage before, and now I was dribbling past kids who were older than me and playing for big teams. I was like, If I’m beating these kids, for sure I must have something.
After that many of the big clubs began to go, Hmm, this kid can play. Obviously they couldn’t do anything because of the rules for signing young players, but they did begin to track me. The only one who knew about it, though, was Dad, because I didn’t even have an agent at the time. And Dad didn’t tell me. It was probably a good thing. Had he told me, I would have had like no idea what it meant. I would’ve been like, “So what am I going to do? Am I going to go there? What’s happening?”
Over the next couple of years I became one of the best players in the country for my age. I played for the national team a year up. We would go to all these international tournaments, where the interest from big clubs kept coming and where the same thoughts kept running through my head. If I’m better than these kids from Brazil, I really might have something.
In July last year, when I signed for Dortmund and joined their academy, it was the same thing of just raising my level and realizing that I could make another jump. Like, Hey, maybe I can play for the first team.
Then last January, I was invited to join the first team on a winter camp to Spain. That was when I knew that I was going to eventually get promoted. When I made my senior debut that same month, I was really, you know, a bit more nervous and uncomfortable.
The hardest part about moving to Germany, though, has been leaving home. I’m a family kid. Even before I came over I wasn’t going out with friends that often. I’d much rather have a night in than a night out. So for the first six months it was very tough living alone. I got an apartment in February and then the pandemic struck, which created a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen. Some said that we weren’t going to be able to play until September. In that state of mind, I was just lost. It often felt like I needed to get some love and some life into my apartment. It was a lot of white walls, a lot of unfinished rooms. I really just needed my family there to draw all the parts of my life together.
It was a phase I had to go through, though. My parents probably won’t like hearing this, but I know that I need to start making the next step in my life, which means living alone and focusing a bit more on myself versus being their kid — which I always will be, of course. But, you know, life moves pretty fast and you have to move with it. So during these last few months I have tried to take things into my own hands and educate myself a bit more. I’ve read up on history, politics, the Black Lives Matter movement, stuff like that. I just think it’s important to know about the world, keep an open mind and be ready for whatever comes next.
I have grown a lot as a player, too. I’ve played some big games, I’ve come out of my shell. I now demand the ball. I think the time has come for me to become one of the main players on the team. You see guys like Sancho and Haaland — I want to be at their level. When I was playing for New York City, it was like, Who is going to change the game for us? And then they would look to give me the ball. I want that to happen at Dortmund. I know I can make that jump this season. I already feel like I’m becoming part of the new generation of big players. I don’t want to become just a good American player. I want to consistently be one of the top 10 players in the world.
One game that I played for Dortmund earlier this year kind of made that goal seem realistic to me. I’m talking about the Champions League game in February, when I was subbed in against Paris Saint-Germain. When I played that game and got an assist, something just clicked inside my head. Like, Wow, if I stay on this path, I can really become a world-class player. I think that game showed everyone that I’m not just some talent that’s going to fade away. I’m here to stay.
I want to consistently be one of the top 10 players in the world.
The night before the game I was sitting in my apartment playing Fortnite when I decided to call my parents. Dad was like, “You know you’re playing PSG tomorrow?” And I was like, “Yeah.…” I knew it was big, but I never really thought, I’m going to face Neymar and Mbappé tomorrow, guys who are literally my idols. If I had, I wouldn’t have been able to sleep.
My family… actually, this is incredible. My mum and my siblings left Dortmund the day before the game. You can talk to my brother about it right now: he is so angry at my mom for making them leave. The game was on a Tuesday night and they left on Monday. My Dad and I were saying, “Come on, stay one more night.” And Mom was like, “No, we have a dinner at home that I have to go to.” And then the dinner ended up getting cancelled anyway. My brother will bother her about that for the rest of her life.
Anyway, it was a late game. And there’s something different about a Champions League night in Dortmund, you know? You can feel it throughout the city. The vibe, the buzz, the atmosphere. The anticipation is kind of hanging in the air. That night, we could feel it. We used different balls in training. When we did the video prep, the staff basically said, “This is PSG. They can do anything. They’re good.”
To be honest, I wasn’t that fazed until I began packing up in the hotel. We left at about 7 p.m. for the kickoff at 9 p.m. Some of my friends were texting me, like, “Good luck. This is crazy. Just do your thing.” When we got off the bus and went inside the stadium, that’s when it hit me. I saw the Champions League banners. There was far more media than usual. Inside the locker room my teammates were tuned in a little bit differently. I knew I would start on the bench, so I had to be ready of course. But for now I just wanted to take in the vibe.
I got another mild shock when we went out to warm up. As I was walking down the stairs leading to the pitch, I found myself next to Neymar and Mbappé, literally shoulder to shoulder. I was trying to stay tuned in, but to be honest, I had to pinch myself.
Hey. Aren’t these the guys I used to watch on TV?
Then I saw the fans. Wow. Have you ever seen a Champions League game in Dortmund? Again, it’s a different kind of night. It’s dark. The fans know that we’ll probably meet a bigger team, and that we’ll need all their energy and support. This was one of those occasions. Playing for the Yellow Wall is always special, but I have never heard it as loud as it was that night.
The game stayed goalless for a long time. I was warming up when they called my name around the 67th minute. Once I got out there I was like, Wow, I’m playing against Neymar and Mbappé. But once the whistle blew to resume play, I snapped out of it, like, I can’t look at these guys like that anymore. My instincts took over and I was totally zoned in.
We soon scored the first goal, through Erling. Then Mbappé ran through our defence and crossed for Neymar, who equalized. (There is a reason why these guys are my idols.) Before our fans had even started cheering us on again, I found myself in a lot of space behind their midfield. I got the ball from Mats, turned and saw Erling — and if you wanted to get it to anybody near the box, it’s Erling. I played a good weighted ball to his foot and from there on I don’t really know what to say about it. He thumped it into the top corner from 20 yards. I’ve never felt that way in my life. You can see it in the way I celebrated: I jumped on Axel Witsel and hugged Erling and just lost it completely. There’s a picture of Erling giving me a hug, and then in the background is Mbappé. That’s the kind of stuff you dream about as a kid.
After the game we celebrated with the fans, the coaches, the staff, everyone. The scenes in the locker room were amazing. It was Erling’s night of course, but a lot of people were happy for me, too. I got hugs and headlocks and slaps on the head, people telling me “good job,” stuff like that. It was just an amazing, amazing night.
I think it was 4 a.m. by the time I got back to my room. I checked my phone, which had been bombarded with messages. Then, just before going to sleep, I took a moment to reflect. And I just had this thought about how special it would have been to have shared that night with Jack.
He definitely would have been there, even if he was living on the other side of the world. During the game he would have been cheering me on like one of the crazies in the Yellow Wall.
In the locker room he would have been singing and shouting and hugging everyone.
And afterwards, he would have put his arm around me and told me how well I had played.
Out of everybody celebrating in Dortmund that night, he would have been the happiest.