He was at Manchester City but didn’t play; now Pablo Mari is Arsenal’s loan star 

Scott Polacek Manchester City FC

As Pablo Mari clocked up the miles on the stationary bike in his small back garden during 47 days of lockdown, he never let the situation get to him.

In part, that’s because he knows there are more important things than football right now.

It’s also because the path of his career has never run straight. Seven weeks of quarantine, just two weeks after making his debut for Arsenal was just another curve in the road.

Pablo Mari, who is on loan from Flamengo, wants to remain with Arsenal for the long term

Pablo Mari, who is on loan from Flamengo, wants to remain with Arsenal for the long term

The 26-year-old who is likely to be Mikel Arteta’s first permanent signing, left home at 13 to join Mallorca’s academy.

He would later sign for Manchester City but never actually meet Pep Guardiola.

He would then play for three loan clubs in three seasons before moving his family 5,000-miles away to Rio where he signed for Flamengo and won the Libertadores at the Maracana.

All that seems to have somehow prepared him for his interrupted start at Arsenal: “The first thought was: damn, I wanted to keep playing”,’ he says of the moment he was told he would be self-isolating instead of building on playing in the FA Cup at Portsmouth on March 2.

‘But then you start to see that this isn’t just some new flu virus. You see the magnitude of it all and you realise that the professional side of things is secondary; what matters is everyone’s health.’

Lockdown in the Mari household was never going to be easy either. Newly installed after moving out of temporary accommodation the family had not equipped their new home and Pablo’s young son had no toys. 

‘We had only been in the house two weeks,’ he says. ‘The club gave me an exercise bike, gym equipment and some weights, so that I could work. But we were caught out, we had hardly anything at home.

‘The little one, poor thing, has hardly any toys to play with. We were inventing things to do with him, cook cakes, paint. But the most important thing was that everyone was at home and healthy.’

The centre back played just twice for Arsenal before lockdown measures were introduced

The centre back played just twice for Arsenal before lockdown measures were introduced

Of news of manager Arteta’s positive diagnosis on March 12 he recalls: ‘At first, we were just scared for him, hoping that he would be okay.

‘Things calmed down as the days passed. I think none of my team had the virus. We didn’t test, but we did the fifteen days at home and no one showed symptoms.’

Those 15 days turned into nearly seven weeks and only ended on Monday when he was of those players returning to Colney, to train in isolation.

It was a small step on the long road back to normality. Not a problem for someone who’s always believed that patience and perseverance will pay off. 

Winning the Libertadores last November for Flamengo, and with two goals in the last three minutes, was another reminder of that.

The dramatic in victory in South America’s Champions League, also meant there was no need to win over his new Arsenal team-mate David Luiz.

‘He’s a Flamengo fan of course,’ Mari laughs. ‘He was watching the final, supporting us. It was incredible, madness.

‘We had quarter-finals and semi-finals against Brazilian teams and the press there really go after Flamengo. Everyone wanted us to lose.

Mari says he and his team-mates were 'scared' when head coach Mikel Arteta got coronavirus

Mari says he and his team-mates were ‘scared’ when head coach Mikel Arteta got coronavirus

‘Those rounds were tense and that tension accumulates into the final. We were losing in the 87th minute, and then in three minutes we turned it around.

‘It’s been months now and I still can’t think of a way of the putting the way I felt into words, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.

‘I was only there six months and I was the first Spaniard to win the Libertadores, the first Spaniard to win the [Brazilian] league and the first Spaniard to be in the Team of the Year. I have great memories.’ 

And a fan for life in Luiz, surely? ‘I wouldn’t say fan, but we did spend a couple of days talking about that final,’ he says of the player he made his Arsenal debut alongside and who he says has been a huge help to him settling in.

Before the glory of Flamengo came the grind of those three loan clubs in three seasons.

When Manchester City signed him aged 22 from second division Spanish side Gimnastic Tarragona in 2016 it might have seemed that he was about to get his big break.

Doesn’t it grate that he never so much as met Guardiola. That every summer he would head to the Etihad Campus for his medical checks but then immediately fly off to a new loan destination?

The hard-done-by narrative of a powerless player pushed from one club to the next is not to be found here. Far from breaking him, he said the loan system was the making of him.

Mari won the Brazilian league and the Copa Libertadores as he enjoyed success with Flamengo

Mari won the Brazilian league and the Copa Libertadores as he enjoyed success with Flamengo

‘As a player you have to have one thing very clear: how much are you prepared to sacrifice to be a professional?

‘The opportunity that City gave me was huge. They behaved really well with me; they treated me wonderfully.

‘From the start, the idea was always to go out on loan; it was never the plan for me to go into the first team.

‘Of course I would have liked to have played a game some time and got to know Guardiola but it wasn’t to be.’

Of loan seasons at Girona, NAC Breda and Deportivo he says: ‘It will never, ever be all lovely, or all awful. But I was always clear, working hand in hand with City, that I would chose places that I knew would be good for me.

‘You get out of loans what you put in. Whether that’s personal development, technical improvement, or learning to take a role within a dressing room. I improved every year.

‘And I was clear that, whether it was with City or not, I was going to make it to a big club.’

In his last game at Deportivo, the chance to go up to the Spanish first division in the play-offs slipped away. Then came the call from Flamengo. It was a bold move but he says he didn’t hesitate.

The Spaniard is grateful for his time at Manchester City, even though he didn't play for them

The Spaniard is grateful for his time at Manchester City, even though he didn’t play for them

‘A footballer’s life is a short one and you have to make the most of the opportunities when they appear. We had been waiting many years for a big chance. We didn’t care where it was.’

Now he does care where he plays. He wants to put down roots in north London.

‘The time has come,’ he says. ‘I like the idea of no longer going around and around – if I have to, I will until the day my career ends – but I think I have found a traditional club, one that supports its people, one where the people give everything for it.

‘I would like to be part of that, to be a great player for many years for Arsenal.

‘With the coronavirus situation, I don’t know what’s happening, things are difficult, but I hope I can end up belonging here.’

In the meantime it’s back to the lockdown routine, albeit now eased by the return to Colney.

There’s a WhatsApp group with team-mates and another with club staff. He says support has been first class throughout, with diet plans and training routines to digest and follow.

‘We have had meetings with the manager every week to analyse games. We look at what I can improve on, one what he wants from me. The manager doesn’t stop. We the players haven’t stopped.’

There’s also his young son to occupy him and that, in part, helps him take his mind off over-thinking the various scenarios of when football may or may not return.

Mari praised Arsenal for their support during lockdown and says 'the players haven't stopped'

Mari praised Arsenal for their support during lockdown and says ‘the players haven’t stopped’

And we are speaking on a Thursday, so there is also the applause at 8pm. ‘The health workers are doing an immense job,’ he says.

The plight of a footballer in limbo can’t compare to those putting their lives on the line.

But it still can’t be easy when a sportsman has to put everything on hold, especially when it seemed his Arsenal career was finally taking off.

Mari draws again from the experience of those loan moves, climbing steadily to where he wants to be.

‘It’s good for you,’ he says. ‘It binds you to your family; we’re closer than ever. In the end it’s not just a career you build, it’s a person.’

Players are having to start afresh all over the country. Mari is an expert in the field.

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