VILLARREAL – Giuseppe Rossi is back home — in Spain.
The American-born striker, originally from New Jersey and who played for the Italian national team before a series of injuries slowed his career, is back at Villarreal, the Spanish club where he thrived in his prime.
"It's been a rough few years just because of varied injuries," the club's all-time leading goal scorer said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But I always came back. I've always felt like I could still play at high levels. And I'm here, training at 100%. I'm enjoying my time."
The 32-year-old Rossi is already an idol at Villarreal, where he scored a record 82 goals for the club known as the "Yellow Submarine" for its yellow uniform and low profile. But more than a decade after his career took off, he wants to show he is not done with soccer just yet.
Rossi has been training with the Spanish club since last month, looking to regain his form and get another shot at extending his career. His goal is to prove he can still play at a high level and earn a new contract with Villarreal or another team.
He has already earned a new fan in his short time back.
American teenager Jack Imperato, who is also a striker and hoping to make it at Villarreal, couldn't hide his anxiety when he realized he was going to meet Rossi, a player he always looked up to.
"I was nervous. I didn't think I was going to be nervous. I'm usually not," the 17-year-old Imperato said. "It was crazy. I used to read articles about him when I was 9, and how he grew up in New Jersey, how he is Italian-American like me. It was pretty cool."
Imperato chatted with Rossi for a while, trying to get as much advice as possible, even on where to find a good pizzeria in Villarreal, the town of 50,000 people in eastern Spain. They parted ways with Rossi telling Imperato to "kill it" and saying he would try to watch some of his games.
Rossi himself hasn't played since leaving Italian club Genoa at the end of the 2017-18 season because of what he called "a lack of interest" from teams. He had a similar training opportunity with former club Manchester United at the beginning of the year, but his time in England didn't lead him to a new contract.
"I had the opportunity to call here to see if they would give me the possibility to train here and they were very nice to give me this opportunity," he said. "I'm just here, training, getting in shape, having a lot of fun, because this is where every player wants to be at, training at these levels and training with a top-quality team."
Rossi, a creative striker with good ball skills and a great finishing touch, said he has been getting better after each training session and has been feeling great, but he doesn't want to put a timetable on a possible comeback.
"I'm just taking it day by day, truthfully," he said. "I'm just enjoying myself. I'm back training at a top level and just taking it day by day and seeing how it goes."
Making it with Villarreal, where his career took off in the late 2000s, would be the perfect comeback for Rossi.
"It would be amazing, of course," he said. "Being here is like being at home. This is where it all started. They bought me from Manchester United at 20 years old and from the first day they trusted me. I've always wanted to pay back that trust. They were always by my side. I consider this like family."
Rossi was born to Italian immigrants in New Jersey and moved to Europe at an early age to play soccer. He was still a teenager when he was signed by United, but he didn't get to play much until he went to Villarreal in 2007. He spent five seasons with the Spanish club before going to Italy to play for Fiorentina and most recently Genoa.
Rossi also played for the Italian national team from 2008-14, being part of the Olympic team at the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2009 Confederations Cup squad in South Africa. He was in the provisional World Cup lists for Italy in 2010 and 2014, but ultimately was left out of both tournaments.
Rossi escaped a doping ban last year after testing positive for an eye drug that can be used as a masking agent. He was facing a one-year ban but received only a reprimand.
He had four knee operations from October 2011 to September 2014, and in 2016 he tore the anterior crucial ligament in his left knee while playing on loan with Spanish club Celta Vigo.
At Villarreal, he may find inspiration from another player who successfully came back from injury — 34-year-old Santi Cazorla. The former Arsenal playmaker was also given a chance to recover at the club and now has been thriving, even earning a return to Spain's national team.
"Whenever you think back, you always say, 'what if, what if ...,'" Rossi said. "When you have an injury, and it's a long-term injury, you have those moments when you have the time to think about that stuff.
"But it's dangerous in a certain way because you don't want to get caught up in those thoughts, you just want to stay focused on what is your goal and my goal was always to comeback, play at a high level, show people that I'm still capable of still playing at certain levels."
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