Befriending old enemies, training with Italy’s next superstar, and being vegan in the land of pasta: How Chris Smalling built a new life in Rome away from Manchester United

Chris Smalling has enjoyed a fine start to life at AS Roma.

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Chris Smalling has enjoyed a fine start to life at AS Roma.
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Getty/Andrea Staccioli

  • Chris Smalling joined AS Roma on a season-long loan from Manchester United in August, and has since enjoyed a fine start to life in Italy.
  • The Englishman told Business Insider he’s been taking daily Italian lessons, befriending ex-Manchester City players, and studying videos of Serie A strikers.
  • Smalling also spoke of his new team-mates at Roma, and was full of praise for 20-year-old Italy international Nicolo Zaniolo, who is regarded as a top talent full of potential.
  • “He’s someone who is exceptionally talented, and he’s going to come a long way in the game.”
  • Read more of our soccer coverage here.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Chris Smalling has built a new life in Rome away from what he was used to at Manchester United.

It has included befriending old enemies from United’s rival Manchester City, training alongside a 20-year-old touted as the next Francesco Totti, and being vegan in the land of pasta.

Moving to a new country presents challenges. For Smalling, who left Manchester, his home of almost a decade, for Rome in August, the biggest has been the language barrier.

“It’s coming but it’s not easy,” the 29-year-old told Business Insider when talking about his developing knowledge of the Italian language. It is something he is attempting to learn every day with the help of a tutor. “I’ve always wanted to learn another language, but it’s always been a bit of a dream,” he said. “It wasn’t necessary when I was playing in England.”

Smalling spent nine seasons with Manchester United before being loaned to AS Roma in the summer, and in doing so, becoming only the second Englishman to ever play for the Serie A giant after Ashley Cole, who spent 18 months at the Stadio Olimpico between 2014 and 2016.

While he is the only Englishman in the squad he is part of a cohort of former Premier League players – eight besides himself, exactly – at Roma this season.

Among that clan are ex-Newcastle United defender Davide Santon, whom Smalling says has been a “really big help” in learning Italian, former Tottenham duo Pau Lopez and Federico Fazio, and Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhtiaryan, who like Smalling, is on loan for the season.

Most interestingly is the presence of Edin Dzeko and Aleksandar Kolarov, both of whom used to play for City, and came up against Smalling as rivals on numerous occasions between 2010 and 2017.

Smalling says that while they were once separated by 4.4 miles and a mutual disdain for each other’s teams, they’ve now lay such differences aside.

“We haven’t spoken too much about it!” Smalling said, thinking back to his former foes. “I think we might have laughed about it to start with, that we were obviously never that close when we were in Manchester.

“It’s actually been great because I think it’s enhanced our relationship in that they both played and lived in Manchester, and so have I, and now we are here. So I think it’s been quite a good base for our relationship to grow.”

Dzeko and Kolarov are two of six players over the age of 30 in Roma’s squad, the others being Diego Perotti, Nikola Kalinic, Federico Fazio, and Antonio Mirante – making it one of the oldest in the Italian top division.

While manager Paulo Fonseca has plenty of experience on his side he also has an abundance of youth, with nine of the Portuguese manager’s 23-man squad aged 23 or under.

Smalling has been impressed by one youngster in particular

“[Zaniolo] was someone I’d heard of before I came here,” he said of the 20-year-old Italy international. “He’s someone who is exceptionally talented, and he’s going to come a long way in the game because he’s not only very quick, but he’s also very strong and direct.”

Smalling has also been excited by the talents of Dutch youngster and his dressing room neighbor Justin Kluivert, whom he believes, alongside Zaniolo, Dzeko, and Co., makes Roma an exciting prospect this term.

“I think with [Zaniolo] and Kluivert on either wing we’ve got a lot of attacking talent and can do some damage and score some goals.

“I’ve been very impressed with our squad, because I feel like we have a nice blend of older experienced players like Edin and Kolarov who have been at Roma for a number of years and achieved many things in the game, and young players too. So I do think we have a very good blend.”

Smalling says he has been particularly impressed by Justin Kluivert and Nicolo Zaniolo.

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Smalling says he has been particularly impressed by Justin Kluivert and Nicolo Zaniolo.
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Getty/Giuseppe Bellini

So far, the jury’s out on Roma’s mix-and-match squad.

Paulo Fonseca’s men have been draw specialists this term, finishing level with its opponents in six of its 12 games in all competitions, winning the other five, and losing just one.

But Smalling has quickly adapted quickly to Italian football

In the five games he’s played so far in Serie A, Smalling has won 100% of his tackles and completed 92% of the 282 passes he has attempted. He also boasts the “most aerial duels won per game” in the division with an average of 5.8, and was awarded “Man of the Match” in only his second appearance as Roma beat Lecce 1-0.

The Englishman said he has watched hours of video to learn the different runs of the division’s strikers, and this has clearly paid off.

However to maintain his brilliant start, Smalling must stay fit, something that has proved difficult over the past three seasons having missed 29 games courtesy of a variety of injuries, including tendinitis of the knee.

To combat the problem, Smalling has gradually turned vegan – cutting out all meats, fish, eggs, and dairy products from his diet. It has helped him on and off the field, Smalling said.

“My tendinitis was one of the first things I heard that turning vegan could benefit,” he said. “So that was the first stage of me reducing my red meat intake, and then i just eventually transitioned to plant-based over a year.

“Quite often in sports, you feel the second day after you’ll be a little more sore. But I’ve found that I have been recovering a lot quicker, and the stats and the numbers from the different tests you do, at United and Roma, have proven that. Even without those tests, I feel better anyway, so I know it’s working.

“Off the pitch in terms of high energy, in terms of my skin, and my sleep as well, they’ve all vastly improved.”

Maintaining said lifestyle in Italy, a country renowned for its pastas and pizzas, may sound difficult on paper, but Smalling says keeping up his strict diet has been far from difficult thanks to an abundance of local vegan restaurants around the country’s capital, and AS Roma’s in-house chefs.

“When I first moved over, I was staying in hotels and eating out, but I was lucky enough to find lots of different restaurants that were nearby.

“There was one I was often going to for lunch, it was called “100% BIO” that’s an organic plant based restaurant, so it’s all very healthy. The fact that I’m now in our house it means I can cook and just eat out as a treat, but it’s a good thing that eating out is an option.

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Me and Chris… Forza Roma!! @officialasroma

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“In terms of the club, the first day that I signed, I saw the chefs straight away and they came out with different recipes and showed me how it was going to work, so I was quite impressed.

“It’s not been a problem at all, so it’s perfect.”

It started as a diet, now it’s a passion

Smalling credits his wife, Sam, with kick-starting his transition to a plant-based diet. However, as time has gone on, he’s discovered a passion of his own that is already beginning to forge open a path to a post-football career.

After researching into the controversies surrounding animal welfare in the leather industry, he invested in “Pinatex” manufacturing company, Ananas Anam.

Pinatex, a pineapple leaf fibre, is a waste-product from the pineapple industry, and can be used to produce a variety of eco-friendly leather alternatives, most notably clothing and fashion accessories.

“Being involved in a company or a business is something I’ve always wanted to do, even before football actually. It’s the route I would have gone down had I followed up my university course before I played professional football.

“So now for me to able to do that, and for it to be having such a positive impact on the world is almost perfect, because it’s got my interests in spreading the positive message of sustainable products and my business interests.

“This is the first of many such companies I can hopefully get involved with, and post-football, its definitely going to be a large part of my life.”

At 29-years-old and having just begun the latest chapter in his footballing career however, Smalling has plenty of time left to worry about life after the game.

His deal with Roma only lasts until the end of the season, and it so far remains unclear as to whether he is to return to Manchester United, remain in Italy, or perhaps find another challenge.

For now however, its safe to say Smalling is enjoying the life he was forged for himself in his new home – so much so, he intends to keep up his daily Italian lessons so he can fully establish himself as a true Roman.

“Hopefully, come summer I’ll be able to have good conversations,” he said. “I think it’s very important, and I think learning the language is definitely going to bring me closer – to the city, and the players.”

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