Edinson Cavani is miles away. He has played in five countries, at some of the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues, alongside the biggest stars; he is about to represent Uruguay at his 10th international tournament; and he has racked up 785 games, scored 434 goals and won 26 trophies, but he cannot help being drawn to somewhere else entirely. Back to where it began, far from the training centre where he sits now, a necessary escape. “Name all those places, and I say: ‘No, leave me in Salto,’” he says. “Beneath a tree, in the shade, where the breeze blows, without the sound of cars.”
Cavani talks about the game as a “passion” inherited from his father, a forward who played against Luis Suárez’s dad in Salto where the two Uruguay strikers were born three weeks apart. He discusses dedication, the competitiveness running through him, and the striker’s art, dissected in detail and distilled in a line: “Football is time and space.” There is a wonder at some of the things he did but still cannot explain and he describes a month at the World Cup as a joy “where you feel totally connected to football, where you live it, every second”.
Yet there is something unusual about him; something that, it soon becomes clear as he chats in a gentle, pensive voice, does not entirely fit in football – not the way he believes the game has become. At times there is something almost philosophical, vaguely mystical about him, a lingering feeling that the world he inhabits is not really for him, much he would gladly leave behind.
“There are things I see and feel in football that – how can I say this? – I totally reject.” And asked whether he feels different, he pauses to think, which he does often, and replies softly: “Atypical, maybe.
These days, success tends to be linked to fame, high life, luxury. And honestly, I do have my good life too, opportunities football gives me. But my way of life is very simple. Why do I like nature so much? I may never find the answer, but there’s something inside that takes me there, away from this world, this routine, this dynamic that’s so overwhelming. The only thing football doesn’t allow me is to be where I like more often, out in the countryside.”
Cavani fondly recalls matches, goals he has scored – the description of his first in Europe, paper and pad in hand, takes 10 minutes alone – but also visits to Monet’s house north‑west of Paris, pheasants in the countryside there, pine trees outside Naples, the lake by his Knutsford home, the daily drive to Carrington past green fields, a moment of calm savoured each morning. “I like all that is wild. Just walk, drink mate, see the green, the water. That produces pleasure in me. I don’t know if it’s a need, but it’s a way of life, good for you.”
A kind of therapy, perhaps – and that goes deeper. “There have been moments when I’ve needed professional help,” the 35‑year‑old says. “I have friends who are professionals, and we go down a route that’s more spiritual than psychological. Just talking sustains you. I talk to the psychologist about things that aren’t football. We all hang on football and have little time to focus outside. Often a trauma begins with football but the psychologist helps you see it doesn’t come from football alone; it can be your upbringing, parents, environment, the way you think you are because from very young you thought this was the only way to live, trying to be a footballer, a superhero.
“There’s much you learn over time in football. It’s 20 years since I left home, trying to overcome. You reflect, reach conclusions. Which doesn’t mean what I say is the truth and I don’t share it assuming it’s right. But it’s my way of confronting life. If there was a little book ‘this is happiness’, we’d all go out, buy it and live that way, the same way.”
For Cavani, happiness is raising cattle, working the land, fishing, walking, getting lost. It’s not that he might have been a vet had he not been a footballer; it is that he plans to be one when he is no longer playing, studying for the day he goes back. The contrast to the industry he has been in, especially at clubs such as Paris Saint‑Germain, alongside players such as Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo, entire industries whose status goes well beyond the game, could hardly be greater. Which may be part of the reason he is ready to return.
Which may also be, he suggests, one of the reasons why Uruguay overachieve, how a country of 3.5 million arrives in Qatar – “not much green there,” Cavani says with a smile – believing the objective is to win.
“Why are we so competitive? Because they teach us to be,” Cavani says. “Because pitches exist, everywhere. In every neighbourhood, every place, however deprived. Wherever there’s space to kick a ball, there’s a game. That competitiveness demanded as a professional is already there: you’ve been doing it all your life, every day, in the rain, any surface, playing barefoot, breaking a toe, wrapping it up and carrying on. I always say that in football it’s not the same to play as to compete.
“We’ve kept that essence. Look at modern football, which is losing that essence. Maybe I come from that old school. Maybe I don’t fully fit with modern football, in terms of attitudes, what it means to players. That doesn’t mean you can’t say how you feel, does it? I see it constantly: modernism, social media, how the world is, how technology has advanced, got into football. That changes mentalities. Before, everyone in a team had the same objective. These days, in certain teams for various reasons – fame, what people and press make players feel – that’s not always the case.”
There is something in Cavani’s tone that expresses loss, a sense of disappointment, hurt. “Maybe so, yeah. True. Because I come from a school where the loveliest thing that can happen is to win as a team. For me there’s no player who makes you win a World Cup on his own. He doesn’t exist and never will. Someone can do something magical but you need teammates running, putting their life on the line. That’s too often forgotten. Instead, it’s all on the goalscorer, the famous name, the Ballon d’Or. That takes focus from what really matters, so that what a team wants to achieve becomes deformed, distorted. You feel that, you experience it. I’ve lived it.”
Learned from it, too. “Because I’ve never had any desire for fame nor to be the best but my best, I’ve analysed teammates and, look,” he says, pausing. “Because the most famous players get highlighted more and sometimes feel the need to demonstrate that …” There is another pause. “When I’ve analysed, I’ve seen negative things that helped me learn and positive things I’ve followed. Everyone has their own personality, you respect that, but there are things I don’t want to ever have in my life, that I reject completely. That’s my reflection.”
The way he tells it Uruguay, like the countryside, is a refuge; a way of reconnecting with what was left behind. “A lot is about humility. Here, the player knows you have to be humble, step down from certain pedestals. These days, everything takes us to a place where the player is egotistical, because he’s thinking about the awards, about …” Cavani pauses. “He leaves aside things that are nicer. If one day I got an individual award I’d be happy, sure, because it underlines your work, but it wouldn’t change my life because the greatest happiness is a photo of my team at home.”
How then do Uruguay avoid that trap, the arrogance, the selfishness? How does that not shift with the emergence of a new generation? “You know what it is?” Cavani replies. “It’s that in our national team, like in our country, people like that are not looked upon kindly. It could be a cultural thing. That idea, that identity, is so clear from youth level that it’s already inculcated in Uruguayan players and hopefully will never be lost. That culture of work, sacrifice, unity which has seen us beat great national teams. It’s not Suárez or Cavani or this guy or that, no. It’s Uruguay. The objective is to win. And we’re conscious that none of us will ever win anything on our own.
“All of us play at a high level but when you’re in the national team you realise that the essence of football is still there,” Cavani says, something almost wistful in his voice. “It’s well-known names, stars at big clubs, yet you feel that solidarity, what football really is. I like to sweat my team’s shirt. Sometimes you lose but I want to know my team gave itself entirely. When you win that way, you enjoy it twice as much. That’s my philosophy of life and football. Earn it. Anything that comes easy never has the same feeling; he who simply receives never appreciates it the way he would when it costs, when there’s sacrifice.
“One of the things I’ve learned about myself through football is there’s always a reason. When you work towards an objective, incredible things can happen. Coldly, sometimes, you can’t understand it, can’t grasp it, but if you pursued it, it can happen.
“The peace I need to approach football, what you see as pressure, is the knowledge that I respected my teammates, held nothing back. Fear grabs you sometimes but if you know you’re giving everything – really giving it, not just lip‑service – that lifts the pressure from you. You have nerves before a game, before a World Cup, but that shows you’re alive, ready. The day I don’t have that, I’ll leave. People confuse that, they get it wrong: a little fear is good. And then, once you step out there, it’s gone.”