“I have seen Zinedine Zidane and Juan Verón play, but they weren’t like Fabián O’Neill,” the then-Italy manager Gian Piero Ventura told the Naples-based newspaper Il Mattino in September 2017. “O’Neill was unique,” he explained. “I coached him at Cagliari. He had strength, technique and quality.” The Real Madrid boss Zidane, who played with O’Neill for Juventus in 2000-01, wouldn’t argue with that. “O’Neill was the most talented player I ever played with,” he has said more than once.

O’Neill, however, disagrees with both of them. “I’m proud to have been Zidane’s teammate at Juventus and obviously for what he has said several times about me,” he told The Blizzard. “But I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the best player he played with. I have also read what Ventura has said about me. I remember he knew so much about football. It’s no wonder that he ended up being Italy’s national team boss. But what he has said about me is also an over-statement, definitely exaggerated.”

So who is this player who is so admired by Zidane and Ventura? What happened to the player whose nickname was ‘the Magician’ and who was anointed as Enzo Francescoli’s successor in the Uruguay national team?

O’Neill played 120 games and scored 12 goals in a four-year spell at Cagliari, two of which Ventura was in charge for. In 2000, Juventus signed him for a reported US$12m. He joined a high-profile, classy Juventus coached by Carlo Ancelotti and starring Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero, Antonio Conte, David Trezeguet, Edwin van der Sar, Filippo Inzaghi and Edgar Davids. O’Neill was 26 at the time and had shone in 1999-2000, even though Cagliari were relegated.

He was certainly idolised at Cagliari from the very beginning. In 1996 the coach expelled O’Neill from a training session because he had elbowed a teammate while challenging for the ball. “I can’t stand him anymore. You have to choose: it’s him or me,” O’Neill told the Cagliari president Massimo Cellino. The president made his choice and (unsurprisingly) sacked the coach. The coach in question was Óscar Washington Tabárez, who would go on to take charge of AC Milan three months later and lead Uruguay to a place in the World Cup semi-final in 2010 and to Copa América success in 2011.

Juventus were also impressed with O’Neill’s swagger on the pitch. This he proved in a Cagliari match against Salernitana, who had a young aggressive defensive midfielder in their team called Gennaro Gattuso. O’Neill spoke to his fellow-Uruguayan Paolo Montero, the Juventus centre-back, before the game. “He told me that I wouldn’t dare to challenge Gattuso on the pitch the next day,” said O’Neill. “‘He is really tough,’ Montero told me. I replied that I would make fun of Gattuso with three nutmegs. ‘If I don’t do it, I will quit football,’ I told him.” O’Neill made the same promise to another good friend, his Cagliari teammate Nelson Abeijón.

With less than half an hour on the clock, as promised, O’Neill had already embarrassed Gattuso with three nutmegs. Gattuso was getting increasingly upset. “He came to me and said, ‘You should stop mocking me. You should stop now or I will kill you.’ I replied, ‘Listen, man, you are getting embarrassed in front of all these fans, so perhaps it would be wiser if you stop marking me, don’t you think?’” O’Neill recalled with a laugh.

O’Neill saw football as entertainment rather than a proper job. “What I remember the most is the fun we had in training sessions when Zidane, Del Piero, Davids and I played together in the same XI,” he said. “It was so difficult for our opponents even to touch the ball when we were in possession. I never liked training sessions, but it was so much fun at Juventus.

“I played with some world-class players like Zidane, Del Piero, Davids and Pavel Nedvěd at Juventus and I can tell you that they trained really hard. They put in a huge effort day after day simply because they wanted to be the best players in their positions. On the other hand, I never trained that hard in my life because I didn’t care about being the best.

 

“People at Juventus liked me in the dressing room because I was a good person as well as a funny guy. I was a kind of joker, always in good mood, and never had an argument with a team mate. Zidane asked me once to do a barbecue for him and our Juventus team mates because as a Uruguayan, everyone thought that I would be good at doing a barbecue. I was so nervous because I had never cooked a meal in this metal frame Zidane had bought and our families had been invited. Fortunately, I improvised even though I was terrified and it was a success.

“Zidane was fantastic on the pitch. Ancelotti and then Marcello Lippi coached me at Juventus. They were both undoubtedly world-class managers. I remember both of them saying rather the same before the games, ‘Guys, you have to give the ball to the bald one and he will do the rest.’ And he used to do the rest. His dribbling was out of this world.

“I really appreciate what Zidane has said several times about me but I think that it is definitely exaggerated. In fact, he can’t be taken seriously because what he says has nothing to do with reality. We had a friendship while playing together at Juventus and that’s why he said that, but let me tell you, I was nobody in that Juventus side.”

He may have a point. Although liked by his Juventus teammates away from the pitch, he clearly underperformed on it. He only played 14 games for Juventus between 2000 and 2002. And so the most talented player Zidane had played with was transferred to Perugia in January 2002. “I had started playing regularly when Zidane was transferred to Real Madrid and Lippi replaced Ancelotti. But I was never fully fit. And that was the reason why I never played regularly for Juventus. I have no regrets though.”

O’Neill is adamant that his time in Turin was not cut short because of an alcohol addiction that would haunt him after his playing career ended. “It was my injuries and not my drinking problem,” he said. “My spell at Juventus? It was what it was.”

O’Neill would drink two glasses of wine, without being seen, before each match at Juventus. “I remember either Del Piero or [Gianluigi] Buffon asking me while travelling to the stadiums, ‘Fabián, have you been drinking?’ My reply was always the same, ‘Yes, I have. What do you want me to drink if not wine? Milk, like you?’ Drinking wine wasn’t an issue even though I used to drink every day. For instance, Buffon smoked loads of cigarettes and there he is; even now he is the best goalkeeper in the world.

“I had high cholesterol levels and the Juventus medical staff were worried about my health. ‘You could die if you do nothing about it,’ they told me over and over. But I never stopped drinking. I liked it, that’s who I was. So, it is pointless now for me to think what kind of player I would have been if I hadn’t drunk, or if I would have played better when I was given the chance at Juventus. That question has no answer.”

After leaving Juventus without having shone as expected and getting injured before Uruguay’s first match against Denmark at the 2002 World Cup, O’Neill’s career went dramatically downhill. Overall, he played nine games for Perugia in 2002. Then he moved back to Cagliari, where he was still loved by the fans, but did not play a single match in Serie B. Finally, he moved back home to Nacional in Uruguay, where he had played from 1992 until 1996 and was also loved by the fans. He had played five games when he suddenly left the club.

“I had an argument with the then-Nacional President Ache because I had codes in life but he didn’t,” O’Neill explained. “He didn’t want to pay me what I thought I deserved: $25,000 a month, that is. So, I had told him, ‘OK, I will play for this money you are offering me but I don’t want you to hire a player who earns more money than me as I’m the club’s idol.’ He said OK, let’s do it. But then he hired this player with higher wages in the squad and I decided to leave the club immediately and I moved back to my hometown Paso de los Toros.”

Once settled in his hometown, around 250km from the capital city Montevideo, and even though some clubs such as Nacional’s arch-rivals Peñarol wanted to sign him, he made a decision without announcing it publicly: he quit football forever. “I have no regrets at all: at that time I made a decision,” said O’Neill, who is now 44. “You don’t have to look back in life. What’s done is done. You always have to look ahead because the past is in the past and you can’t change it.

“Well, I had played for a world-famous, giant club like Juventus in Italy and in the Uruguay national team [19 games between 1993 and 2002]. So, I thought at that very moment that there were no better places for me to play than those but heaven after that.”

Nowadays, O’Neill lives in Montevideo with his third wife Andrea and his youngest son Favio, who is 13 years old and plays for Nacional as his dad once did. He is now voluntarily unemployed (“I don’t like to work and I have never liked it”) and the US$14m he earned over his 10-year professional career is gone.

“I have nothing,” he said. “I had a fortune but I no longer have it. Do you really want to know how I spent $14m since my retirement? Well, that’s easy, in my experience: quick women, slow horses and gambling and your fortune will be gone.

“Am I no longer a millionaire then? Well, I think that I’m still a millionaire. I’m a good person and a lot of people in my hometown love me. Being loved by them and having healthy sons make me a millionaire. That’s actually being a millionaire, if you ask me.”

O’Neill’s drink problem took root at an early age in Paso de los Toros, his hometown. It’s a small town with one-storey houses, no tall trees and 12,000 inhabitants. When he was eight months old, his parents realised they could not afford to raise him so he was raised by his grandmother Mecha. At nine, he got his first job: he did errands like buying fruit and vegetables for prostitutes as he hung around outside a brothel. It was then, while working at night and earning tips from the prostitutes, that O’Neill started drinking at bars and playing cards and gambling. “That was my childhood,” he said. “The street teaches you some good stuff but also some bad stuff.

“I became a drunk when I was child. So, if I didn’t stop drinking while playing professional football, I wouldn’t stop drinking now that I’m no longer a player.” When he was with Nacional at the start of his career, he played a game against Central Español completely intoxicated. He had been at a bar near his home in Montevideo and ended up drunk and sleeping at the bar at 6am. The bartender woke him up at 12.45pm and told him to go to the Centenario Stadium because he had to play. Still drunk, O’Neill took a taxi and headed to the stadium. At half-time, O’Neill pretended to be injured and was subbed off. He said that he played the first half with blurred vision and he barely touched the ball. When he moved back to Paso de los Toros in 2003, he attended bars every night and, like a bat, slept during the day.

In 2013, the journalists Federico Castillo and Horacio Varoli published O’Neill’s biography Hasta la última gota (Until the Last Drop) in Uruguay. They had interviewed O’Neill several times in Paso de los Toros and he had openly admitted his alcohol addiction. O’Neill did not expect the book to do well, but it became a bestseller. He then sued the authors, claiming they had promised to pay him $1m if it did well.

Drunk, O’Neill attended a cattle auction and spent $250,000 on 1,104 cows while laughing and drinking without realising what he was doing. Once the hangover was gone, he paid the bill, as he wanted to keep the cows in one of his three countryside houses on the outskirts of Paso de los Toros.

Drunk, he slipped into a rodeo and took on a bull as if he was a bullfighter. When it saw O’Neill, the bull ran at high-speed and launched an attack. Fortunately, O’Neill escaped before he was gored. When he got outside the rodeo, he was shaking. He was frightened but mainly angry with the bull. Once he sobered up, he bought the bull, killed it and invited some friends to have lunch and eat it.

Drunk, he stormed into a referee’s dressing room at half-time of a regional 2009 match between Paso de los Toros and Durazno, disappointed with his calls in the first half. There, O’Neill showed the referee Alfredo Dungey a bunch of notes as he tried to bribe him. When the referee rejected the bribe, O’Neill pulled out a revolver and threatened him with it. “Do you want this? Tell me, ref, do you want this? For your safety, it would be better if Paso de los Toros win,” he kept saying as he waved the revolver. For that he was arrested and spent a night in prison.

Worried about him, his wife Andrea begged him to ask for help. O’Neill saw a psychiatrist for four months, but gave up and went back to drinking. “The first night after that, I drank as much as I would have drunk in four months,” he said.

Sober, however, he was a giver and paid his neighbours’ bills if they were struggling financially. Some neighbours went every month to his home in Paso de los Toros, as if they were on a pilgrimage, knowing in advance that O’Neill would help them out without asking for repayment. He was like Robin Hood, without the stealing.

Sober, he bought a thousand cows and invited all the people in town who couldn’t afford a decent meal to a huge barbecue at Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It became a tradition in Paso de los Toros: huge parties hosted by O’Neill for everyone who wanted to come.

Sober, he donated US$1m out of the blue to his beloved club Defensor de Paso de los Toros, simply because he wanted the club headquarters to be rebuilt. As the club’s president, he could also hire the best local players and pay their wages from his own pocket. Between 2007 and 2011, the club won five local trophies in a row.

“He has spent his money helping the club but especially in helping the town,” the Defensor de Paso de los Toros player Agustín Fessler said. “He has helped a lot of people who had no money to buy food or pay bills. You could see O’Neill a few years ago giving money in the streets to all the people that needed it, and I mean desperate people. He never asked for anything in exchange. But now that he has no money, some ungrateful people here seem to have forgotten what he had done for all of us in Paso de los Toros.”

O’Neill has run out of money and is now looked after by his wife Andrea. He no longer has his houses in the countryside: he lives in a rented apartment in Montevideo. But he insists that he doesn’t care. His life as a millionaire, just like his life as a professional footballer, is over. They are in the past which, as he said more than once, cannot be changed.

“I was a footballer, and a good one. But I have never looked up footage of me playing on YouTube. My 13-year-old son shows me this footage every single day. He never watched me play because he was five months old when I retired. But he watches this footage all the time. ‘Hey, dad, look here, what a goal you scored in this game,’ he says, but as I told you, I don’t look back and I don’t care about what I did as a footballer. Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. That’s life and you have to accept it.”