There are plenty who are multilingual in this cosmopolitan Watford dressing room. Most of the foreign lads speak at least two languages. Almen Abdi is known as ‘the translator’ as he’s fluent in German, English, Serbian and Italian. Valon Behrami is able to go one better, speaking in Italian, German, French, English and Albanian. Yet none of them are a patch on Costel Pantilimon.
“I speak English, Romanian, Italian and sign language,” he said.
“My parents are deaf,” he said, attributing the impairment to “an accident when they were younger” without wishing to go into too much detail. “I communicate with them through Skype and Facetime. They are quite good with technology. Sometimes they come and visit me if they have time too. But we speak every day. I speak sign language and so does my wife. She found it easy to learn because she spent time with them at the house.”
Pantilimon boldly left the family home (he’s an only child) at 14 to follow his career as a professional footballer. At the age of 16, he was Bacau’s No1 and two years later he signed for Politehnica for £83,700. It was from there that Roberto Mancini recommended Manchester City signed him after he impressed during City’s 3-0 Europa League win in August 2010. The dream move to the Premier League justified the decision to fly the nest as a schoolboy.
“It depends what you want in life,” Pantilimon said. “If you only want to live at home with your parents and complain about things then it might have been difficult. But I love football and I love what I do. Nothing could stop me when I wanted to become a footballer. Of course it was hard at times because being away from your parents isn’t easy but I still had so many happy moments. They have always supported me. It was important for me to know they are happy with what I do. I always want to thank them and my wife because they are always giving me support.”
Moving from the north east of England to London last month was therefore an easy sell to Mrs Pantilimon and their four-month old daughter. It was walk in the park compared to the upheaval as a youngster.
“We have many friends in London and it makes life easier when you have people you love close to you,” said Pantilimon. “We check for a house and move our stuff. She’s always close to me and respects the decision I make. I feel comfortable here. It is a nice group and I have enjoyed being in the squad. That is the most important thing when you come to a new club. I really have to thank the guys because they have made me feel like I’ve been here a long time. That is really good.”
Pantilimon is a gentle giant – he’s the tallest player in the league at 6ft 8in – but he has a steely determination. He’s not signed a three-and-a-half year contract at Vicarage Road just to play second fiddle to Heurelho Gomes, the Brazilian in the form of his life. “It will not be easy because he has done a good job,” said Pantilimon. “The people at Watford really respect him, but I have come to help the team and for a place in the first XI. I will think positive and wait for the chance to show what I can do. I have shown what I can do before and I hope to do it at Watford.”
Just ask Joe Hart how he’s done it before. Pantilimon kept the undisputed England No.1 out of the Manchester City side for seven straight league games in the 2013/14 season, the season they won the Premier League for the second time.
“We are still in touch,” Pantilimon said. “He is a very nice guy. We spend a lot of time together but we were fighting for the same position. Good competition is important as a player as it helps you be better. We were still friends. That is part of football and we were old enough to understand why it happened. The most important thing was the team were doing well. In that moment we moved into second and then won the Premier League. That is perfect. I have some good memories from Manchester City. In three years we won two Premier Leagues, a Capital One Cup and the Community Shield. I really enjoyed my time there and gained a lot of experience. It was the perfect club for me at that age, 24.”
Pantilimon was a part, albeit a bit part, of the greatest day in Manchester City’s rich history, that scarcely believable balmy and barmy May afternoon in 2012 when, thrillingly, City scored twice in injury time to beat Queens Park Rangers and pip Manchester United to the Premier League title. He was on the bench as the reserve keeper, the bench that erupted amid the bedlam when Sergio Aguero rattled in the winner past Paddy Kenny.
“It was insane,”said Pantilimon. “Unbelievable. If you want to make a movie it was be impossible because nobody would believe it was a true story. It was an important moment in the club because they had spent money and were building the club. So it was important to win the Premier League and that was the perfect way to become a big club.”
Aguero, the best striker in the Premier League, was the match winner that day. If Pantilimon had his way when growing up it would have been him scoring goals like that.
“I started as a midfielder and then I played as a striker,” he said. “I think every kid who plays football likes to score goals. After a few years you like to dive about and then your best position is in goal. That is the best way to become a goalkeeper. I was quicker when I was younger, too. I enjoyed playing as a striker and having the ball at my feet. Now I think it helps me a lot because it is good for goalkeepers to have quality with their feet.”
Talking of nimble footwork and mastery of the ball, there are few better in the history of the game than Gheorghe Hagi, the impish Romanian playmaker.
“He’s a legend in Romania,” said Pantilimon. “Everyone respects him as he’s played for two biggest clubs in Europe in, Barcelona and Real Madrid. He also played for Galatasaray and people from Turkey say he changed the football style there. Dan Petrescu played for Chelsea for many years. They are the golden generation. They almost arrive in the World Cup semi-final in 1994 but they lost the quarter final against Sweden.”
Pantilimon last started for his country in March, in the 1-0 European Championship qualifier win over Faroe Islands. Fiorentina’s Anton Tatarusanu seems to be the No1, as he played in the last match, the 2-2 friendly draw with Italy in November, but there are three home friendlies for Pantilimon to win his place back before the Euro dates with France, Switzerland and Albania.
“I want to be part of the national team because I played since I was 21 but I want to find my place in the Watford team first,” Pantilimon said.
He should get a chance to stake his claim for both against Leeds United on Saturday.