Last weekend’s 3-2 defeat by Everton, to a stoppage-time goal having at one stage been two up and apparently in control, was a particularly bitter experience even for a Watford side accustomed to disappointment this season. But for Adam Masina at least the cloud had a silver lining. For the first time in England he had started four successive matches; shortly before kick-off he was presented with an award as the club’s player of the month, and shortly afterwards he scored his first Premier League goal.
The Italian was an ever-present in Watford’s matchday squads last season but started 27 of their league games on the bench and on 24 of those occasions he ended the game there, too. He recommitted over the summer, determined to play more, but then did not see a minute of league action until October. Starts, goals and player of the month trophies seemed very distant only weeks ago.
“This year started so bad because I was out of the squad every weekend and I was so sad,” he says. “I didn’t know why I was out because my level of commitment was high as always. It was so, so hard for me. When I joined I was sure that in maybe three, four months I would start to play, and it was so disappointing for me to finish the season as the second left-back. I know now, it’s the past. We look forward. One thing my grandmother taught me is that you have to look after yourself and keep fighting until the end because, if you want something, you have to take it. No one will give it to you.”
Of all the battles Masina has had to face this one is comparatively trivial. His remarkable story starts in Khouribga, a town about 100km south-east of Casablanca, to which his parents returned, having moved to Italy, so his mother could give birth and raise her baby with the help and support of her family. She died when Adam was a few months old. “I don’t know what actually happened,” he says, “but I was told she got an infection and unfortunately she left us.” He, his older brother, Zakaria, and his father, Mustafa, returned to Italy but his father struggled with alcoholism and the children were taken into care. They passed through several foster homes and, when finally they found one where they felt comfortable, the couple divorced and they had to leave.
The boys ended up in Maranàtha, a shelter for struggling families and children in Bologna, and spent a year there before being reunited with their father. Unfortunately his troubles with alcohol were not over and after one particularly harrowing evening when he dragged his children – Adam was perhaps four or five – from bar to bar while they cried and pleaded to return to their last foster home, they were separated for the final time.
The only question that Masina refuses to answer during a long and frank conversation is about his current relationship with Mustafa or if there even is one. He has another family now; that last foster couple had divorced but the ex-husband, Raffaele, and his own mother, Teresa, took the boys in and raised them. Eventually they were adopted and both took Raffaele’s surname.
“When I think about myself, about my life, I realise that in the end I was lucky,” says Masina. “I went through something, something different from normal life, but now I’m happy. I have a baby, my girlfriend, my family. For me, I have to be honest, it was easy. It’s not the right word but I’ve realised how lucky I was.
“One man took me and my brother and looked after us like sons. Now I’m a father and I’m thinking if I could adopt someone, and it’s hard. You have to work with these kids, to give them discipline, to be right with them. And my father did this with two children. It’s unbelievable, incredible. To have enough love for these two children, the children of strangers. I don’t know what term I can use, more than incredible.”
Zakaria has written a book of poetry about their childhood. “No, about his childhood,” Masina corrects me. “We were together but we had a different experience. If you read his poetry, you could compare our stories. As I said before, for me it was easy, because I have got to where I wanted to be. For my brother it was tougher. As of this moment he hasn’t come out the other side. He hasn’t found serenity.”
It was at Maranàtha that Masina was introduced to football, which soon became an obsession. At 11 he was spotted by Bologna and joined their academy, becoming a promising striker, but at 17 he was told he could leave.
“That summer was so tough,” he recalls. “I remember as if it was yesterday. My grandmother, my father and my brother were in a little flat we had rented by the seaside and I cried for an entire month. My grandmother told me not to worry. I remember I said to her: ‘I want to be a footballer.’ And she said: ‘OK, but second option, what else do you want to do?’ And I said: ‘My second option is to be a footballer.’ For her, for me, for my father it was tough.”
He ended up at Giacomense, a club in Italy’s regional fourth division based 60km – a gruelling commute of about an hour and a half each way, by train and bus – from Masina’s home, where he was converted into a defender. At the end of his first year with them Giacomense played a friendly against Bologna’s Under-23s, a game of, literally, three halves. Masina sat out the first, played the second as striker and the third at left-back, and by the final whistle his old club wanted him back.
Masina refused to go, believing that he would benefit from a season of senior football, but when they returned for him a year later there was no hesitation. Two strokes of luck followed: they were relegated to Serie B in 2014, when he was 20, and that December their left-back and captain, Archimede Morleo, was injured and Masina was thrust into the team.
“In my head I was ready to go on loan, maybe to the third division, because I wanted to play. I was going to leave in just one month,” he says. “But I got an opportunity, and I took it. That season we got promoted but fucking hell it was hard. By the end we were out of gas, running on fumes, everyone dead. We went up through the play-offs and that night was crazy. I loved it. We were driven through the city on a bus and it was crazy. What a memory. This is the story of my life: highs and lows.”
He spent three years as Bologna’s first-choice left-back and played six times for Italy’s Under-21s before moving to Watford in 2018. “It was hard to leave. So hard. But the first day I came here I said: ‘OK, I like this.’ Because it was like the next level. In Bologna we had a good team but here everyone has quality, everyone is fighting, everyone is running. Everyone has a fire inside.”
Now they have to show it. After a run of four wins in six unbeaten games over Christmas hauled Watford out of the relegation places, a couple of defeats have seen them slip back in. From here every game, starting at Brighton on Saturday, is potentially crucial. “We can’t be relegated with this team,” Masina says. “It’s impossible. This team has quality, strength, everything. We have everything. I know in the Premier League the level is so high but I think this team is a very good team. This season started so bad. I think with Nigel Pearson we fixed it a little bit, but we have to finish the work, because it’s not possible for us to even think about relegation.”
It is going to be a struggle but not one Masina is afraid of. “I’m still fighting, every day. This is my way,” he says. “I know where I’ve come from and I know that you get nothing for free in this life. So I’ll keep fighting.”