How playing for a big club and being compared to a Calcio great is a recipe for disaster for Italy's youth; something they now know to avoid.
It was the 14th of March 2009. Juventus, as typical of that period, found themselves a goal down against minnows Bologna and struggling to find a breakthrough. Out of the blue, up stepped a man, or rather, half of one. Sebastian Giovinco, all of his 1.64 meters, stepped up to take a Juventus corner and found Hasan Salihamidzic in the box to score a belated equalizer.
What better way to confirm his emergence on the global stage just four days earlier after he had tormented Chelsea’s defence in the Champions League by then giving the Bianconeri the lead? Picking up a lay-off, Giovinco proceeded to curl the ball on the inside of his boot past Bologna’s helpless goalkeeper. A beautiful goal; an ala-Alessandro Del Piero-type goal.
Juventus went on to complete their comeback with a 4-1 victory, as Giovinco, or the Atomic Ant, proved vitally instrumental. Only 22 at that time, the world seemed at Giovinco’s feet. Subsequent performances confirmed his potential, promptly affirming those who had noticed him rise up through the club’s youth ranks to label him the next-Del Piero. There was only one thing that stood in his way – Alessandro Del Piero actual.
The next two seasons proved incredibly frustrating for the pint-sized attacker, who found it near impossible to earn game time under a succession of coaches. Juventus eventually opted to end his ordeal by farming him out on loan to Parma, which eventually turned into a co-ownership. The rest is history – Giovinco blossomed, and Juventus earned widespread criticism for their treatment of their former youth product.
Big Italian clubs have never been associated with being young talent-friendly, what more so in the post-Calciopoli landscape. The images of the afore-mentioned Pinturicchio, Paolo Maldini and Francesco Totti fill the mind of the avid Calcio follower, former ball-boys turned club captains and legends, bandiera’s who wore the club’s badge on their hearts.
Times have changed. The idea of a new generation taking on the mantle of club symbol, or bandiera (Italian for ‘flag’), is romantic but impractical nonetheless. It is no longer possible in modern football, just as neither in every other of today’s regular jobs, to continue in a single place one’s entire career, given the incessant stress that characterizes the way the game is now.
Italian youth today are not blessed with the same luxury of tranquility to develop the afore-mentioned club icons first entered the game with. Del Piero had Roberto Baggio and Gianluca Vialli to distract the media from scrutinizing his every move. Maldini had Franco Baresi and Marco van Basten to ensure he wouldn’t be made to face the questions brought by poor results. In essence, players used to have the time to have fun and grow at the same time. Not anymore.
These days, Italian football has to prioritize winning again to rediscover its credibility. Once a player appears in the ranks of a big club, young or not, he’s in it. These leads to a certain responsibility heaped on the shoulders of youth graduates who break into the team. Unlike those of past eras, they are unlikely to benefit from the cover of established superstars, or a point of shelter from criticism, leaving the likes of Giovinco and Antonio Nocerino to only truly blossom after having a period to develop stress-free in a provincial team.
That just proves faith from big Italian clubs in youth is missing; detractors of Serie A’s historical trend of focusing on proven players would counter. In reality, the world of Calcio’s has trouble distinguishing faith from blind faith. The process of naming a hot prospect after a former great comes into light as the most obviously naïve flaw of the Italian media that has condemned so many to failure.
For every Claudio Marchisio (the new-Marco Tardelli), current success stories who write the history of their clubs, there lies a Luca Cigarini (formerly the next-Andrea Pirlo), Fabiano Santacroce (formerly the next-Fabio Cannavaro) and Andrea Ranocchia (formerly the next-Alessandro Nesta), or those who have failed to live up to their potential due to the irresponsibility of the media in flinging monikers around.
That same irresponsibility could ruin the careers of more prospects this transfer window. Spurred on by the onus to prioritize young players, Serie A clubs have been linked with big moves for the likes of Mattia Destro, Angelo Ogbonna, and a new midfielder they’re calling the new Andrea Pirlo (succeeding Cigarini).
It is the label of Pescara’s Marco Verratti, the new youngster in the spotlight, which could prove fatal to his development as a player. The brand value of being the next-Pirlo has seen Pescara boss Zdenek Zeman value the 19 year-old upwards of 15 million euros. No small sum for one untested in Italy’s top flight as of yet.
Juventus, fresh from a successful league campaign and principal leader in the race to sign Verratti, now face a dilemma over the issue of youth again. Club director Beppe Marotta must decide if he wants to win, using Juventus’ fresh monetary resources to purchase proven champions, or if he intends to win, gambling big on a youngster touted as a future superstar that will ultimately divert precious funds from the immediate project.
It happened this season when A.C. Milan spent big on the signing of Stephen El Shaarawy. Though talented, the boy was by no means ready to fire Milan to glory in the way Marek Hamsik or Carlos Tevez could have, names that might otherwise have been bought had major funds not been spent on the then-18 year-old.
If signing Verratti in place of another midfielder who Juventus couldn’t afford at the same time cost the club silverware next season, where would that leave the innocent party, the player, in this situation? Could fans make him the scapegoat of the team’s slip-ups, simply because the situation asked of him was beyond him?
What would that in turn do to his future prospects, if he turns out to be a dud compared to the expectations based on his Pirlo-moniker? What the media and fans fail to crucially understand is that, while the prime example of how youth can grow to be worthy of a big club, Giovinco, is back in the spotlight, he appears in it not as the new-Alessandro Del Piero, but as the new-Giovinco.
The combination of the stress that comes with representing or being linked with a big club and the consequently-likely naming after one of Calcio’s greats has caused Verratti and Pescara teammate Lorenzo Insigne to carefully consider if moving to one of Italy’s historic teams would really be beneficial for their career next season. Expect many more youth to follow the precedent set by Giovinco, as they look to guard their own futures by staying on in obscurity to learn their trade before leaving fully developed.
Was Francesco Totti right when he said he was the last Bandiera of Italian football? Yes, and by the looks of it, he will be for some time to come.