Last week I came across a write-up on the excellent website Studio, about a 2012 documentary by film maker Paolo Gerimei. It’s a documentary on the Tottis that never were: three Romans, all from the class of 1977 like Francesco Totti, and like him stars in Roma’s and Italy’s youth teams. One of them, Marco Caterini, started in goal for Italy’s youth national teams and was considered more promising than his back-up, one Gigi Buffon. Daniele Rossi played in attack with Totti right up until 1993 when Totti was moved up to the first team by Vujadin Boskov, but Rossi was seen as at least Totti’s equal up until that fork in the road. Caterini is now a surveyor, Rossi a waiter at a Testaccio restaurant. They had their road ahead paved out, and the backing and belief of veterans of the game. Bruno Conti, Ezio Sella, Carlo Mazzone—they all believed in them at one point or another, but it didn’t work out. As one line in the trailer up on top goes: to be able to play football, it’s not enough to be good at it.
From what I’ve been able to piece together from reviews and opinions by those who have seen the full film (I haven’t), it’s not a portrait of defeat. It seems more like a (by all accounts) successful attempt to show the impossible odds you must overcome to make it in professional sports, how big a part luck plays, and that life’s not over even if you’re retire at age twenty-three. It seems beautiful, and I am now scrambling to see it as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, there are even more arresting examples of young stars-to-be than those of Caterini, Rossi and Capponi who star in the documentary. Gianluca Leonardi was still a part of Roma’s successful primavera team when he and a friend were arrested for snatching a woman’s purse in 2012. That’s one way to throw away a career, but by no means a revolutionary act. Twenty years earlier, Daniele (with the descriptive nickname il Calciatore, the Footballer), who had played alongside Totti for more than four years in Roma’s youth teams, was arrested in Brescia. Fate can be a cruel mistress: Brescia is the same city where Totti made his Serie A debut. As one went up, another fell down. When Totti visited Rome’s prison Regina Coeli many years later, a charitable visit he as Roma’s captain makes now and again, one of the inmates called out to him;
Hi Francesco, I’m Daniele! We used to play together, do you remember?
He did. As Tonino Cagnucci, who was with Totti that day, writes in his book on the captain, how could he not? They played together for four years, in Roma and on the beach. Four years can be an eternity and a half due to the memories and bonds forged. Daniele the Footballer had remained a fixture in the very Roma youth team Francesco Totti was spending less and less time with, in favor of practicing the first team. But Totti was a prodigy, so not keeping up with him doesn’t necessarily signify a career’s end, even before it could begin. Breaking a calf bone, however, did. Daniele the Footballer was injured for over a year, and never came back. When Roma returned to Brescia, where Totti had made his Serie A debut seven months earlier, Daniele did so as a supporter, as an ultrà. Daniele the Footballer was arrested that day, one of many in the midst of crowd trouble.
When they met the next time, at the taping of a TV segment, Daniele the Footballer again asked Francesco the Captain if he remembered him, and if he would sign his Roma shirt. He wouldn’t. “You sign it instead,” Totti said to him. And so Daniele the Footballer signed a Roma shirt, the Roma he’d dreamt of playing for and which he still supported, with the number 8 he’d always played in on the back, and handed it over to Roma’s captain, his old teammate. “You were just more unlucky than I was,” Francesco the Captain said. It was Totti’s way of both making an old friend proud and happy, and to remind himself that he’d been lucky. Lucky, even if he was always the most talented; lucky, even if he was a prodigy.
When some people talk about Francesco Totti, it’s done dismissively. Sure he stayed in Roma all this time, but it’s not like he tested himself in great teams, they might say. Life is easy for him in Rome, so it’s not that big a deal. But once you stop and think about the many hurdles he had to overcome before anyone in Curva Sud knew who he was, before he’d even been called up to a bench in Serie A, the room starts spinning. He wanted to leave when he was on the cusp of stardom, because things weren’t easy for him either. They may look easy now, but knowing that he, too, struggled with making it should put things in perspective. And once you think about the many Tottis that never were, that never got that break, or who didn’t have precisely what it took, it’s dizzying. There’s an incredibly small chance you’ll make it at all as a footballer, to make that jump from talent to professional. Even if you don’t become the greatest Italian player since TVs were in black-and-white, which Totti is, just being there is making it.
AND SO WE MOVE TO THE PRESENT DAY. This winter, Roma signed eight players. Of those eight, three are meant to make for a more complete roster immediately; Radja Nainggolan, Michel Bastos and Rafael Toloi (from Sao Paulo). The other players Roma signed this month are an investment in tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, rather than today: there’s Leandro Paredes from Boca, subsequently passed on to Chievo on loan for six months. He’s 19. In return for that favor, Chievo gave Roma Alberto Tibolla, born 1996. The Slovak Tomas Vestenicky was born the same year, as were Antonio Sanabria, who arrived from Barcelona B, Valmir Berisha and Nemanja Radonjic. Petar Golubovic, from OFK Beograd, belongs to the class of ’94 and is practically an elderly statesman in comparison to the others. It’s also taken for more or less granted that Roma will sign Brazilian defender Abner this coming summer, no prizes for guessing that he too was born in 1996.
In addition to that, Roma and Pescara aborted three loan deals between the two clubs and Frascatore and Piscitella, 21 and 22 years old, have returned to Roma. That’s a huge influx of talent. The ghosts of talents past are pushing themselves into our collective conscience by now, forcing us to wonder who among these will end up leading regular lives, and who will end up as professional footballers.
The majority of them are probably signed not because Roma believes they’ll make it into Garcia’s team by 2016, but in case they might. If they don’t, they can be spun off into a profit as they move to other clubs in their early 20′s, or as pawns to trade in other deals. The best example of this approach of late has probably been Lazio’s gamble on Keita. They signed him for a pittance when he was 16, and two years later he’s moving past the threshold to the first team and has impressed enough people in football that they could probably make a 10x profit on him already. Another year, another dozen or so good showings and that number could easily jump to 20 times their initial investment in him.
That Roma hedges its bets and signs several young players all competing for time, space and confidence is in its foundation a rational response to the difficulty in developing young players capable of playing at a high level. It’s not a matter of expecting a few to drop off on the path to greatness, it’s not even a matter of a few making it and a majority dropping off. To get a talented 16-17 year old to develop into Champions League-caliber is akin to pushing a camel through the eye of a needle. Clubs know this. They know the uncertainty surrounding a 17 year old is much greater than that attached to a 19 year old. Two years later in a player’s development, at 21, we realize that we knew so little even at 19 when we thought we had some answers.
Youth football isn’t a very good indicator of future stardom. And that’s a problem that’s not been solved satisfyingly in Italy yet, even if Roma’s hedged bets seems the closest to forcing a patchworked solution. To go from talented to genuinely good, players need time, confidence and experience from senior level football, even if it’s not of the highest quality. They need that great equalizer where they can’t live off speed or strength alone, where they’re not dominating every game. Barcelona develops as many players as almost anyone, largely because they’re able to weather them in Spain’s second division for Barcelona B. Ajax develops even more talents, largely because they can afford (and dare) to give kids, whom in Italy would play in primavera teams, extended runs in their first team. Not seldom they even make it into starting elevens for longer periods.
The best answer to being stuck in between a league slightly too strong for coaches to dare go the Ajax way, and unable to control playing time for their teens in Serie B, has best been answered by Chelsea. For years they’ve cherry-picked talented kids from around the world, and spun them off onto several years of successive loan deals to less strong leagues where they’re able to grow in the shade. It seems to me that this is what Roma is being inspired by, but as elsewhere this facet of football reveals the differences between the haves and the have-nots. Chelsea are able to buy players slightly older than Roma, and thus shaving a couple of percentage points worth of doubt off every deal. Roma has to gamble more on the 16 and 17-year olds, unable to afford the 19-year olds.
Don’t expect many of them to make it, it’s an achievement if even one of them does.
Data pubblicazione: 4 February, 2014