Roberto Baggio

Roberto Baggio
Il Divin Codino

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Nomads and Icons

Daniele De Rossi recently reaffirmed his commitment to home-town club AS Roma, citing the affection shown to him the previous weekend when the Giallorossi played their first friendly of the new season at their Stadio Olimpico home. The 29-year-old midfielder spoke in reverential tones of his love for everything Roman and the deep-seated loyalty he feels for the club and its famous colours.

In rejecting the sustained approaches from Manchester City, De Rossi proved once again that, for footballers, the old 'there's no place like home' adage can resonate as loudly as it does in any other walk of life. Even without home-field advantage, the comfort of familiar surroundings or the adoration of local fans afforded to De Rossi, most players quickly become accustomed to what they forever refer to as 'their' club.

Perhaps the most encompassing example of this in today's game is to be found at Barcelona, where more than half of the current first-team squad are products of the club's famed academy at La Masia. Players may leave for other clubs but, as Gerard Pique, Cesc Fàbregas and Jordi Alba proved over the last few years, the lure of the Blaugrana never really leaves.

This shows a sense of belonging that seems to hold true throughout Spain, a country where it is difficult to imagine home-grown players crossing the Clásico divide. Neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid currently have any player on their books who has represented the other, and it is hard to envision anyone on either side changing allegiance in the current climate, just as it seems impossible we could see Atleti icon Fernando Torres join Real Madrid later in his career.

Even in England, Torres' move from Liverpool to Chelsea is a rarity, with moves between the so-called 'Big Four' - the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea - seldom happening.
In Italy, however, the story is quite different, with no fewer than 24 players among the squads of Milan, Roma, Inter and Juventus who have, at some point in their careers, made an appearance at one or more of the other top four clubs. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the aftermath of the 2006 Calciopoli trials, which saw Inter take full advantage of the situation.
Not only did the Nerazzurri bring in two players from the then relegated Juventus - Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic - as well as former Roma players Walter Samuel and Cristian Chivu, but their signings displaced several talented players to other clubs. The presence of Nicolas Burdisso in today's Roma squad can be directly attributed to the fallout of those match-fixing punishments, and the same can be said for Gianluca Zambrotta's arrival at Milan via Barcelona.

Luciano Moggi's transfer policy while in charge of current champions Juventus also played a key role as his desire to build a team to win instantly was at the expense of the future. It may have worked brilliantly at the time but, by using products of Juve's hugely successful Primavera and Youth Sector as leverage to sign other players, there are now many ex-Juventini at other clubs, including both Simone Perrotta and Federico Balzaretti at Roma.

The mismanagement and a lack of a coherent transfer policy at Inter prior to 2006 is another reason for the shuffling of players at the top. Is there any other top club across Europe who has released players as talented as Adriano, Fabio Grosso, Leonardo Bonucci, Mattia Destro, Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo over the last ten years only to see them enjoy the best years of their careers elsewhere? Unlikely.

Prior to the takeover led by Thomas DiBenedetto, the financial difficulties of AS Roma were also a major factor and the sale of Alberto Aquilani to Liverpool - as well as the expiration of Philippe Mexès' contract - were almost exclusively allowed in order to permit the Giallorossi to survive and compete in an ever decreasing calcio elite.

Above all, however, it has been Italian football's lack of faith in young players that sees so many talented players switch clubs with increasing regularity. Of those 24 players to have lined up for more than one of Serie A's big four, 14 grew up in the youth ranks of another top club. This is a percentage unparalleled almost anywhere in world football.

While some have taken a longer route back to the top after being discarded, others - like former Milan striker Marco Borriello, now at Roma - were sent directly from one to the other. Milan's signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic undoubtedly played its part but Borriello could have given some much needed depth to an attack that at times last season looked bereft of ideas and short on goals.
Before the crazy swap deal that saw Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini change sides and Andrea Pirlo join Juventus on a free transfer following his release by Milan, Alessandro Matri was the latest player to cross the boundaries of Serie A's top clubs. Despite spending ten years on the books of the Rossoneri, he made just two appearances for the club.

Yet again Juve used the rights to one of their own youth products, Lorenzo Ariaudo, to secure the player while fielding ex-Inter defender Leo Bonucci in Ariaudo's position. It would be no surprise to see the latter, now owned wholly by Cagliari, spend three or four years in the provinces only to surface at another big club later in his career.

This is no new trend in Italy, where Giuseppe Meazza played for Inter during the 1930s and then Milan, Juventus and - eventually - Inter again in the 1940s. Roberto Baggio repeated this Triple Crown in the 1990s, as did Edgar Davids and Christian Vieri. Gunnar Nordahl moved directly from Milan to Roma, Jose Altafini and Kurt Hamrin played for both Juventus and Milan while John Charles may have made his name at Juve but also played ten matches during a brief stint at Roma.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of this phenomenon, however, is that Italy also boasts the greatest number of one club icons, both now and in the past. De Rossi's decision places him alongside team-mate Francesco Totti, the evergreen Inter captain Javier Zanetti and Udinese forward Antonio Di Natale as the latest high-profile examples of a pattern that flows from Gianpiero Combi, Valentino Mazzola and Giampiero Boniperti through Gigi Riva, Giancarlo Antognoni and Gianni Rivera to Beppe Bergomi, Franco Baresi and the recently departed Alessandro Del Piero.

Like many aspects of Italian life, there is a stark juxtaposition between this intense loyalty and its total absence. From prodigies to failed youth, mercenaries and bandiera, Italian football truly has it all.

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