Italian football carries a profundity, with the weight of all history bearing down upon it. At its most important, that can stifle. Inter and Milan know that feeling well enough, their false dawns numbering almost as many as genuine daybreaks since last they touched greatness.
Perhaps it is that potency that ensures that following Serie A can feel like a series of opera, dramatic personae acting out scenes that, at least occasionally, feel scripted. The matches are etched onto the books of history immediately, Ciro Immobile writing his name onto the same pages as Michel Platini and Diego Maradona, as Riva and Rivera, as Mazzola, Meazza and Pioli.
Italian football feels like it matters because of this, and it is an acutely serious business. At its best, under the lights, there is something gladiatorial about it, the huge stadia taking on Coliseum proportions, with club owners perched in the stands like emperors.
During the evening of July 26th this year, Torino were playing at SPAL needing just a point to secure their Serie A status and not looking especially like they were likely to get it.
Despite the lack of fans and the fact that the Paolo Mazza is far from colossal, the game seemed to be ambling nowhere. Then, a quarter of an hour in the second half, the ball fell to Simone Verdi on the right-hand side of the SPAL penalty box.
He cut forward, and back, and tried to manoeuvre some space for a cross which he eventually cast high into the night, like a leg-spin bowler in a twilight T20, trying to loft the ball high out of the batter’s eyeline. Under the floodlights, it shone, like the moon hovering over the SPAL penalty box.
In that moment, as time stood still not just in the Stadio Paolo Mazza, nor Ferrara, but across the whole of the Italian peninsula, another side of Italian football was revealed, Simone Verdi playing his particular role perfectly.
Verdi is 28 years old now. His time for potential is over; he is fully formed. At this stage of a career, he should have reached the point of being a reliable force, able to produce a level of consistency that ensures his performances can be of regular benefit to his team.
It is a crude illustration, but were that the case, his team would likely be better than the 2020 vintage of Torino.
Not that Torino are any strangers to this kind of will-o-the-wisp player, this utopian dreamer in the body of a footballer, nor is any team in the lower reaches of the Italian top flight. Mirko Valdifiori wore claret not so very long ago, after all.
These are players who might not quite reach the level one might hope for a fantasista, but cannot be removed from that umbrella entirely. A fantasistino, if you will. Serie A seems to specialise in producing them, creative players who offer only flashes of inspiration. Often, too often, the real talents in that field are imported.
Maybe it is the desire to see another talent like those that have come before emerge that is the Italian problem. Too eager for a successor to their greatest names, they jump in with both feet on the kids who represent the potential to make it. Midfielders are not the only players to suffer this way. Gianluigi Donnarumma was hailed in some quarters as the new Buffon while has still only 17. With nearly 200 appearances to his name, he is carving his own path in the red and black of Milan and is now a regular with Italy.
The weight of expectation on strikers coming from the Under-21 squad is equally large, and there is a lot of Robert Acquafrescas and Alberto Gilardinos around, and very few Gianluca Viallis.
Going back a few years, Italy was awash with young talents, midfielders who progressed that familiar path from provincial club to bit club, before not quite making the grade, and stepping backwards bit by bit. Andrea Pirlo is the best example of this, and Pirlo may well provide the blueprint followed by all the Fantasistini. Starting at Brescia, he failed to establish himself in his first spell with Inter, before a couple of loan spells earned him a move to Milan. The rest is history, though it seldom works out so well.
Dominico Morfeo was a celebrated example of this. Coming through the Atalanta youth system under the tutelage of Cesare Prandelli, he eventually moved on to Fiorentina before embarking on a tour of different Italian sides, eventually racking up eight different sides, with a return to Atalanta thrown in for good measure.
He followed Benito Carbone into the Italy Under-21 squad. The diminutive Calabrian moved to England after his big-money moves didn’t work out, allowing Sheffield Wednesday fans to enjoy his occasionally spectacular goals.
A little later, treading that same path Alessandro Diamanti spent time with West Ham before twinkling in that spot for Bologna. Diamanti is a different man, and he plies his trade with Western United in Australia now, in front of commentators who still delight in the skills he produces whether the end product is there or not.
Riccardo Saponara remains a classic of the genre. He is 28 himself now, believe it or not, and contracted to Genoa, though having been on loan at Lecce recently. When he was younger, Saponara was the next big thing, but following his seasons with Milan, unable to dislodge Andrea Poli or Adel Taarabt, he was shipped out, already no longer the coming force, but yesterday’s man.
Perhaps it is unfair to class Domenico Berardi within this bracket. Berardi certainly looked to be heading down this route, but he has stuck with Sassuolo throughout and his career might not have reached the highs that were once predicted for him, he has certainly been a success for the Neroverde.
With current Under-21 midfielder Davide Frattesi spending last season alongside Berardi, maybe he passed on a lesson or two to the youngster.
Having taken the old path, Verdi is something of a throwback, cursed by inconsistency yet able to produce moments of brilliance. The reason he has found himself at Torino is that nobody expects him to do it, not least with any regularity. As he collected the ball against SPAL, I was reminded of another nomadic Italian, Professor Joseph Pinetti.
Pinetti was a great magician, who travelled around Europe performing for courts and audiences, gathering reputation and acclaim. He was regularly debunked by disbelievers, who would publish books decrying his tricks and explaining his act, whereupon he would move on, with a new act, with similar tricks, but seemingly no problem with those who sought to ruin him.
There is the same feeling around these Fantasistini, especially when their inevitable summer transfer brings them to some hitherto untouched part of the peninsula. Their highlights reel packages are always good because they can produce moments of brilliance every now and then, so new fans salivate at the prospect. What arrives is a very different matter.
As attacking midfielders, these Fantasistini are not grafters, and will not be found throwing their weight around or outmuscling many opponents. They will, at most, look to link up defence and attack, and ensure they are stood in prime position when a set piece is being taken.
That desire to stand out is their downfall. Too eager to display what they can do, they reveal what they cannot and, as the sheen of the initial polish fades away, supporters are left with a fairly dull and ineffective player, who eventually becomes a luxury, and soon after that dispensable.
It happens so often, and yet just like Professor Pinetti, a new town is almost always taken in by the box of magic tricks. Think of Alberto Aquilani. While one could argue he was a better player than Simone Verdi is, or even that his career was hampered by injury, but he never stayed at any club long once leaving his first side and the moves that might have cemented his career, to Liverpool, then the loans back to Juventus and then Milan, were all unsuccessful.
Looking through Italian squads going into the new season, there are a few other players who have moved, just like Verdi, taking their smoke and mirrors with them ready to deceive a new crowd.
Alberto Grassi has moved permanently to Parma, having flattered to deceive in Naples, his time there being punctuated with three loan spells. He is firmly in the bracket of Fantasistini, having not made the grade at the highest level, and now trying to find how far down the ladder he belongs.
Lower down the ladder, Andrea Palazzi has finally broken his association with Inter to move first to Monza, then immediately Palermo. With the Rosanero expected to enjoy a good season, it will be imperative for the young Milanese to shine – though it will be interesting to see exactly how far back he is used by Roberto Boscaglia, as he can play anywhere through the midfield.
There are a couple more signings that look to be players on an upward trajectory, too. It remains to be seen if they will fulfil their potential, and whether they reach the level being planned for them at the moment.
Simone Muratore moved to Atalanta from Juventus, only to be immediately loaned to Reggina. Clearly, La Dea hope he will prove himself in Serie B, and be good enough to bolster their squad in years to come. He will have some big shoes to fill.
It is also make or break time for Nicolo Barella. His time with Cagliari and Coko earned him the chance with Inter last season, and he was good enough to grab it with both hands. Now after a big-money move to the Nerazzurri, he will have to prove himself; one has to hope for the Italian national side, he does so.
Barella, and the stage he is at, demonstrate the problem clubs have with players of this type. It is almost the same as with a quarterback for an NFL side or a leg spinner in a cricket team. When a team finds a creative player who is both imaginative and consistent, they are transcended to another level. Suddenly, players become goal threats who were not before, and those that were are double.
The upside of the gamble is so high that it will always be taken, in the hope that a Lorenzo Insigne emerges at the very least, even if the chances of a Francesco Totti are slim. It is inevitable that when these players don’t work out, they try their hand lower down the leagues. Thus the middling midfields of Serie A become replete with players either on their way to, or way from, the big clubs.
Napoli, meanwhile, replaced Simone Verdi with Matteo Politano, another unproven experiment. Politano will no doubt be given a season to shine at the Stadio San Paolo, Lorenzo Insigne passing on his expertise in the hope he can reach his level, for benefit at both club and country level. Verdi, though initially departing only on loan, will not return.
Back to that moment in late July, with a gleaming white football hanging in the Estensi evening.
When, after what seemed like an eternity, Simone Verdi’s shot fell back to Earth, nestling into Demba Thiam’s net perfectly, having wrong-footed both the defence and the debutant goalkeeper perfectly. With the point it eventually secured, Torino were safe, and Verdi himself was anointed as the hero of the piece. His stock rose immensely in that one split second, the trajectory of his career now matching that of the ball he put into the area. Suddenly Torino couldn’t afford to let him go, and the €20 million they paid for him seems, already, wildly inflated.
Will he come crashing down, equally quickly, as the shot did into the net? One hopes not, yet the unarguable truth is that if he could score goals like that regularly, Napoli wouldn’t have let him go.