Italy and its stars

Encouraged by none other than Diego Maradona, Gianfranco Zola became a star in his own right, with Napoli, Parma, Chelsea and Italy, and scoring Italy’s winner at Wembley in a World Cup eliminator against England.

When the Italians came to Glasgow to play their potentially decisive European Championship qualifier against Scotland, it was just six days after the horrific, violent response by enraged fans all over the peninsula to the shooting of a Lazio supporter outside a service station in Arezzo. Last year we have had the squalid scandal of the corruption of referees, led by the notorious Moggi when chief executive at Juventus. But there is a more positive side to the Italian game and that was evident when the squad which came to Scotland contained four players who, so to speak, had risen to the very top, to international football, out of obscurity.

The latest of them is the 26-year-old Andrea Barzagli. Bizarrely, he was completely overlooked by his very local club Fiorentina of Florence, even though he was actually born in the adjacent hill town of Fiesole which not only overlooks the Artemio Franchi stadium where the viola play, but actually gives its name to what is known as the Fiesole End. Yet Barzagli had to content himself for playing first in amateur football then for two seasons in the C2 (4th) division, for the tiny local club, La Rondinella.

Ascoli, then in Serie B and never a fashionable club, then acquired him, and after a couple of seasons there, he finally reached Serie A in Sicily with Palermo who seem to make a profitable speciality of finding and developing such players. Having in the meantime had his first experience of Serie A with the remarkable Chievo club, which rose so unexpectedly from the suburbs of Verona.

What a contrast, you might well think, with what seems now to be happening in English football, where unless a nine-year-old boy isn’t spotted and signed by a major club, his fate is sealed. This sort of thing happens in Italy too, but concurrently with the emergence of such players as Barzagli and Antonio di Natale. The 30-year-old Neapolitan striker has had a splendidly productive and prolific season, scoring some remarkable goals both for his present club, Udinese, and for the national team. True, he was signed at 18 by the Tuscan club, Empoli, so often a springboard for talent, but in two seasons there he got just one game in Serie B, before being lent out to two clubs in C2, one in C1.

Empoli then took him back, and his 16 goals helped them to promotion to Serie A in 2002. Yet his second season there was a disaster for both club and player, just five goals in 33 games and relegation. It was extremely daring of Udinese of Serie A to buy him nonetheless, and when his first couple of seasons brought him a mere 15 goals in 68 games they may have had cause to regret it. Not now.

Talking of Palermo, it was there that big Fabio Grosso became a 2006 World Cup star. But who would have thought it after the difficulty of his beginnings? Born in Rome 30 years ago, he was ignored by Roma and Lazio and had to resign himself to playing no fewer than four seasons with the amateurs, Renato Curi. Three seasons in C2 with Chieti, of the pleasant little hill top town, followed, till this forceful and adventurous left-back — who could also play in midfield — was at last transferred to Perugia, who were then in Serie A. Midway through his third season there, when he had already won three caps for Italy, he was surprisingly transferred south to Palermo, then in Serie B. They were promoted that season, however, and Grosso went on to confirm his place in the international team, scoring in extra-time in Dortmund in the 2006 World Cup win over the hosts, Germany.

Palermo has also played a major role in the career of the hefty centre-forward Luca Toni, another World Cup winner, so lethal with his head. Once again, his route to the top was slow and circuitous. Born near Modena, he was taken on by the local club then in C1. Empoli bought him after a couple of seasons, but gave him only three games, for one goal, in Serie B. There followed a couple of seasons with a Serie C1 club, elevation to Serie B — 15 goals in 35 games — and at last promotion to Serie A; first with Vicenza, then for two unproductive seasons at Brescia.

It was then that he joined Palermo, at that point in Serie B, and came suddenly and eventfully to life. His 30 goals in 45 games got them back into Serie A where he promptly got another 20 goals in 35 games and moved on to Fiorentina, where 31 Serie A goals and Italy honours followed. Last summer, he was expensively sold to Bayern Munich.

Yet perhaps the most unusual, even romantic, story of all was that of Gianfranco Zola, born in Sardinia, ignored by its own major club, Cagliari and doomed for all his refulgent skills it seemed to stay in the shadows with lesser local clubs. He was already in his 20s and playing C1 football for Torres when Nello Barbanera, the club’s sports director, crossed the sea to Napoli and begged Luciano Moggi then the club’s sports director to give Zola a chance. This he did though, in the words of one Italian sports paper, Zola at that time was not so much a mysterious object but a very mysterious object. Encouraged by none other than Diego Maradona, Zola became a star in his own right, with Napoli, Parma, Chelsea and Italy, and scoring Italy’s winner at Wembley in a World Cup eliminator against England. At Chelsea he was idolised, renowned for his clever feet and the insidious free kicks which he would practice for hours on end, day by training day.