Late bloomers

THE curious case of Massimo Maccarone tells you much about the paradoxes of Italian football and indeed by extension of football at large. This alas is an age when very young, seemingly talented boys are snapped up at an increasingly absurdly early age. Sometimes in horse racing parlance they train on. Like the just turned 17-year-old Everton centre-forward Wayne Rooney, who, five days before his 17th birthday, smashed a glorious 39-yard winning goal against Arsenal at Goodison Park to join the line of great Evertonian number 9s from Dixie Dean through Tommy Lawton. When Everton snapped him up believe it or not, discovered by a sharp eyes scout in a boys' game, he was all of 10 years old!

All well and good for Wayne Rooney two of whose brothers have already been signed by Everton, both younger than him. But what of the thousands who fall by the wayside, who, doubtless encouraged by their working class families, eager even greedy for the immense financial rewards which now accrue to top footballers, encourage the child to put all his eggs in one basket; where they may so easily break? Eschewing thoughts of education, emerging in all probability from school with nothing to offer but what he has in his boots, what is the fate of the boy who - and he will be in a vast majority - doesn't break through as a footballer? Don't forget that this has all too often been the fate of those who excel even at youth international level. Their bones litter the historic slopes of soccer.

The case of Maccarone, then. The 23-year-old centre-forward who, this season, has been electrifying Middlesbrough and their fans with his powerful presence, his opportunism, his ability selflessly to bring colleagues into the game. The player who cost the club the bagatelle of �8.15 million last summer, yet who has never played a single match in Italian Serie A! The striker who became the first ever Serie B player to represent Italy when he came on late last season as a substitute at Leeds against England and procured Italy a penalty when he went round the 'keeper David James who brought him down. Vincenza Montella promptly converted the spot kick.

Yet, why did no Italian major club beat Boro to the punch for Maccarone? And why did he spend so many anxious and frustrating years being passed around the peninsula like a parcel? Why was it that Milan, who signed him as a 13-year-old and such a promising boy, never gave him a first team game? How was it that when push came to shove last summer, they allowed themselves to be beaten in an auction of the sealed envelopes by little Serie B Empoli where he had been on loan then held in comproprieta, meaning in joint ownership? Empoli were pretty sure that Milan would stick to their original valuation of Maccarone so bid 100 million lire above it. But then Milan never seems to have taken Maccarone seriously.

Just look at the way they pushed him constantly out on loan. At the start of season 1998-99 it was to Modena where he was so unhappy he hardly stayed before leaving the then division C1 club for C2 Prato in Tuscany, where he got just four goals in 21 games. Next season very briefly to Varese.

Just three C1 games then off yet again back to Prato where at last he found true happiness, a manager called Baldini who really understood him and encouraged him. In C2 he scored no fewer than 20 goals in 28 games, then in season 2000-2001, it was on to Serie B, Empoli and 16 goals in 35 games. A physical training mentor, who worked endlessly on his condition, opined that while he was not so fast off the mark, he was very quick indeed once he got going.

Maccarone really cracked it with the Italian Under-21 side under the managership of that once notoriously rough defender Claudio Gentile another who appreciated him but felt as Maccarone did himself that his heading could improve. A series of 11 goals for the Under-21s, a resplendent performance in the finals, established him as a striker of rare quality. But after what a saga!

I saw him come on both at Leeds, for Italy, and at Cardiff where through no fault of his own he made none of the same impact as at Leeds; just about the only time he even touched the ball was when it hit him in the back. But this was a demoralised and overplayed Italy. No question, meanwhile that Maccarone is another of those Italian players who has excelled despite such cursory treatment.

As indeed did the now veteran Beppe Signori, 34 years old. It seems almost incredible that a left-winger of such skills and penetration should have taken so long to find a leading club. Indeed to be ignored by his very local team, Stalanta of Bergamo, though he was born on the doorstep at Alzano Lombardo. A man who won no fewer than 28 caps scoring seven goals for Italy; a World Cup star.

But the best club he could earlier find was tiny Leefe, initially not even playing in the League but in the inter-regional tournament, though he at once helped them climb to C2. What then? Transfers, a season at a time, to a couple of C1 clubs, Piacenza and Trento, returning to Piacenza after Trento. At last to Serie B in season 1989-90 with Foggia, who climbed to Serie A in his third season there.

Then at last Lazio brought him to Rome and to Serie A and with what results! 26 goals in his first season, that glorious left foot irresistible; 23 in the second. The goals were drying up by season 1997-98 but the Lazio fans were incensed when in December that year the club let him go to Sampdoria of Genoa. There, too, he seemed less effective but when he moved to Bologna in 1998-99 it was to rattle in no fewer than 46 goals in his first three seasons! The player turned down by Atalanta!

In England, one thinks of Kevin Phillips, such a prolific scorer as a striker for Sunderland yet a player whose career seemed destined to the obscurity of being a defender in non-league soccer, till Watford signed him and he blossomed as a striker, a deadly finisher, destined to be just as incisive at Sunderland in the top-division and capped by England. Football, in short is full of surprises. The apparently brilliant boys can fade away, the seemingly unexceptional footballers can in time effloresce as outstanding players, to the embarrassment of those clubs, which initially under-rated them. Why, even England's World Cup 66 winner Alan Ball was turned down by Bolton Wanderers and told, "You'd make a good little jockey!" Luckily Blackpool knew better. Everton and Arsenal would later testify to that!