The Hubner factor

TILL the very end of last season, Dario Hubner, centre forward of little Piacenza, scorer of an all but incredible 24 Serie A goals, which put him on top with Juventus's David Trezeguet, had dismissed any chance of joining a major club. He didn't want the pressure, he said. But then Milan came in and said they would give him a chance. Oddly enough, I tend to hope it isn't ultimately taken. For what would the remarkable, prolific, 35-year-old Hubner be doing at Milan but cooling his heels on the bench? True the famed Ukrainian centre forward Andrei Shevchenko will be on his way, but much money will be spent on a noted successor, and Pippo Inzaghi recovered from his injuries late in the season to show he is as good a striker as ever. I'd hate to see Hubner, that remarkable opportunist, forced out of regular football, however big the club he joined.

For, he is a player with extraordinary career, has been a kind of modern morality, in a game where supposedly promising players are snapped up one way or another by leading clubs as young as the age of nine; eventually to sink or swim, their boyhood largely being taken away from them. The other day at Chelsea, I heard the Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor explaining that the dazzling striker, Darius Vassell, a surprising new figure on the international scene for England, was indeed connected with the club from nine years old.

How different from the career of Hubner. He didn't even kick a ball in Serie A till he was 30; and then made a sensational debut at San Siro for modest Brescia against mighty Inter. That day, the mature striker scored two goals putting Brescia 2-0 in the lead. The managerial bench occupied by Gigi Simoni of Inter tottered. He was saved for the time at least by Alvaro Recoba, the young Uruguayan. He too, making his League debut for his club, and scoring with two tremendous left-footers; his reward for which would be that he hardly got a chance for the rest of the season and was lent to Venecia the season after that!

For Hubner that day was a watershed in his career, one which shows that it is, broadly speaking, never too late for a footballer to break through, even at the highest level. For Hubner spent years paddling about in the shallows. His first club was not some major League team but humble little Pievigina in the Inter Regional League; though even there he knocked in 10 goals in 25 games. Next to the C2 team run by Fergocrema, though his second season there ended in October 1989 when he moved to Fano by the Adriatic helping them from C2 to C1. Promotion was steady if unspectacular. Five seasons in B with Cesena followed, with goals galore. Then in 1997 to Brescia and Serie A at last. Or rather it didn't last, since Brescia were quickly back in B, where Hubner continued to score, 42 goals in two League seasons and back went Brescia to A again. It was last season that Hubner joined Piacenza where, as we know, he continued to score in phenomenal abundance.

The moral clearly is that it's never too late and does not have to be so early. Indeed, Italian football, despite its frantic atmosphere, its enormous pressures, its huge rewards, is better than most in its tendency to throw up hitherto unregarded talents. Funnily enough one of the most salient of them, Cristiano Doni, who went to the 2002 World Cup with the Italian national squad, was at Brescia at the same time as Hubner himself and perhaps was inspired by Hubner's example. Doni is now 29, but it took him some years to make his mark in Serie A.

A Roman, he got no change out of his city's two great clubs, Roma and Lazio, beginning his career in 1991 with Modena - just promoted to Serie A after nearly 40 years - who never gave him a game in Serie B. Instead he found himself in C2 and C1 for three seasons and with three different clubs, Rimini, Pistoiese and Bologna. He helped the latter into Serie B and subsequently with Hubner helped Brescia into Serie A, at the end of which season Atalanta signed him two more seasons in B, then he played a large part in their promotion to A and has been a major figure in the Campionato ever since, a forceful, versatile midfield player who can score goals as indeed he did last summer when Italy capped him for the first time, in Japan, and he scored their goal in a 1-1 draw.

Perhaps Atalanta have reflected on the fact that they let one of 16 most successful and influential attackers in Italian football of recent years elude them, though he was born on their Bergamo doorstep: none other than left-footed Gigi Signori scorer of so many goals for Lazio and latterly a power with Bologna.

Ignored by Atalanta, Signori went to the little Leife Club, then in Inter Regional, promoted the second season he was there to C2. Spells at Trento, Piacenza and Foggia followed. In season 1991/2 his 11 goals, helped Foggia to Serie A, where he scored another 11. Exploding the following season with Lazio with 26 goals in 32 games, by which time he was 24. How could he have been ignored?

But the fact is that it happens and sometimes to the benefit of the frustrated player allowed to develop on his own, unregimented by coaches who will all too often try to dragoon him into doing the orthodox thing. Talk of ill winds and silver linings seems legitimate.

Above all a footballer should never despair.