Age before beauty

What do Vito Mannone, Giuseppe Rossi and Federico Macheda all have in common? From a footballing perspective, they have all been shown huge faith at a tender age to play at the top level of professional football, given responsibilities to improve the on pitch efforts with their more experienced colleagues, by a non-Italian club. Inter’s recent progress into the Champions League semi-final contained no Italians (young or otherwise) other than a cameo appearance by Mario Balotelli. Young Italian players are finding themselves more and more marginalised in Serie A, raising the debate by some that there is a lack of youngsters talented enough to make the grade. However, the three aforementioned players disproves that theory to some extent, though it is still a debate worthy of discussion if only to try to fathom what panics Serie A tacticians into continually picking the ‘Old Guard’.

The likes of Macheda, Rossi and Mannone will not be the last of this ‘phenomenon’, with Chelsea and Manchester United having already poached more of Italy’s brightest young starlets from under the noses of their peninsulan cousins. The current world champions are allowing its future to slip away without so much as a word screamed out in anger. Maybe the screaming part is not strictly true, many Italian clubs complain of the labour laws that do not allow them to contract youngsters in the same way Premiership clubs can, but the reason the kids are leaving (putting to one side the financial rewards) is because they may actually get a chance to play.

The recent Milan Champions League performance at Old Trafford highlighted the problem in fluorescent magic marker – why do Italian Coaches persist with ageing players and fail to give the teenagers a chance? Marek Jankulovski was pulled apart at left-back, by Gary Neville of all people. Does Milan not have a 19-year-old waiting in the wings to play in that position? Could he have played any worse? This ‘policy’ is not limited to the Rossoneri, either. Inter will use Marco Materazzi as cover at centre-back and Francesco Toldo to replace Júlio César whilst Roma do not appear to have any cover for John Arne Riise other than pensioner Max Tonetto. Juventus still offer the likes of Zdeněk Grygera and Hasan Salihamidžić playing time and Pippo Inzaghi is still entrusted to sneak a goal in the dying minutes of a game.

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Milan’s first-team squad lists Andrea De Vito (born in 1991) who had a superb game at left-back in his one appearance against Novara in the Coppa Italia in January. He has a talented left foot and spent most of the game making galloping runs up and down the flank. Juventus have 20-year-old midfielder Luca Marrone, part of Pierluigi Casiraghi’s U-21 squad who recently scored a thunderbolt of a goal against Hungary in the Azzurri shirt. The Giallorossi have 18-year-old Filippo Maria Scardina, a potent striker in the youth team who scored in this season’s Europa League against CSKA Sofia. Milan have young Simone Verdi (class of 1992), a forward that some commentators have dared describe him with the term ‘fantasista’. He is devastating in front of goal, with a great turn of pace and superb in one-on-one situations. A few examples of options clubs do have but use only very sparingly or in emergency situations.

Gianluigi Buffon was 16 when handed his first opportunity as was Francesco Totti. Fabio Cannavaro was playing regularly for Napoli from the age of 20 and Alex Del Piero was scoring goals for Juventus at 21. These players offer statistical proof that young talent can come good, given the opportunities. Opportunities which are more of a challenge than a home tie in the Italian Cup to Foggia.

It can be accepted that using an inexperienced player at a delicate point during a game would be a risk, to bring him on when trying to close out a game could be suicide. But using the Milan match as an example, they needed to take a chance and had 90 minutes to do so. Could someone like De Vito not have taken advantage of an ageing Neville and an attack minded Antonio Valencia? Against Fulham in the Europa League, Juventus fielded 40-year-old goalkeeper Antonio Chimenti instead of teenager Carlo Pinsoglio (voted ‘Best Keeper’ when the Bianconeri last won the famous Viareggio youth competition).

Gifted youngsters are around, that fact cannot be denied. Davide Santon, Sebastian Giovinco, Alessio Cerci, Mario Balotelli, Marco Motta, Marco Andreolli, Antonio Candreva are regularly on Serie A sub benches. Others that do get more playing time fail to get opportunities with the ‘big four’ (think Domenico Criscito, who was at Juve but is now at Genoa – is Fabio Grosso that much better?).

Players like Cannavaro, Totti, Del Piero, Buffon, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Nesta were all shown great faith at the highest level while relatively young. All of these have gone on to (and still do) play at the peak of professional football. Youth really does work, if only more top-flight coaches would just give them a chance.

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