A question to begin – how many teenage debutants have there been for Italy since the Second World War? The answer to this will be revealed later, but it is something worth bearing in mind while reading the mass criticism on the way youth football is structured and young players in Italy are handled, criticism which has only started to bloom since the debacle that was Italy’s 2010 World Cup.
The furore has not been helped by the FIGC’s decision to reduce the number of non-EU players a club can sign each season from two to one, a move President Giancarlo Abete insists was not a reaction to the poor World Cup showing. Unfortunately, that is exactly how people will view it, and all it has served to do is reinforce the belief that Calcio has a problem with its youth, and that if it is not sorted it will impact on the national team. In reality, this rule will not change things a great deal. Players and clubs can get around the rule through ancestry, applying for European passports due to the bloodline that will ensure they do not count as non-EU, whilst it is also unlikely to change an age old tradition of how Italian clubs use their younger players.
Serie A has had foreign players for a long time, yet it is not until now that it has been made out to be a problem. Similarly, questions have rarely been asked of the paths of young players in the country – specifically why they do not play for their clubs or their country at a younger age. Why have the questions been brought up now? What has changed? The answer is nothing. Italy is not doing anything differently with its young players that it has not been doing for years. However, as with any tragic World Cup failure, the finger of blame always points towards the youth system, perhaps as a forlorn, reactive afterthought that maybe the entire system is wrong, instead of the Coach and the 23 players who went to the tournament.
Rarely does a young Italian player (hereby defined as one aged 21 or younger) regularly start games for the big teams in Serie A – those who do are generally brilliant talents (there are always one or two exceptions, but these are a small minority, and some of these ‘exceptions’ had the ability, but let it go with their attitude). Generally, a young player’s career path is usually to be loaned out to a smaller team (if the young player in question is owned by a big team), gain game time and experience, before returning as an technically and physically stronger individual ready for the big time, normally at the age of 22. Those not owned by a big club will take the alternative paths – either working their way up to this level via smaller clubs (Gennaro Gattuso), or a mixture of both of the above (Andrea Pirlo). And naturally there will be some that disappear because they were not good enough, or through lack of application.
Those that do start young are more often than not, the finest – Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta, Francesco Totti, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon, Paolo Maldini are some recent examples (you can go further back to find more) of players starting games early at big clubs (or clubs that were big at the time, such as Napoli). This trend is mirrored for the national side, but on an even more select scale – two of those players listed did not make their debuts for Italy until they were over 21, despite one (Totti) being a regular for his club as a teenager.
All of this brings us back nicely to the original question – there have been 11 teenage debutants since the Second World War (starting with the most recent): Davide Santon, Buffon, Maldini, Roberto Mancini, Beppe Bergomi, Gianni Rivera, Mario Corso, Bruno Nicolè, Battista Rota, Emilio Caprile, Giampiero Boniperti. There are exceptions to the rule, but many of these are some of the best players Italy has produced. Nicolè, Rota and Caprile all suffered from Italy’s failure to qualify for the 1958 World Cup (the only way players made their reputation in an era with no worldwide coverage) – winning a combined 12 caps between them and not getting an opportunity to prove themselves as players. The message is simple – if players are good enough, they will start, if they have the talent, they will rise to the top eventually. This methodology has produced four World Cups and six finals – why change it now?