There has been a buzz around Serie A’s latest US import, Michael Bradley, over the last two days after he provided both an assist and the pass that would set in motion another goal during Chievo’s 2-1 win over Genoa, but there has been rather less comment on the first Canadian footballer ever to grace the Italian top flight. That might be because, unlike Bradley, he’s already been in the job for a year. It might also be because he retired from playing the game in 1994.
Enzo Concina actually did come close on a number of occasions to playing in Serie A, Lazio having a bid turned rejected back when he was owned by Ravenna in the 1980s before Roma’s Niels Liedholm came to scout the player while he was at Piacenza later in the same decade … only to see him suffer cruciate ligament damage. After a promising start to the 1988-89 season Concina even believed his whole Piacenza team could be destined for the top flight, before the wheels came off and they went on to finish bottom of the division.
Instead, more than two decades later, he finds himself sat on the bench of a Scudetto contender in a role he had never even considered: that of a coach. Appointed by Napoli last summer as the manager Walter Mazzarri prepared for his first full season in charge, Concina’s official title is “tactical assistant”. With the two men enjoying a long friendship dating back to their years together as players at the then Serie C1 club Nola at the start of the 1990s, one suspects his role has as much to do with being a trusted confidant as a tactician.
Certainly it was interesting that Concina’s appointment should arrive when it did – just weeks after Nola had been promoted back to Serie D, with Mazzarri himself sending the team a note of congratulations. Perhaps that was the catalyst for a fresh call to his old team-mate, who had previously turned down the chance to join Mazzarri at Sampdoria. Concina had, after all, never intended to become a coach. His last job before joining Napoli was as a manager for a company that sold metal-cutting equipment. Before that he had worked in telecoms.
But if that was an unlikely switch then at one point then a playing career in Italy felt just as distant. Although he was born in Prato Carnico (a rural area to the north of Udine) to Italian parents, Concina moved to Toronto with his family at the age of just four and would grow up as a naturalised Canadian citizen. In the immigrant community he grew up in football was certainly a popular past-time, but it was not often that European scouts came to check on the progress of Toronto Italia in the National Soccer League.
His break arrived, however, in the summer of 1982, when the then Ascoli player Francesco Scorsa visited the city to check out the Labatts Tournament, a pre-season competition involving Toronto Italia, Dinamo Zagreb, Celtic and Greek Panhellenic. “We beat Celtic 4-1 but I wasn’t there, because I was playing with the Canadian Olympic team,” recalled Concina in a 2008 interview with Toronto’s Corriere Canadese, an Italian language newspaper which he himself used to deliver as a boy. “But they were talking about me and set out to get me a trial with Ascoli, then in Serie A.”
In the event Ascoli passed on the opportunity to give Concina a trial, but others were more receptive. A powerful but graceful defender, Concina would eventually land at Serie C2 Ravenna, moving up two years later to Pavia in Serie C1 and then Piacenza in 1986, where his six goals – “almost all of them decisive,” he notes – helped the club to get promoted to Serie B. They also helped to earn him a permanent place in the affections of a certain Filippo Inzaghi.
“The first time [I saw the senior team live] was Piacenza-Spal, a fixture which for us was worth twice as much as any other,” Inzaghi told Gazzetta dello Sport in 1997, recalling his time in the Biancorossi’s youth team. “We won 2-1, with the decisive goal scored by the defender Concina, with a header from far out. Then Concina ran under our Curva to celebrate. I can’t tell you how many times I dreamed of making that run.”
When Piacenza were relegated in 1990 Concina would prolong his stay in the second tier by moving to Monza, but a year later he took the step down, teaming up with Mazzarri at Nola. Then, after the briefest of stints with Forlì, he would return to finish his career in Canada – albeit not in Toronto, where his parents still live to this day – but instead with Montreal Impact in the old NASL. “I don’t regret anything,” he told Corriere Canadese when asked whether it hurt never to have made it to the top flight. “For a kid who grew up with ‘soccer’ I probably achieved more than I should have”
Montreal would be his last footballing post before the appointment at Napoli last summer. By his own admission, the game has moved on a long way in the interim. The abandoning of man marking for zonal schemes has transformed the centre-back position he used to call his own. Player wages and entitlements, too, are worlds apart. This summer Concina was asked by Mazzarri to follow Ezequiel Lavezzi to Sardinia to ensure the player still got daily fitness sessions after El Pocho had demanded an extra week’s holiday to recover from the Copa America.
But Concina has for the most part taken it all in his stride, and his value to Mazzarri was reflected this summer when the club extended his contract to 2013. And that means Serie A should enjoy a Canadian presence for a little while yet.