When you’re the man behind Italy’s best-ever European Championship qualifying campaign, your opinions on the country’s talent pool matter more than most. “I hear people talking about [Alessandro] Matri and [Marco] Borriello,” said Italy manager Cesare Prandelli after announcing his squad for games against Serbia and Northern Ireland. “But I prefer to talk about [Sebastian] Giovinco. All that was missing from his game was coolness in front of goal and now he is showing that as well. He can be the most important player this year on the Italian football scene.”
A little more than four years have passed since the Atomic Ant’s senior debut, a substitute’s appearance for Juventus, then in Serie B, which he marked with an assist for David Trezeguet. In the intervening period he has gone from Alessandro Del Piero’s heir apparent to a Bianconeri cast-off. Now into his second season at Parma, his stock is on the rise once more. Serie As joint-top scorer at this early stage, Giovinco has scored five of his teams six goals and also set up the other one. Not bad considering he missed one of Parma’s five games through suspension.
“I am really happy with how my season is going, but today the important thing was to win,” reflected Giovinco after playing the lead role once again in his team’s 3-1 win over Genoa at the weekend. But after a performance of such quality he knew exactly what question was coming next. “Regrets over Juve? I just hope I’ve created a few regrets on their part. My job now is to ensure Parma reach safety as quickly as possible.”
For Giovinco such questions can only provoke mixed feelings. On the one hand he is being denied the opportunity to move on, to get on with his career away from the club he left more than a season ago. On the other hand, these questions only tend to get asked when he is doing well. And after the start he has made to this season, the debate is certainly raging. Is Giovinco just one of those players who is happiest as the big fish (figuratively speaking here, of course) in a small pond, or could he cut it at a top side?
The Juventus manager Antonio Conte has suggested he is in the latter camp, noting that it is no bad thing that the Bianconeri still have a co-ownership stake in the player. A return at some point is not completely out of the question, but bridges would have to be repaired. As recently as February Giovinco had stated that it would be better for everyone if his ties with Juventus were to be cut altogether. Though he thanked Conte for his praise, Giovinco also repeated last month that his priority is playing every week.
And to watch Giovinco playing football it is easy to share that desire. Although he appears at last to have added a cutting edge, his is first and foremost a joyful game, one of flicks and tricks, unpredictable turns and flights of whimsy. He is a player who, as Gazzetta dello Sport has suggested, was born to entertain and to enjoy himself. As Gianfranco Zola once put it: “Giovinco is one of those players who can create a bit of fantasy.” I can’t imagine a more beautiful dedication than that.
A football pitch has always been the place where Giovinco has felt most comfortable. By his own admission, he was never much of a scholar, possessed of what he terms a constant nervous energy that made it hard enough just to sit still at school, let alone to learn. Where other children might have a nightlight or book to fall asleep by, Giovinco would drift away watching his VHS cassettes of Roberto Baggio, Diego Maradona, Michel Platini and Alessandro Del Piero.
But at Juventus that energy translated into restlessness, as Giovinco was made to kick his heels on the sidelines. After making three appearances for the club in his first season, the player was sent out for a productive year on loan at Empoli. Upon returning in 2008, he was granted a new five-year contract, signed at the exact same restaurant, Due Spade in Sandrigo, where Del Piero had famously renewed his deal nine years previously. But over the next two years, things would go awry.
Juventus would go through three different managers in that period—Claudio Ranieri, Ciro Ferrara, then briefly Alberto Zaccheroni—but none could find a regular starting spot for Giovinco in their sides. Ranieri deployed the player primarily as a winger, making him the back-up to Pavel Nedved on the left of midfield, before Ferrara restored the player to his preferred role of trequartista. The only problem being that the club had already signed Diego in the summer for €24.5m to fill that exact position.
If a second season on the bench frustrated Giovinco, then it might have been the coach’s methods that pushed him over the edge. At one point Ferrara ordered Giovinco to go through training sessions acting as a shadow to Diego, following the Brazilian around the pitch at a short distance and mimicking his actions without ever touching a ball. For the pride of a player who already felt himself ready to play at this level it was a heavy blow. The situation was not helped when Diego’s own form rapidly tailed off after a fast start.
There was talk too of a falling out with Del Piero, though Giovinco has since rejected any suggestion that Il Pinturicchio resented his would-be heir. “No. We joked about it, he gave me advice,” Giovinco told Sportweek earlier this year. “Maybe some other team-mates more than him acted like mother hens, but he never showed me any ill-will. That just doesn’t enter into his character.”
Nevertheless, it is clear that one of Giovinco’s greatest grievances at Juve was a perceived lack of respect. “If you say that you will call me later then I will wait with my phone turned on until four in the morning,” said Giovinco at one point as he attempted to explain his outlook. “And if that phone call doesn’t arrive I will be offended.” At Juve he felt that he had gone from being talked about as a future great to being discarded overnight, without ever receiving a real explanation.
That, in truth, was more likely the result of Juventus’ own troubles at the time than of any greater malicious intent. With results failing to meet expectations, constant turnover of managers and an unstable situation at board level, the club was short on leadership. It was easy in such a setting for a young talent to slip through the gaps.
But while he might not agree, it is also true Giovinco was simply not ready to start for a team like Juve. Much has been made of his small stature—Giovinco stands 5ft 4ins and weighs roughly 120lbs—but while he is right to contest that many great players have had similar builds, in that part of his career he was too easily bullied by Serie A defenders. And as much as his talent was already apparent in his touch, he had not yet acquired the incisiveness to be a consistent weapon for a team expected to win more often than not.
Parma, then, have been the perfect destination, a club where Giovinco has been safe in the knowledge he would start every week in his preferred role, allowing him to learn on the job against Italy’s top defenders. While the good weeks have garnered much attention, especially his three goals in two wins over Juventus last season, there have also been plenty of anonymous ones.
His fast start to the present campaign, though, has led many to wonder whether a corner may at last have been turned. Prandelli has already handed Giovinco, who had an exceptional record with the national team at every junior level from Under-16 to Under-21, four caps, and following his comments yesterday it is safe to assume that many more are on the way. Italian football will be watching closely to see whether the little man is ready at last to make his big step up.