Mirko Vucinic is not accustomed to battling superheroes. The Juventus forward’s selfishness in possession might make him a villain in the eyes of his own club’s supporters but it is hardly the sort of offence which catches the attention of mankind’s fictional protectors. As he advanced towards the edge of the Chievo penalty area somewhere around the 70-minute mark on Saturday night, it’s safe to assume the last thing he was expecting was a visit from Captain America.
And yet there he was, hurtling 40 yards across the pitch in the blink of an eye before taking Vucinic out with a tackle that was at once both ruthless and lawful. Michael Bradley might not carry a vibranium-steel alloy shield or turn up for work in a lycra bodysuit, but in moments like these it is easy to see why the people of Verona have taken to nicknaming him after the Marvel character. Steely-gazed and musclebound, he’s protected their defence from harm all season.
“What a player!” read the breathless verdict of Gazzetta dello Sport’s Mirko Graziano the following day. “He both destroys play and constructs it.” Simone Antolini, of the Verona-based Arena, could have told you that months ago. “Captain America does not want to wake up: his Italian dream continues,” he wrote on Monday. “More and more he looks like a key component of the Chievo midfield.”
The rest of the nation has been paying a little bit more attention since Bradley showed himself also to be a key component of a USA team that defeated Italy in Genoa last Wednesday. More than one journalistic observer noted in the wake of that match that his creative input for the Americans had compared favourably with the contributions made by Andrea Pirlo for the hosts.
That can only have been music to the ears of a player whose mere inclusion in the national side had for many years drawn accusations of nepotism. As much as it must have pained him to see his father Bob Bradley dismissed as USA coach after five years in the job last July, the midfielder will at least know there will be no further discussions about whether he has earned his place on merit.
Such suggestions always stung for a player who has prided himself all through his life on putting in the hours to get where he wants to go. As a kid when he decided that two training sessions and one match per week were insufficient, he simply took to turning up at his local club every day, gradually wearing down the organisers until they allowed him to work with the older age groups on nights when his own group weren’t practicing.
Asked how he planned to crack Serie A upon his arrival at Chievo, the first two words out of Bradley’s mouth were: “hard work”. Having grown up watching Serie A matches with his dad on RAI International every Sunday morning, Bradley used to dream of signing for Milan but would have no interest in doing so if it were only to train and collect a pay cheque every week. After spending last season warming the bench on loan at Aston Villa, his greatest aim this summer was to find a club where he could play every week.
There are few less-glamorous spots in Serie A than Chievo, a club that originally hail from a small suburb of Verona and whose very nickname—I Mussi Volanti (The Flying Donkeys)—stems from a taunt issued by supporters of the city’s better-supported team, Hellas, who used to hold up banners joking that the two might meet in Serie A “when donkeys fly”. And yet for Bradley, they were a perfect fit. “Chievo sought me out, they wanted me,” he said after joining. “They made it clear it was me specifically who they wanted.”
Even at Chievo, though, he would have to prove himself. Although he had indeed been a top target for the sporting director Giovanni Sartori, the new manager Domenico Di Carlo was initially minded to retain the club’s existing orchestrator-in-chief Luca Rigoni at the heart of the Chievo midfield. But Bradley’s form in training swiftly made such a position untenable. By the third game of the season he was starting alongside Rigoni, and when the latter got injured he took over as the team’s main regista.
Soon Bradley was undroppable; Di Carlo was jeered ferociously by Chievo’s supporters just for substituting the American during a defeat to Lazio. When Rigoni returned, those fans did not ask whether there would be room to keep Bradley in the side, but whether there was space for the Italian. Di Carlo has been able to find variations on a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-2-1 that make room for both players, but it is Bradley who leads the team in passes per game, and is second only to Perparim Hetemaj in number of tackles won.
There is no doubt Bradley has helped the team to win. With 12 games left to go, Chievo sit 10th in Serie A having already picked up 34 points, just six shy of the target Di Carlo had initially set for them to secure their top-flight status for another season. The club’s more optimistic fans have even begun speculating over a possible push for the Europa League places.
Off the pitch, Bradley has endeared himself further to the club’s fans by giving talks at local schools and opting to sit among the fans in the stands—along with his team-mates Cyril Théréau and Boukary Dramé—during a recent suspension. “All one big family,” declared one of the many thrilled callers to a phone-in on Radio Verona after the match. “This is the football that I adore.”
Bradley has taken to life in Verona, claiming it was “love at first sight” for he and his wife when they first saw the city, and expressing similarly great enthusiasm for the local risotto. He credits his English-speaking Slovenian team-mates Bojan Jokic and Bostjan Cesar for helping him settle, but he’s also applied himself to learning Italian, declaring from the outset that to do was “crucial” for being able to communicate effectively with team-mates on the pitch.
Most importantly of all, though, he is enjoying his football. “That’s when the magic starts,” he said when asked by a student at the Istituto Aleardo Aleardi (an international school) what goes through his mind at the opening whistle. “I always feel it inside me because in that moment I am doing the thing I love to do.” In Verona they love to watch him do it, too.