Not everybody was convinced that a return to Italy was the right move for Fabio Borini. “I know he had sorted out the Parma deal before he knew what was going on,” announced the Swansea captain Gary Monk following his team’s promotion to the Premier League last summer. “But I’m sure if he knew what we would achieve, it would have made him think twice.”
Monk may be right; Borini continues to speak fondly of English football and, had the forward known at the outset that staying at Swansea would mean having the chance to start for a Premier League side, it is possible that he would have given it greater consideration. Then again, today the proposition might easily be reversed. Had Monk known what Borini would achieve in Italy, he probably would have thought twice about making such a statement.
As bright as Swansea’s first season in the Premier League has been, it is hard to imagine Borini’s star ascending more swiftly than it has since his return to Italy. Eight months on from Monk’s comments, Borini is the leading scorer on a Roma team that sit sixth in Serie A and is receiving serious consideration for Italy’s Euro 2012 squad. Cesare Prandelli, manager of the national team, handed the player his first cap in the defeat to USA a fortnight ago and was impressed with what he saw.
Not bad for a player who dropped down a division to play with Swansea in the Championship last March out of desperation for first-team football. Spirited away from Bologna’s youth system by Chelsea at the age of 16, Borini had managed four Premier League appearances in four years with the London club; the longest was a 19-minute cameo at Portsmouth. He was determined to see out the final months of his Chelsea contract on loan with the Swans before returning to Italy, quietly agreeing terms on a contract with Parma.
No sooner had he arrived, however, than he was on the move again, loaned out to Roma on the final day of the transfer window. To the outside world his move appeared as an afterthought, a footnote to a busy summer for Roma whose new owners had announced their arrival with high-profile moves for Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, Bojan Krkic and Erik Lamela. But to Borini it was a calculated manoeuvre. “[Franco] Colomba wants to play at Parma with one striker plus [Sebastian] Giovinco,” he said. “Luis Enrique always uses three attackers. Where do I have more chance of playing?”
He might also have been swayed by Enrique himself. There was a lot of comment over the summer on the bold new approach of a manager who strutted around the Trigoria training complex with iPad in hand, but his most radical innovation might have been the simplest: a willingness to give young players a chance. On many occasions this season has Enrique insisted that “I don’t look at players’ ID cards”. Few managers could honestly say the same in what has consistently been among the oldest leagues in Europe.
Nevertheless, Borini was only a fringe player over the first half of the season, appearing in seven league games but only once for the full 90 minutes before suffering a thigh injury at the end of October that would keep him out for the remainder of the calendar year. He had scored a single goal for Roma up to that point. Osvaldo led the team with seven.
But as Borini returned to training and Roma returned from their winter break, Osvaldo went down with a thigh injury of his own. Supporters feared the worst, but Borini seized his opportunity. A goal in his first game back against Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia was followed up by another against Cesena in the next match. He quickly became a fixture of Enrique’s first XI, the loan upgraded to a co-ownership deal that will keep Borini at Roma until at least 2013.
The goals continued to flow. Borini’s winner against Palermo on Saturday was his fourth goal in as many league games, and his eighth in the last 10. While his overall tally of nine goals this season might not look so impressive when set against rivals elsewhere in the league, it is also worth bearing in mind how much less time he’s enjoyed on the pitch. Borini’s scoring rate stands at one goal for every 122 minutes played. Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Antonio Di Natale have struck more regularly and, unlike Borini, both take their teams’ penalties.
So effective has he been, indeed, that the newspaper Il Messagero felt compelled to publish an editorial this week protesting that he was covering for the rest of the team. “Thanks to a 21-year-old from Emilia-Romagna, the problems up front are not being seen,” protested Ugo Traini, noting that Osvaldo was yet to score since his return from injury (partly because he has since picked up a suspension) while Francesco Totti, Bojan and Lamela have failed to pick up the slack. “It would be wrong to play down the problem.”
Others, though, have chosen to focus on a rather more subtle dynamic, claiming that Borini himself has become a divisive figure. On the pitch he is a perfect team-mate. He’s by no means the most technically gifted player in the side, but he makes up for any shortcomings by running himself into the ground, tracking back to help out defensively with a gusto that prompted Corriere dello Sport to approvingly deem him an “attacante all’inglese” – an English-style attacker.
Off the pitch though, a perception exists that his goody two-shoes demeanour may be doing him no favours. Asked about Enrique’s decision to drop Daniele De Rossi for a game following the midfielder’s late arrival for a team meeting, Borini noted that the same could never happen to him because “I always arrive for meetings 20 minutes early”. His subsequent no-show for a team dinner organised by players to raise morale after the latest Rome derby defeat was interpreted in some quarters as further evidence of his outsider status.
It was ever thus in Rome, of course, where the sheer volume of media outlets covering both teams ensures endless speculation of this variety. Another reading of the situation might note that De Rossi, too, was among a number of other players to miss the event and that Borini did excuse his absence with a message explaining that he had already made plans with some friends visiting from Bologna. On the other hand, others still would note that he also missed a similar get-together after the draw with Juventus in December.
In the end, only his team-mates can truly know their feelings towards Borini (though reporters nevertheless spent countless words this Sunday on their own interpretations of the amount of time it took for certain players to jog over and congratulate him on his goal). The supporters care not. As long as they are getting to see Borini himself celebrate each week in trademark fashion—hand across his mouth to signify a dagger between his teeth—then they will happily leave the speculation to everyone else. Gary Monk included.