Just over a year has passed since Don Balón ceased operations. A Spanish magazine aimed primarily at a domestic audience, the news might have gone largely unnoticed outside of that country were it not for a long-running and popular annual feature which had gained international renown. Every year in late Autumn, the magazine would attempt to name the top 100 young players on the planet.
Including only players aged 21 or younger, the list was often mocked but always read. Within a few years of each list’s publication, it was usually easy enough to put together a team of flops whose careers had never got off the ground. Conversely, there would also be a number of success stories, players that many fans might not have known at the time but who were now excelling on an international stage.
The majority of players, though, fell somewhere in-between. Players like Francesco Lodi. Back in November 2001, when his name appeared in the 49th position on Don Balón’s list, Lodi was still just a skinny 17-year-old who had made a couple of first-team appearances for Empoli in Serie B. The panel had presumably included him more on the strength of his performances for Italy’s Under-16 team than anything he had achieved at club level.
Lodi’s name would not appear on any of the future editions of the list for which he was eligible. Though he continued to move up through the age categories with the national team, representing the Under-18, then Under-19 sides, Empoli were intent on bringing him through slowly. Not until 2004, following a successful loan spell with Vicenza, would he become a fixture for the senior side.
For the next eight years, his would be a career steeped in mediocrity. Deployed variously as a trequartista or second striker, Lodi bounced back and forth between Empoli, Frosinone, and Udinese, proving himself to be an exceptional set-piece taker but otherwise brilliant only in patches. He played twice for Italy’s Under-21s, but never received serious consideration for the senior side.
Until now, that is. Fully 11 years after his name featured on the pages of Don Balón, Lodi might finally be on the verge of vindicating that magazine’s faith. Now 28, Lodi is one of the leading lights on a Catania team which is exceeding all expectations for the second season running.
To Lodi’s mind, the explanation was straightforward. “I still needed to grow at that point and I did not try to choose my own role,” said Lodi last month when reminded in an interview of his Don Balón nomination. “I listened to my managers, who saw me as a trequartista or a seconda punta. I scored more than 50 goals for Empoli and Frosinone in Serie B, and I told myself: ‘why would someone with your feet want to play in front of the defence?’”
That was where Lodi had grown up playing: as a deep-lying midfield regista for his local club in Naples before being picked up by Empoli at the age of 11. Leaving behind his family and travelling 300 miles north to join the Tuscan club’s youth set-up, Lodi was following in the footsteps of such great forwards as Vincenzo Montella and Antonio Di Natale.
It was to be a neat twist of fate, then, which had Montella as the manager finally taking Lodi back to his roots, overseeing the switch after he took over as manager of Catania last summer. “I didn’t need to be asked twice,” said Lodi. “It was the last chance, but I don’t live by regrets. In life everyone has to make their own path. And mine, evidently, was a long one.”
With Lodi pulling the strings from the heart of midfield, Catania would go on to post their best points total ever in the top flight. So successful was the change of position, in fact, that Lodi was speculatively with a move to Milan. Instead he chose to sign a new contract with the Elefanti, keeping him at the club until 2016.
“Everyone made me feel important, from the president to the shopkeeper,” he said “I would like to finish my career here: not because I am lacking ambition, but because Catania have a solid team and because, as a southerner, I really like the city. Compared to Naples, here you can walk calmly through the streets even after a defeat.”
Lodi remains fond of Naples and is quick to defend it from outside criticism, but his childhood there was not always easy. As the youngest of eight children growing up, he used to help his father to deliver smuggled cigarettes, the best way the family had at that time of making ends meet. Teaching himself to play football out on the streets near his home whenever he had a free moment, Lodi grew up “among syringes and muggings”.
He could not be distracted, though, from his footballing obsession. Back then he would perfect his set-piece delivery in the street by taking aim at shop signs from distance. Now, at the end of training each Friday and Saturday he stays out on the field to take 30 additional free-kicks—10 from the left, 10 from middle, and 10 from the right. At home he still watches DVDs of Diego Maradona for additional inspiration.
The hard work has paid off, Lodi now recognised alongside Andrea Pirlo as one of the best set-piece takers in the division. Already this season he has scored twice from free-kicks, adding a third from the penalty spot. His goals and all-round performances have helped Catania to carry on building even after Montella’s summer departure. After 13 games under new manager Rolando Maran, Catania are seventh – just a point behind Roma.
For now Lodi’s focus is squarely on next Saturday’s Derby di Sicilia, but he continues to hope also that his club form will be noticed by the national team manager Cesare Prandelli. “I had a good season last year, but maybe I need to do even better to get taken into consideration,” he said recently. And maybe to earn reclassification into the category of Don Balón success stories, while he’s at it.