Italy should be grateful that Alessio Cerci turned up at all. Addressing reporters at the national team’s Coverciano training base on Monday, the Torino winger said that he was finding his first-ever call-up a little hard to get his head around. “It seems impossible [that I should be here],” he said. “I’ve always been talked about as a ‘kid with potential’. But for various reasons I never kicked on, I never showed my true worth.”
He had experienced a similar sensation once before in his career. Back in 2003, Cerci was a precocious 15-year-old forward playing for Roma’s youth team. His superior speed, technique and ability to beat an opponent one-on-one had been noted by the then manager, Fabio Capello, who instructed his assistant, Italo Galbiati, to call Cerci up for a day’s training with the senior team. Galbiati did as he was told, yet Cerci never showed. The player thought his coach was joking.
Capello forgave the misunderstanding, and within a year Cerci had made his Serie A debut, replacing Daniele Corvia in the 76th minute of Roma’s 0-0 draw with Sampdoria in May 2004. It was to prove something of a false dawn for Cerci, who would play just four more competitive games for the senior team over the next two seasons as Roma cycled through six different managers.
His potential, though, was never in doubt. Cerci represented Italy consistently at every youth category from Under-16 upwards. He was one of the stars of the 2004 Viareggio youth tournament, scoring four goals for a Roma team that finished third. A glowing report of the player’s progress in La Repubblica noted how he would “win derbies on his own”.
The inevitable scramble to define Cerci according to his similarities to existing professional footballers soon began. That journalists still hadn’t understood his talent was reflected in newspaper reports from his first few years as a pro. In the same week Cerci could be likened to players as diverse as Christian Vieri and Adailton.
Eventually, though, one comparison would stick. Cerci was loaned out to Brescia in 2006-07, and then Pisa a year later. It was with the latter club, playing wide on the right in Giampiero Ventura’s adventurous 4-2-4, that Cerci came into his own, scoring 10 goals and seeing four opponents sent off for their clumsy attempts to slow him down. His tendency to cut in sharply from the flank won him the nickname “the [Thierry] Henry from Valmontone.”
If there were similarities in the two players’ styles, then their careers remained poles apart. By 25, Henry had already won French and English league titles, as well as a World Cup with France. Cerci, before this week, had never even been called up. Before this season, the consensus was that he had failed to make good on the promise shown at Pisa.
Injuries have played their part—they derailed Cerci’s 2008-09 season (spent on loan at Atalanta) and preventing him from kicking on when his star was brightest—but so has the player’s own attitude. In the summer of 2010, after a final season spent failing to establish himself at Roma, Cerci was sold to Fiorentina. This was to be the player’s big break, a chance to make his mark with a top-flight team.
Instead he became the scapegoat for a side which lost its way. The team Cerci joined had competed in the Champions League a year earlier, beating Liverpool before getting knocked out on away goals by Bayern Munich after a series of egregious officiating errors in the German team’s favour. They had also finished 11th in Serie A, with manager Prandelli subsequently moving on to take the Italy job.
Now, with Sinisa Mihajlovic at the helm, they seemed locked into a downward trajectory. Fiorentina finished ninth in 2010-11, technically a better result than they had achieved a year previously but without the mitigating effects of positive cup runs. The following season they fell to 13th, having at one point even flirted with relegation.
Cerci was far from the worst performer in the side. Indeed, at times he was one of the best, scoring 10 goals during a sensational 11-game tear between the end of the 2010-11 season and the beginning of 2011-12. Throughout that happy period Fiorentina’s fans would sing his praises, with cries of “Alessio Cerci is our Messi” heard often on the stands of the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
At other times, though, that same chant had a sarcastic tone. Cerci was the ultimate hot-and-cold performer, one who could appear as a world-beater one week and a non-factor the next. He was also a perceived troublemaker off the pitch, one who became famous for the regularity with which he collected parking tickets in Florence’s city centre. On one occasion he was even said to have been caught parking his Maserati in a police bay on his way out to dinner. Asked to move the vehicle, Cerci supposedly replied: “Sure. Right after I’ve had my meal.”
It was not only when parking that the player could get into trouble. In late 2011, shortly after Mihajlovic had been replaced by Delio Rossi, Cerci missed a day’s training without permission after he got held up completing the purchase of a holiday home on the Spanish island of Formentera. On other occasions he was accused of staying out later than he should in Florence’s bars and nightclubs.
Cerci has claimed that many of the stories written about him in the papers were either exaggerated or flat out untrue, and certainly the claims against him have sometimes veered towards bizarre. At one point a rumour went round that he had been seen walking a cat on a lead. In reality the animal in question was Cerci’s pet chihuahua.
There is a sense that Cerci may have been singled out for criticism by Fiorentina’s Ultras purely because of his background with Roma. A long-standing rivalry exists between the two teams, and Cerci never made any secret of his affection for his former club. Indeed, when those fans began to get on his back, the player responded in kind, saying: “I will never celebrate under Curva. Not even after a goal.”
When it comes to public perceptions, Cerci has not always helped himself. On the subject of the parking tickets he remains unapologetic. “I lived in the centre of town, so I parked where I could,” he told the magazine Sportweek last month. “I do the same now that I live here [in Torino].”
Cerci has defended his right to drive such an ostentatious vehicle as the Maserati, too, pointing out that “lots of people like nice cars”. But while that much is certainly true, he could have done more to counter the suggestion that he has prioritised his lifestyle over his career. In the same interview with Sportweek, Cerci was asked what annoys him more: being tackled by a defender, or getting stuck behind a slow driver. It was a non-contest. “The guy driving at 20 miles per hour,” he said. “Get into the right lane!”
At last, though, Cerci does appear to be finding the right balance. Last summer he was sold by Fiorentina to Torino on a co-ownership deal. There he has been reunited with Ventura, and restored to the role in which he did so much damage for Pisa. In 23 league games he has scored five goals and provided seven assists for a team which has exceeded expectations in its first year back in the top-flight. With nine games left to go, Torino sit 10 points clear of the relegation zone.
It is that form which earned him this first international call-up. The Italy manager, Cesare Prandelli, might still be wondering what could have been. He succeeded Capello at Roma in the summer of 2004 and involved Cerci immediately in his preseason preparations, but resigned before the season began in order to tend to his wife, Manuela, who was suffering with cancer.
Prandelli has kept an eye on Cerci ever since being appointed as Italy manager, but there was no room for a winger in the narrow 4-3-1-2 he used in the build-up to Euro 2012. The manager is keen to experiment with different shapes and formations between now and next year’s World Cup.
Cerci expressed his gratitude for the opportunity on Monday, but his greatest thanks were reserved for Ventura. “We have a father-son relationship,” said Cerci. “We set some objectives at the start of the season and this call-up means I have achieved the first of them. Now I need to keep pressing ahead – because this is only a starting point.”
It is a verdict shared by Ventura. “Alessio is on the right path,” said the Torino manager last month. “Now it’s up to him to decide: if he carries on with the hard work he’s been doing—on the pitch and on his character—then he can become a player capable of playing at the European level. Otherwise he risks losing himself again.”
Ventura, though, has no doubts as to the player’s ability. “I had the pleasure of training Cerci at Torino,” he added. “The player I had back then was 10 times more devastating than this version.”
Time will tell whether Cerci has left it too late to fulfil such potential.