10 Future Stars of Italian Soccer
The picture you see is of the Italian Under-21 national team. Called the Azzurrini, the U-21 and lower junior ranks are the proving ground for Italy's youngsters who dream of playing for the senior team on stages like the World Cup or European Championship.
Youth is something that was sorely lacking in the team that went to the 2010 World Cup. Marcello Lippi relied on older players, many of whom had played in the 2006 World Cup triumph.
His successor, Cesare Prandelli, has not allowed himself to fall into that trap, and has started a much younger lineup since he took the position after the World Cup. Here are 10 such youngsters, some still toiling in the junior ranks, some who have claimed a place with the Azzurri, all of whom will likely wear Savoy blue for a long time to come.
(Dis)Honorable Mention: Mario Balotelli
Club: Manchester City
Senior Caps: 7 (1 goal)
I thought long and hard about whether or not to include Mario Balotelli in this countdown. Under normal circumstances he would be a given, but his constant disciplinary issues make it less and less likely that he will be a long-term part of the squad. I eventually came to this middle ground.
Balotelli is easily the most talented young striker Italy has. He can score some sublime goals. He is also a head case. His play often straddles the line between rash and dirty, and his off-field behavior just leaves one scratching his head.
His latest red card this weekend against Arsenal was his fourth in two seasons with Manchester City. His on-field behavior the week before, arguing with teammate Aleksander Kolarov over who would take a free kick, was just as inexcusable.
Prandelli has voiced his desire to have him in the side, but only if his discipline improves—he dropped Balotelli from the team two months ago for the friendly against the United States due to discipline issues with his club.
Balotelli is young and can mature. He needs to do so fast, though, because he is running out of chances with top teams and with Prandelli. His potential seems limitless, and with him as a regular, the Azzurri could become a force in the world. It's up to Balotelli as to whether or not that will happen.
Club: Newcastle United
Senior Caps: 7
Santon is a versatile, effective defender who can play either as a traditional right-back or as a wing-back.
Marcello Lippi thought enough of him that he named him to the 2009 Confederations Cup squad at age 18 and compared him to a young Paolo Maldini. When tasked with marking Cristiano Ronaldo in a 2009 Champions League match against Manchester United, he was more than effective and received praise from Ronaldo for his efforts.
Inter was unwise to allow the talented Santon to transfer to Newcastle United this year.
He could have been an effective piece to rebuild an aging roster, something they'll now have to do through the transfer market. Expect Santon to grow into one of the best backs in the EPL and to duel with Ignazio Abate for the starting right-back spot for the Azzurri once Christian Maggio ages out of the national team picture.
Club: Pescara (on loan from Juventus)
Senior Caps: 0
There is a lot of buzz around Turin about Ciro Immobile, and with good reason.
On loan with Pescara, he's scored 23 goals and has the team in fourth place and in line for the promotion playoff with eight games left in the Serie B season. His performance has caused some fans of his parent club to compare him to the legendary Alessandro Del Piero.
Juventus went through a period this season when they just didn't have a cutting edge in front of goal, and bringing the likely Serie B capocannoniere back to the front line in 2012-13 could add another dimension to the attack of either the Serie A leaders or Genoa, who recently entered into a co-ownership deal for him with Juve.
Immobile has had only one cap for the U-21 team and has yet to be brought up by Cesare Prandelli, but his form this year cannot be ignored, and he is certain to be playing top-flight soccer next year either with his parent club or with Genoa.
If he can replicate the form he's been in this season, he can firmly plant himself into the discussion of the best young forwards in Italy.
Senior Caps: 13 (2 goals)
Leo Bonucci has been a polarizing figure the last few years in Turin. His performance last year was roundly criticized as one of the main reasons the bianconeri suffered their second straight seventh-place finish.
That criticism continued through a lot of this season, some fair and some unfair.
He made a big mistake in the 1-1 draw against Milan in February that resulted in the Rossoneri's goal. The next week against Chievo, Boukary Drame's strike ricocheted off of Bonucci's foot and into the goal to equalize the eventual 1-1 draw.
He caught hell for it, but it was not an easy moment and would have taken a very good play to actually clear it—a fact expressed by the way it was scored, as a goal for Drame rather than an own goal.
But Bonucci's play this year has been much more positive than negative.
He has scored goals in Juve's last two matches—both wins—and was Juve's best player in the 2-0 victory against Palermo on Saturday. He has shown an impressive ability to send accurate long balls from the back, keying Juve's attack. Only Andrea Pirlo has made more successful long passes for Juve this season.
Bonucci is currently the third center-back behind Juve teammates Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, but at age 30 Barzagli likely doesn't have very many more major international tournaments left in him.
Bonucci will be the man to step in for him and partner with Chiellini to form the long-term spine of the Italian defense.
Senior Caps: 2
In the February friendly against the US, Ogbonna was a curiosity—the only player on the squad who played in a second-tier league rather than with a top-flight club.
Next year that is likely to change, as Torino is currently leading the Serie B by two points and has given up the fewest goals in the Italian second flight. Ogbonna's play at center back has been pivotal to the team's success.
He started and played the full 90 minutes of the match against the US, starting in the center and partnering Barzagli before moving to the left when Chiellini was introduced at halftime.
He looked a bit out of sorts on the outside and seems more suited to his traditional central role, where he will have to compete with the established Juve trio for playing time.
It's very likely that he will go to Poland with the team as a reserve center-back. He will probably move up the pecking order as Barzagli and Chiellini age out of starting roles in international competition.
He'll definitely be a regular in the squad for a long time to come, but it will take injuries for him to be starting on a regular basis for the time being.
Club: Roma (on loan from Parma)
Senior Caps: 1
Borini was the beneficiary of Balotelli's behavior issues in February when he was called up at the last minute after Prandelli dropped Super Mario. He didn't make Prandelli regret the decision.
He played slightly more than half an hour and just barely missed opening his account for his country.
He had four shots in the 31 minutes he was on, two of which were turned aside by fantastic saves by American keeper Tim Howard. I've maintained for months that if the Americans had had someone other than Howard between the sticks, the Italians would have scored four goals that day.
Borini has scored 10 goals in 18 games in all competitions with Roma this year, and it will be interesting to see whether Roma will exercise their 7 million euro option to keep him or whether he will return to Parma as either a partner or a replacement for Sebastian Giovinco.
It's likely, especially with Balotelli's disciplinary issues continuing, that he will get more cracks at the national team lineup.
Stephan El Shaarawy
Senior Caps: 0
With dual Italian/Egyptian eligibility, El Shaarawy is someone whom Prandelli may want to throw a match in World Cup qualifying so that he can be locked into the Italian picture.
It'll take a massive surge in form for him to get into the starting picture, but he could merit a place on the sub bench in the near future.
Having arrived from Genoa at the beginning of the season, El Shaarawy didn't play much in his first six months with the team, but after a meeting with his manager in the middle of the season, his form skyrocketed and he has brought a dangerous element of pace to the Rossoneri attack.
He has scored two goals in Serie A and one in the Coppa Italia, but he's going to be a dynamic force in the Milan front line for a while.
As he ages and improves, the striker is certain to figure in the Azzurri picture as Italy looks to eventually replace Antonio Cassano (who is 29 years old and likely has only one more major international in him) and find a partner to Giuseppe Rossi.
El Shaarawy is definitely one to consider for the role. He has scored eight goals in 33 games at the youth level, a sign that he has the acumen to play in major international matches.
Club: Paris Saint-Germain
Senior Caps: 2
Italians normally don't look to the future when it comes to goalkeeping. The incumbent at that position is the best goalkeeper in the world, and keepers are the only players who get better with age.
Dino Zoff led the Azzurri to the World Cup title in 1982 at the age of 40, and Gianluigi Buffon isn't really close to that. At 34, it is more than conceivable that he will captain the team in Brazil in 2014—and possibly beyond.
That said, it's never a bad thing to consider the options behind him, especially considering Buffon's injury history—and the horrific results the last time his understudy was forced onto the field.
Federico Marchetti showed himself to be completely unsuited to international play when he took over for Buffon at halftime of the first group stage game against Paraguay. In the two-and-a-half games that followed he faced five shots on goal—and let four of them through. He has not been in the international picture since.
The man who took his place in the first games after South Africa was Sirigu, then of Palermo and now of Paris Saint-Germain.
He seized the starting job at Palermo in 2009 and played so well with the Rosaneri that he caught the eye of the ambitious powers-that-be at PSG, where he has become one of Ligue 1's best goalkeepers and a fan favorite.
In the year-and-a-half since the South African debacle, he has often been the third-choice keeper behind Buffon and Emiliano Viviano. But his current form at PSG (31 matches, 100 saves, nine clean sheets in Ligue 1 play) and Viviano's recent injury woes have brought Sirigu back into play.
He will duel Viviano—who now plays for Sirigu's former club in Sicily—for the No. 2 job and potentially the right to succeed Buffon when he does decide to hang up his cleats for Italy.
Senior Caps: 0
This one is something of a shot in the dark, as Gabbiadini has not had a lot of field time at the club level. But his play with the Azzurrini has been impressive and shows that he may have the chops to play top-level soccer.
In 17 matches for Italy on all youth levels, he's scored 12 goals, including a hat trick against Liechtenstein for the U-21s. His scoring prowess is not reserved for the minnows—he's also scored against UEFA heavies like Portugal and Germany.
He scored his first Serie A goal several weeks ago against Bologna and will be playing more top-flight soccer next year as Atalanta is certainly staying in Serie A.
The club would have likely had an outside chance at a European slot were it not for a six-point deduction at the beginning of the Serie A season due to the ongoing match fixing investigation; without it Atalanta would be in eightth rather than 13th and only five points off of the final Europa League spo).
Gabbiadini's inclusion in the senior picture will depend on how he plays on the club level, but he has time to get his feet solidly on the ground in top-flight soccer and get noticed by the Azzurri staff.
Club: Chievo (on loan from Milan)
Senior Caps: 0
For such a young man Alberto Paloschi has certainly been around. He made his debut for Milan in 2007 and scored 17 seconds after coming on as a sub against Parma.
After Milan signed Ronaldinho he wanted first-team playing time and transferred to Parma, where he spent three years before spending the second half of the 2010-11 season with Genoa. He returned to Milan this season, where he was promptly loaned to Chievo.
He is currently the most-capped player still eligible for the U-21 team (he will be eligible to compete with the Azzurrini until the 2013 UEFA U-21 Championship) and has scored nine times in his 29 appearances.
Milan will likely be looking for some depth at striker next year with Alexandre Pato proving injury prone and Antonio Cassano's form uncertain after heart surgery this year. Paloschi is a promising option, and if he is able to play his way into Massimiliano Allegri's plans, it can give him valuable experience for a possible run with the senior team.
Senior Caps: 7
Sebastian Giovinco has not yet scored for the Italian national team, but the goals will come in time for the Atomic Ant.
One of the most talented young strikers in the world, Giovinco has recently been linked with a move to Barcelona, although any move would have to come after the co-ownership of Giovinco between Parma and Juventus is resolved.
With Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi unlikely to be fully recovered from their various health problems, Giovinco will likely be a key at Euro 2012.
The recent friendly against the US showed just how dangerous he can be.
He rode the shoulders of American defenders and then slipped by them to latch on to balls from the midfield. He was a menace all night, and could have been even more so had he not incorrectly been called offside at least twice on a night when the linesmen probably needed to tweak their sights a little bit.
Prandelli has praised Giovinco repeatedly, and along with Rossi he's going to be the face of the Italian front line for many years. An attacking triumvirate of Giovinco and a healthy Rossi and Cassano would be an imposing prospect for opposing defenses in the run up to the World Cup in 2014 in Brazil.