The Italian history books are full of players who are legendary. Men like Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti are synonymous with the Italian game and instantly recognizable as legends not only in Italy but on the world stage.
At the same time the cutting room floor is littered with the careers of players who were supposed to be the next legends but left everyone scratching their heads wondering what went wrong.
In this article, we look at the latter. Here are some of the men who reached for the golden ring—and ended up disappointing the fans.
AS Roma has a tendency to find fantastic local talent and hold on to it. Players like Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi have stayed at home and propelled their boyhood clubs toward greatness. Young Alessandro Florenzi is just the latest Roman to try to stamp his mark on the team.
So it was in 2004, when Alberto Aquilani broke into the giallorossi lineup after a year-long loan at Triestina. The promising youngster had been offered contracts by Chelsea and Arsenal, but remained in Roma's youth system and immediately started producing when he broke into the starting XI.
He helped the team to the record for consecutive wins in Serie A in 2005-06—a record broken the next year by Inter—and contributed greatly to Roma's Champions League squads of the era. He looked like another Roma lifer, but there were some red flags. An injury cost him a large chunk of the 2006-07 season, and the injury bug bit him again in 2008-09, this time in a career-altering way.
An injury in a Champions League match against Chelsea in October of '08 kept him out until the end of the winter break, but he was only on the field until February when another injury felled him. He saw the field in March as a last-minute sub against Arsenal in the Champions League but didn't play again the rest of the year.
In August of 2009, Aquilani was sold for €20 million to English giants Liverpool mere months after signing a contract extension. Most expected the Italy international to replace the departed Xabi Alonso in Rafael Benitez's squad, but Aquilani didn't make his EPL debut until November and didn't start his first match until a dead rubber Champions League match in December.
He gained some steam from there, but still wasn't fully fit and rarely played a full 90 minutes. When Benitez left for Inter that year, new manager Roy Hodgson publicly intimated that Aquilani would need to go out on loan to regain match fitness.
A successful loan stint to Juventus followed, but the bianconeri weren't able to make the deal permanent. Another loan to Italy, this time to Milan, was successful but partially interrupted by another injury.
By the time he finally made a full move to Fiorentina last season, Aquilani had gone from wunderkind to journeyman. Aquilani had a good season for Fiorentina, but his place on the national team—especially after a lackluster performance at the Confederations Cup—has probably passed on to younger players, and he's gone from potential legend to simply a solid piece in a solid team.
Brazilian-born striker Amauri—an Italy international by virtue of a single cap—broke out in 2007-08, scoring 15 goals for Palermo. The number counted for nearly 32 percent of the rosaneri's goals that season.
His performance prompted Juventus to pay €22.8 million—including Antonio Nocerino and half of the rights to Davide Lanzafame. While competing with Alessandro Del Piero, David Trzeguet and Vincenzo Iaquinta for playing time he acquitted himself well, scoring 14 times in all competitions.
Two of those goals came in 10 matches in the UEFA Champions League. Amauri also provided one of the highlights of Juve's Champions League campaign in the group stage with a neat assist on a swerving long-range bomb by Del Piero.
Unfortunately, in subsequent seasons the striker totally disappeared. He scored only five teams in 30 league games in 2009-10 and none in nine the next.
By the time Antonio Conte arrived at Juve, Amauri was a complete non-factor. In the winter transfer window of the 2011-12 season he was transferred to Fiorentina for a paltry €500,000—taking a net loss of €22.3 million just to get him off the roster.
Amauri made one contribution to the bianconeri after the move. His only goal for Fiorentina was the capper to a 2-1 comeback win against Milan that allowed Juve to jump into first place and complete their unbeaten season on top.
Last year Amauri scored 10 times in 33 appearances (26 starts) for Parma. But after all the hype that surrounded his arrival at Juve, he's ended up being nothing more than the lead striker for a provincial squad.
By the time he was 23, Alberto Gilardino was on top of the sport as a member of the 2006 World Cup champions. Now 31, he's left us all wondering what went wrong.
Gilardino burst onto the scene at Parma, where he scored 50 goals in 96 games in the league from 2002 to 2005. Silvio Berlusconi couldn't ignore such numbers, and paid €25 million to bring him to Milan.
In three years at Milan, Gilardino developed a reputation for solid goalscoring numbers in the Serie A but lackluster performance in the Champions League. He did win the competition in 2006-07, sealing a decisive semifinal victory over Manchester United with a goal and coming on as a late substitute in Milan's 2-1 triumph against Liverpool.
Still, he was never the striker he was with Parma, and Milan sold him—at a €10 million loss—to Fiorentina in 2008. There he was reunited with Cesare Prandelli, who had been his manager at Parma, and he scored 25 goals in all competitions in his first year.
His goal totals steadily declined, however, and a year and a half after Prandelli left to coach the national team he was sold to Genoa. He scored four times in Liguria and moved again in the summer 2012 window to Bolonga, where he scored 13 times in 36 matches.
Despite his declining numbers he's always had a semi-regular place on the Azzurri thanks to his status as a Prandelli favorite. Still, his abysmal performance deputizing for an injured Mario Balotelli at last month's Confederations Cup may have finally sealed his fate on the international scene and brought the curtain down on any claim he still had as an elite striker.
After registering a .52 goals per game average with Parma, he has plummeted to .38 GPG at the rest of his stops combined. He's nowhere close to the young stud we thought we were seeing when Milan purchased the youngster from the Crusaders.
The disappointment of Antonio Cassano has nothing to do with his talent.
Cassano has not merely burned bridges at former clubs, in most cases he's incinerated them.
His first stop was at Roma. He was as volatile on the field—where he famously flashed the sign of the horns to referee Roberto Rosetti after the arbiter had sent him off—as he was off it. Behind the scenes he feuded with coach Fabio Capello and with team management, causing the team to finally sell him to Real Madrid in 2006 for €5 million—€25 million less than what they paid to buy him from Bari.
At Real he continued to feud with Capello and cause locker room incidents, and eventually he returned to Italy on loan at Sampdoria. Samp eventually bought him outright and he teamed up with Giampaolo Pazzini to lead the team into the Champions League in one of Sampdoria's most successful periods.
The end came at Samp in 2010 when he feuded with club chairman Riccardo Garrone after refusing to attend an awards ceremony. Cassano was immediately suspended from the first team and sold to AC Milan in the winter of 2011.
Cassano played well enough to regain a berth in the national team for Euro 2012 despite having his 2011-12 season interrupted by heart surgery.
But after Milan sold off Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva he requested a transfer and was sent across town to Inter in exchange for his former strike partner, Pazzini. Pazzini had a surprising bounce-back season for the rossoneri. Cassano played well when on the field but was beset by injuries.
Another move is in the cards this summer, as Cassano has gone from Inter to Parma. No one has said whether the shoving match between Cassano and then-Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni was a factor in the transfer, but knowing Cassano it's probably not an unfair assumption.
Cassano's career has been maddening because of his status as a supreme head case. His talent is incredible, but he's never been able to stay in one place long enough to make it shine. He is talented enough to have been one of the best strikers Italy has ever produced, but he's never gotten his off-field issues out of the way long enough to realize that potential.
After threatening to break out for several years, Fabio Quagliarella finally did so while playing for Sampdoria in 2006-07. After scoring 13 times—often spectacularly—and getting his first national call-up, rumors were rife about a transfer.
Eventually he wound up at Udinese after the Zebrette beat Samp in a blind auction to settle a co-ownership deal. In two years he scored 25 times in 73 league games and helped lead Udinese to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup in '08-09.
A move to hometown club Napoli followed, but he was quickly pushed out at the San Paolo by new arrival Edinson Cavani.
After a strong '09-10 campaign for the partenopei, Quagliarella was part of Marcello Lippi's roster for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He played only the last 45 minutes of the final group game against Slovakia, but an eventful 45 minutes they were.
Antonio Di Natale tucked away a rebound off a Quagliarella shot for Italy's first goal of the match to make it 2-1. As the Azzurri looked for an equalizer, Quags had a shot cleared off the line and had the equalizing goal controversially called back for offside.
As stoppage time arrived and Slovakia stretched the lead to 3-1, Quagliarella gave the Italians hope with an exquisite chip from 25 yards out that was a consensus top-five goal of the tournament. Unfortunately it wasn't enough for the Italians—they lost 3-2 and crashed out of the competition.
The performance was enough to convince Juve to acquire the striker on loan. He led the team with nine goals going into the winter break, but in the team's first game back he tore the ACL in his right knee. Juve was second in Serie A at the time but fell apart after the striker's injury and finished 7th. Quagliarella was brought along slowly from his injury and ended up in a muddled striker-by-committee situation over the two years of Antonio Conte's reign with the club, killing the momentum he had at Christmas 2010.
Before his injury he was developing into one of Italy's most deadly strikers, but his injury robbed him of that chance.