For a man who grew up in Italy’s so-called City of Marble, Gigi Buffon certainly has a soft side. The Juventus goalkeeper is fiercely proud of his roots in Carrara, a small community in the north-west of the peninsula known primarily for its rock quarries. He even owns the local football team, Carrarese, which he used to support as a boy.
So when Buffon heard that another Carrara native had been called up to train with the Italian national team last week, he struggled to contain his excitement. The moment the goalkeeper set eyes on Federico Bernardeschi, he wrapped him up in a giant bear hug. He would repeat that gesture several more times before the end of the two-day camp.
Bernardeschi could scarcely believe what was happening (quotes in Italian). Before this call-up he had been a relative nobody, just some 20-year-old kid who had never played a game in the top flight and was now out on loan at Crotone in Serie B.
He was enjoying a productive season, for sure, scoring eight goals for the Calabrian side as it pushed for promotion to the top flight. But most casual Italian football fans had never even heard of him. Now one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time was welcoming him like an old friend.
Together, they reminisced about Carrara, about growing up by the seaside and in the shadow of the Apuan Alps. Recalling those conversations in an interview with Italian-language newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport later in the week, Bernardeschi expressed gratitude that such an experienced veteran would even be willing to spend time talking to an unknown player such as himself.
Then again, perhaps Buffon was just keeping one step ahead of the rest of us. Because if Cesare Prandelli is correct, then Bernardeschi’s talents will not stay a secret for very much longer. Asked during a press conference last week about his decision to call up the youngster, the Italy manager insisted that this was no marketing move, stating that he was one of the best in the country at his position (quotes in Italian).
A versatile forward who is comfortable playing out wide, Bernardeschi offers something that few of his compatriots can.
Italy, for a variety of historical reasons (outlined here by Jonathan Wilson for Sports Illustrated) has not tended to produce many wingers, a situation perpetuated by the popularity of the three-man defence in Serie A. Young talents who might have become wingers in other countries are instead adapted at a young age into wing-backs or centre-forwards.
Bernardeschi himself was often used as a trequartista during his time as a youth player at Fiorentina, the club whose academy he joined at nine years old. An expert long-range finisher—both from free-kicks and in open play—he scored 17 goals in 22 games while playing through the middle for the Viola’s Under-21 team in 2012-13. Some were really quite spectacular.
But this season at Crotone, he has showcased another side to his game. Lining up on the right of attack in Massimo Drago’s 4-3-3, Bernardeschi has tormented opposing full-backs with his combination of power and natural technique. His preference for cutting inside onto his stronger left foot has drawn comparisons with Alessandro Diamanti.
But if the two players are similar stylistically, then temperamentally they could not be much further apart. Diamanti was long perceived as the black sheep of Italian football, a phenomenally gifted player whose love of living fast prevented him from fulfilling his potential. “On the pitch I have kept quiet,” he told Sportweek in 2011 (via The Score). “Away from it, I’ve done whatever the f--k I want.”
That same year, Bernardeschi turned down an offer to join Manchester United—a move that would have brought him far higher wages than his youth contract in Florence could allow.
In an interview with Italian-language newspaper Il Tirreno, the player’s father explained that his son was happy where he was. Moving to a more high-profile club at this sensitive stage of his career, he pointed out, would not necessarily help him to fulfil his potential as a player.
Bernardeschi struck a similar note this last weekend. After returning from his international sojourn to score a winning goal for Crotone against Varese on Saturday, the player was asked how he felt about the prospect of returning to his parent club Fiorentina next season.
Although flattered to know that Viola manager Vincenzo Montella was keeping tabs on him, Bernardeschi nevertheless stressed that the most important thing to him was playing time (quotes in Italian). He suggested that he would prefer to stay out on loan with a lesser club for another season than return to Florence just to sit on the bench.
At this rate, he might not have to. Prandelli has no intention of taking Bernardeschi to this summer’s World Cup, but his decision to call the forward up last week was nevertheless a powerful statement of how close he thinks the player might be. This latest training camp was designed specifically to test the physical readiness of players to compete at the tournament in Brazil. A total of 42 players were invited.
Bernardeschi was among them because the manager believes that he can contribute to the national team sooner rather than later, even if not quite as soon as this June. In an interview with the Italian-language newspaper Libero, Prandelli pointed out that most Italian fans had not heard of Marco Verratti two years ago either; now he starts in midfield for Paris Saint-Germain.
That is not to say Bernardeschi’s rise will necessarily go so smoothly. It is a reality of sports that not all young prospects pan out in the way that talent evaluators have envisaged. But Bernardeschi certainly has the potential to go far. One way or another, his days as an “unknown” are coming to an end.