Over the past week, it has been almost impossible to ignore Leonardo Bonucci, the Italy international’s name and picture featuring prominently across newspapers and websites every day.
The reason? Simply put, the 30-year-old has been at the centre of what is unquestionably the most shocking transfer saga of the summer, moving to a rapidly improving AC Milan for €42 million.
He had spent the previous seven seasons with Juventus, winning six consecutive Serie A titles as the linchpin of a formidable defensive unit that became the envy of seemingly the entire footballing world.
This is a man Pep Guardiola admitted was “one of my favourite-ever players” at a 2016 press conference, yet couldn’t convince him to join Manchester City. "I made the decision pondering everything,” Bonucci said when the Corriere dello Sport (h/t Goal) asked about moving to the Premier League. “It was not a choice I took lightly because Interest came from Guardiola, who is the best there is.”
Yet now he will wear the red and black of Milan, a decision many believe stems from a feud with Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri. Widespread reports—including this one from Marcus Christenson and Fabrizio Romano of the Guardian—insist that the player and coach argued during a February encounter with Palermo, as well as at half-time of June’s UEFA Champions League final.
The true reasons for his hasty exit may never be known, but Rossoneri tactician Vincenzo Montella was certainly not complaining when he spoke to a press conference during the club’s pre-season trip to China.
"He is a player with international experience," the retired striker told reporters (via FourFourTwo). "Technically, I think that he and Sergio Ramos are the strongest central defenders in the world. Coaching him is a dream come true, and I want to thank [sporting director Massimiliano] Mirabelli and [general manager Marco] Fassone.”
However, while Montella may feel indebted to the new Milan management team, Bonucci himself and maybe even Allegri for their roles in bringing such a world-class talent to San Siro, there is another man who arguably deserves even greater praise.
His name will not mean anything to many supporters of either Milan, Juve or the Italy national team, but without the guidance of Alberto Ferrarini, Bonucci might well be nothing more than a cautionary tale of what can happen when potential remains unfulfilled.
To learn just how great an impact he had on the defender’s career is to recognise how bad the situation had gotten before they met. Bonucci began playing for local side Viterbese as a boy before joining the academy at Inter Milan back in 2005, making sporadic appearances for the first team over the next two years but never coming close to being a regular.
As the Nerazzurri were dominating Italian football at the time, they had little need for a timid and error-prone youngster, sending him off to Serie B side Treviso ahead of the 2007/08 campaign.
Taking the move as a major snub, Bonucci’s confidence was shattered so badly that in a 2012 interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport, he admitted that he began to consider that his future may lie elsewhere.
“At Treviso, my entire career was in danger; I lost all self-esteem and confidence,” he revealed (h/t Daily Record). “I’d reached a stage when I thought I might be finished. But in our first meeting, it scared me because Alberto had never met me but seemed to know me inside out. What I discovered is that there has always been a soldier inside me; I just didn’t know it.”
Ferrarini had previously worked with Alberto Gilardino, Gianluca Pegolo and Antonio Floro Flores among others, but there was little doubt that Bonucci would be his greatest project and most difficult challenge.
Slowly, he began to introduce the player to concepts as wide-ranging as numerology, positive thinking and ancient Indian traditions, the use of which led to Bonucci’s team-mates mocking him.
Undeterred as he moved on again, Ferrarini continued to conduct his lessons during spells with Pisa and Bari, and Bonucci looked like a vastly different player when he arrived at the latter in 2009. “He was good for us,” Lorenzo—a fan of the Apulian club—told Bleacher Report. “The team was improving, but many of us thought that Andrea Ranocchia was certain to be more successful.”
That was a common opinion at the time, one shared by current Italy boss Gian Piero Ventura, who led Bari when the two players featured side-by-side during the 2009/10 campaign.
“From the defensive point of view, he was better than Bonucci,” Ventura said of Ranocchia during an interview with Tiki Taka (h/t FCInterNews.it), going on to say the former Hull City man was hampered by injuries and struggled at Inter.
They would play together for just 12 months before Bonucci packed his bags once again, this time signing for Juventus in a deal worth €15.5 million. Yet even that sizable fee did not mean he was the finished article, with his first season in Turin being nothing short of disastrous.
Under coach Luigi Delneri, the Bianconeri would stumble to a seventh-place finish in Serie A and be eliminated from the UEFA Europa League after failing to win a single group game. Throughout the entire campaign, Bonucci would make glaring errors, constantly caught out of position and regularly guilty of overplaying the ball when he was in possession.
Antonio Conte would arrive as manager in the summer of 2011, and his return to the club he captained as a player is rightly recognised as the turning point in the Old Lady’s fortunes, but Bonucci’s development unquestionably owed as much to his time with Ferrarini.
Their work became more and more intense, with the coach explaining some incredible details of his methods in a post on his Facebook page (h/t Football Italia) back in September 2014:
"Over the years I took Bonucci into my basement. Underground. In the dark. There, with a tone anything but kind or sweet, I offended him in every way possible. I judged him. I insulted him.
"If he made even the slightest attempt to glance at me, he’d receive a punch straight to the stomach. The objective? To win over judgement, so Leo would always be focused and ignore everything else around him. That’s how I started making him into a soldier."
There was no real schedule or plan to their sessions, but whenever they met, results soon followed. “Sometimes we’d meet and work for hours, sometimes just briefly before a match,” Bonucci told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Daily Record). “But I’d always then take the pitch fully aware of my strength and capabilities.”
A hotly contested Sunday evening clash with AS Roma back in October 2014 saw yet another bizarre tactic come to light, Juve eventually winning 3-2 thanks to a late goal from Bonucci who might also have been affecting play at the other end of the pitch courtesy of a secret weapon.
"On Saturday night, we worked for three hours in the hotel preparing for the match," Ferrarini told Tuttosport (h/t ESPN FC). "Once we'd finished, I gave Leonardo a garlic sweet. Hundreds of years ago, soldiers ate garlic to keep them strong, healthy and alert.
"Leo is a soldier and, eating those sweets, it was like taking him back to his roots. I told him to breathe into the face of Gervinho and [Francesco] Totti. Most importantly, we achieved our objective: to win."
Clearly motivated to continually improve, Bonucci has since blossomed into one of the world’s best defenders, his man-marking ability and passing range prompting those aforementioned words of praise from Guardiola.
He would soon no longer need Ferrarini, the motivator telling Tuttosport (link in Italian) that their work together had come to an end because his pupil was now a “top player” and thanking Bonucci—with whom he remains close—for believing in his methods.
Utterly dominant in Serie A as he helped Juve to three Coppa Italia triumphs and two Champions League final appearances, the defender certainly has matured, occasionally captaining the Bianconeri in Buffon’s absence.
Indeed, as next season draws close, his new team-mates hope Bonucci can provide similar leadership for Milan as they look to close the enormous gulf that has separated them from Juventus in recent seasons.
“From what I know of him, his character will be very useful in the dressing room which is coming from troubled years, he’s destined to become a real point of reference,” midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia). “Will he be captain? It’s up to Montella. Everyone has to be a bit of a captain though, and then in its heart a group knows who the real leader is.”
If there is any doubt, Bonucci might need to find some garlic sweets and take the Rossoneri squad down into a dark basement. Alberto Ferrarini will be waiting.