April 6, 2019, Juventus Stadium
With the scores deadlocked at 1-1, Max Allegri knew he needed to make a change. Searching for a way to open up AC Milan, the Juventus boss gave his instructions and prepared to make a 66th-minute substitution. The fourth official's board showed that No. 10, Paulo Dybala, was the man to be replaced, the Argentina international begrudgingly making his way to the sideline where he would ensure everyone watching could see his displeasure.
Yet while La Joya complained on the bench, those left on the field continued to probe for a way past a well-organised Rossoneri back line.
Less than 20 minutes later, Miralem Pjanic would pounce on a sloppy pass from Davide Calabria and drive into the penalty area. With the Milan defence swarming towards him to snuff out the danger, the Bosnian playmaker calmly rolled a perfect ball into the path of his striker, and Moise Kean made no mistake, drilling a low shot into the opposite corner past Pepe Reina. Kean—the 19-year-old who had been sent on for Dybala—had a match-winning goal and his face on the front of the Sunday-morning newspapers.
It wasn't the first time; his strike against Milan marked the fifth consecutive game he had found the net for club or country. Remarkable considering that prior to the 2018/19 campaign, Kean had played just 18 minutes for Juventus and had not even represented Italy at under-21 level.
Behind Kean's meteoric rise is an incredible story, one which begins in the small town of Asti. Located around 35 miles east of Turin, it is a quiet and peaceful place that was the birthplace of Vittorio Alfieri. Considered one of the greatest dramatists in Italian history, he would be proud to have penned a script like the one Kean is playing out.
The opening scene of his career would be in Asti, with Kean accompanying his older brother, Giovanni, to training with local side A.C.D. Asti. "That's when I first saw Moise play," Remo Turello, the club's former vice-president, tells B/R. "He was only six years old and had just tagged along one morning, but it was clear immediately that he was special. His touch and coordination were so much better than the other boys. Even when we put him in with our 10-year-olds, he often looked like the best player on the pitch."
With such talent, it was clear the fifth-tier club were not going to be able to hold onto him. One of the coaches at Asti was Renato Biasi, a goalkeeper who had played for Torino in Serie A.
A lifelong fan of the Granata, he immediately called the man in charge of the club's youth sector, Silvano Benedetti, and explained the situation before taking Kean to Turin. The youngster was immediately given a place, but a financial issue soon began to emerge.
"Logistical problems arose because the family could not bear the costs of the boy's travels," Biasi told La Stampa in March, in the midst of his scoring spree. "It was necessary to drive him back and forth from Asti to Turin, but Torino were not as well-organised as they are now…"
That was all Juventus needed to know, and they pounced quickly, helping Kean and his family move near their training ground and ensuring they had everything they needed to be comfortable. "There wasn't a lot of money coming in. I worked at a treatment facility and often did night shifts," his mother, Isabelle, told Tuttosport. "Then one day, he called me at 5:30 in the evening. I was going to work in Nizza Monferrato. I got scared, I thought something had happened to him.
"Instead he says to me, 'Mum, there's a surprise for you.' I replied, 'Don't tell me you didn't sign for Juve.' He said, 'No Mum, I've signed. You don't have to work anymore and you can live with me in Turin!"
She did, and Toro's loss was undoubtedly their neighbours' gain as Kean quickly settled into the youth sector, finding the back of the net with startling regularity. As the 2016/17 season got underway, he had bagged 21 goals in just 10 games for Juve's under-15s, 24 in 26 for the U17s, six in 10 for the Primavera (U19s) and 13 in 27 appearances for Italy's various national youth sides.
Max Allegri couldn't ignore his form and decided to put him into the first team. On November 19, 2016, he became the youngest first-team debutant in club history at the age of 16 years, eight months and 23 days. Three days later, Kean became the first player born in the 2000s to make his Champions League debut, and on the final day of the season, he became the first man born in the 21st century to score in Serie A courtesy of a last-minute winner against Bologna.
Kean would spend the 2017/18 campaign with Hellas Verona, scoring four goals in 19 appearances for a poorly constructed team that was quickly relegated back to Serie B. He returned to Juve better for the experience, but with Cristiano Ronaldo's arrival it was still a surprise that he wasn't sent out on loan again.
He remained part of Allegri's squad but made just two brief appearances as a substitute before the calendar flipped over to 2019. A start against Bologna saw him score once again and, needing to rotate the side for a forthcoming Champions League clash, Allegri would name Kean in the starting XI when Udinese visited the Allianz Stadium on March 8.
The 19-year-old put on a show that day, scoring two superbly taken goals, but there were even better scenes in the stands. Sat close to the suspended Miralem Pjanic were Kean's mother and uncle. Their celebrations of his brace spread quickly on social media, with Isabelle happy to reveal just how difficult their journey had been before that day.
"I arrived in Italy from Ivory Coast in 1990, in Vercelli, where my children were born, Giovanni in 1993 and Mose in 2000," she told Tuttosport. "We call him Mose at home because his birth was a miracle. The doctors told me that I couldn't have any more children, I cried and prayed until one night I dreamed of Moses, he had come to help me and, four months later, I was pregnant again.
"Moise's success has repaid all the sacrifices I made in the past and I've told him to keep going like this, to always listen to the coach and his older team-mates. It's a great satisfaction for a mother to see that her son has made it and reached such high levels. I never imagined it, especially thinking where we came from."
That does not surprise Turello, who told B/R, "Since the beginning, she has always been there and is his main point of reference." Kean listened to her, working tirelessly to improve and has been paying close attention to the efforts of one team-mate in particular.
"I always try to be ready and train regularly so that I'm prepared when the time comes," Kean told reporters in March. "I learn from Cristiano Ronaldo, in training, I steal his secrets. I can only learn from him. It happens every day."
After his two goals helped Juve to smash Udinese 4-1, Kean was called up to the Italy squad by Roberto Mancini, who looked on proudly as he struck in both matches the Azzurri played during the March international break, a 2-0 win over Finland and a 6-0 thrashing of Liechtenstein. Lauding the striker's "enormous potential" to reporters shortly after the final whistle against Finland, the former Manchester City boss was pleased with what he saw, and the confidence Kean gained helped spark a remarkable run of form when domestic action resumed.
He would net the only goal of a 1-0 win over Empoli, showing off some delightful touches. "Beyond his quality as a player, he was a coordinated child from all points of view," Biasi told La Stampa. "With him everything was natural, nothing is forced, and do you know why? Because while his peers were playing at home on the Playstation, he had nothing but a ball!"
Honing his skills in the dusty courtyard of a local church, an article on The Players' Tribune revealed another secret of those formative years. "If you wanted to play in our neighbourhood, you could always find a football in the priest's office at the oratory near our house," wrote Kean. "The priest was a nice man who kept all the balls in a drawer. But, you see, here's the thing: He never locked it. So every time I lost my own ball—maybe because I had kicked it over a fence—I would sneak over to the oratory, wait for the priest to go upstairs, and then take a ball from his drawer."
All that innocence was laid bare when Juve played away at Cagliari. As the home fans watched Kean tearing through their side, they took to making monkey noises every time he touched the ball. Blaise Matuidi—who had been abused in similar fashion by the same supporters a year earlier—pleaded with the referee to take action.
He didn't, leaving Kean himself to silence their inexcusable abuse the only way he knew how. Timing his run perfectly to meet Rodrigo Bentancur's cross, he smashed the ball into the back of the net before spreading his arms in a shrug aimed at the same fans who had been taunting him. "The best way to respond to racism" he wrote in a since deleted Instagram post.
Many other players around the world come out in support of the Juve youngster. Unfortunately his team-mate Leonardo Bonucci was not one of them. "I think the blame is 50-50, because Moise shouldn't have [celebrated in front of them] and the Curva should not have reacted that way," the defender told Sky Italia. "We are professionals, we have to set the example and not provoke anyone."
That drew sharp criticism from all corners. Raheem Sterling, Stormzy and Memphis Depay all took turns lambasting the Italy international before Mario Balotelli weighed in, commenting that "Bonucci is lucky that I wasn't there."
Cagliari received no punishment for the abuse, while Kean was incredibly fined €2,000 for diving, but he did not miss a beat. He went on to score the aforementioned match-winning goal against Milan just four days later before striking again against SPAL the following weekend. That meant he had found the net in six consecutive games, but those who know him best are totally unsurprised by the impact he had despite playing in such high-pressure matches.
"In the years since he left here, I have always followed his progress closely," Turello told B/R. "I believe that this is only the beginning of a career that has ample room for improvement but that also depends on his mentality growing too. Moise is a player who has a sense of where the goal is, he sees where to be like so few in his position and always knows where to shoot the ball."
The results of the last few months support that belief, and his first coach is another who keeps a close eye on his former pupil. "We often exchange messages and I always try to watch him when he plays," Biasi told La Stampa. "When he scored the first goal in Serie A for Juventus, I got up from his chair, and for a true Toro fan like me, that is not an easy thing to admit!"
What matters now is that he continues to shine. Comparisons to Mario Balotelli—sparked initially when Kean unveiled a "why always me" t-shirt while celebrating a goal for the Juve under-19s—thankfully seem way off the mark.
"Kean attacks the space and pushes forward in the most extraordinary way," Bianconeri skipper Giorgio Chiellini told reporters in the mixed zone following the match with Empoli. "Kean has more physicality than Mario, and his goal tonight was almost in the style of David Trezeguet. Mario might have more of an eye for goal, but Kean has a better shot from distance and attacks the space a lot more."
Others are willing to go even further, including his barber, Alessandro Sesta. "I take care of his hair, but the only other thing in his head is Juve!" he told Gazzetta dello Sport in April. "Believe me, the comparison with Balotelli just doesn't hold up when you know Moise properly."
The future has yet to be written, but Turello believes Kean will thrive in the Premier League. "I think he is a suitable player for English football," the former Asti vice-president told B/R.
Whatever happens, he has come a long way, from the dusty church courtyard in Asti to the front pages of every Italian newspaper following that goal against Milan. It won't be the last time, and the name Moise Kean is one to pay close attention to for the foreseeable future.
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