Soccer: Italy’s Darmian Living The Dream

June 24 2014

As Italy revelled in their opening 2-1 victory against England, one
question kept recurring among their vanquished Group D rivals: “Who
is Matteo Darmian?” The full-back was one of the stars of the show,
yet he had seemed to come out of nowhere to help La Squadra Azzurra
kick off with a win. Perhaps the real question ought to be why such
a versatile, gifted defender, and a rare gem in a tough position to
fill, had been allowed to slip through so many nets since turning
professional in 2007.

“If you’d told me eight months ago that I’d be playing in the
World Cup, I would have burst out laughing,” commented the quiet
24-year-old, who is almost the polar opposite of the stereotypical
modern footballer. “It was a childhood dream, but, honestly, I
didn’t think I’d get here. Since getting my first call-up, though,
I’ve given everything while staying humble. I want to make the most
of this opportunity.”

Born to a family with Armenian roots in the Lombardy town of Legnano,
Darmian got his first taste of the game like so many local youngsters:
by wearing his shoes out and putting holes in his trousers on the
main square in Rescaldina, where his father coached the local football
team. His first real break came when he was spotted by Beniamino Abate,
a former goalkeeper tasked with scouting Lombardy for young talent
by AC Milan. Coincidentally, Abate is also the father of Rossoneri
defender Ignazio Abate, Darmian’s direct rival for a starting berth
with La Nazionale.

Long before Brazil 2014, Darmian entered Milan’s youth academy at
the age of 14. His Serie A debut followed three years later on 19
May 2007, when Carlo Ancelotti sent him on from the bench to replace
Giuseppe Favalli against Udinese. The newcomer initially operated in
the centre of defence before gradually being used more regularly on
the right, and he soon displayed similar effectiveness at left-back
as well. But while that versatility ought to have added to Darmian’s
value, his career was already beginning to unravel.

Torino turnaround Nobody at Milan could fault Darmian, particularly
given his excellent technique and impressive bursts of speed, but
he simply did not fit into the club’s plans. In five seasons between
2006 and July 2012, he made just 15 Serie A appearances, with much of
that period spent on loan at Padova, Palermo and Torino. He refused to
let his head drop, however, not least since he remained a regular for
Italy at various youth levels until 2009, and he focused on redoubling
his efforts.

Further disappointment nonetheless lay in store, and in summer 2012
Milan decided to release him permanently to Palermo – who immediately
passed him on to Torino.

“If I’m in Brazil now, it’s largely thanks to Torino coach Giampiero
Ventura and President [Urbano] Cairo, who really wanted me, and the
exceptional atmosphere at the club,” explained Darmian following the
England match. “If that hadn’t been the case, I never would have had
a chance like this.” As it was, he was able to find stability with
I Granata and rapidly forged an understanding with his team-mates,
especially fellow Italy internationals Alessio Cerci and Ciro
Immobile. The conditions were right for him to blossom at last.

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli duly took note and, keen to evaluate
promising young players, he called Darmian up twice for a series of
trials. “Not only did he show great enthusiasm, he quickly understood
what I was looking for in that position,” noted Prandelli. The praise
has not abated since, though Darmian rejects the suggestion that he
resembles a certain Paolo Maldini at the same age. “When I was younger,
I got a chance to train with him. It’s too flattering a comparison for
me. It’s too early.” Neither is he letting his head be turned by bigger
clubs, refusing to listen to several offers from prestigious outfits.

For now, Darmian is fully focused on the task at hand as he lives
a dream-come-true experience in Brazil. And that dream could well
continue yet if Italy secure at least a point against Uruguay.