Andrea Ranocchia always wanted to be a great defender. “There was more than one poster of Alessandro Nesta on my bedroom wall,” the Inter man stated as he reminisced about his childhood past. “I’ve always had a great amount of admiration for him.”
The Roman, after some stunning spells at Lazio and Milan, has now left Serie A. At the age of 36, he’s gone to play in the less pressurised environment of North American football after signing for Montreal Impact. Ranocchia, meanwhile, is about to start perhaps the most crucial campaign, in his brief career to date, in a championship where winning over your critics is as problematic as lifting silverware.
The 24-year-old has been a player of potential since his early days at Arezzo and he went on to underline that promise during a two-year loan spell at Bari. It thus comes as no surprise that he ranks his time at the Stadio San Nicola as his best in terms of consistent performances. Nobody was shocked when he returned to parent club Genoa and then, almost immediately, to Inter in January 2011.
The cost alone of his transfer to San Siro, just under €20m in total, spoke volumes about just how highly the player was regarded on the peninsula. Months earlier he had also won his debut Italian cap under Cesare Prandelli, igniting hope that he indeed was the next big thing in Italian defending. Eighteen months later and Ranocchia is already being written off.
Following a promising first six months at the Meazza, Ranocchia endured a nightmare 2011-12. After inheriting the No 23 shirt from Marco Materazzi at the latter’s request – a player Andrea watched at close quarters while a part of the Perugia youth system – he was one of a number of casualties during the Beneamata’s disastrous campaign.
Inter initially struggled to assimilate the new tactics of Gian Piero Gasperini and when Claudio Ranieri took over in September, things went from bad to worse. The appointment of Andrea Stramaccioni in March helped, but by then the damage had been done. Ranocchia ended the season with just 12 Serie A appearances and omission from Euro 2012.
“You don’t mature without going through bad times,” he says philosophically. “In football, just like in life, you can't grow without suffering. Yes, I went through a tough spell, under a Coach who I believe I didn't see eye-to-eye with – even on a personal level.
“It’s more difficult when you don't play regularly, you lose the tempo, your touch, your instincts. It takes a bit of time to get that back and the first few games under Stramaccioni were difficult as I wasn't entirely comfortable – I'd played so few games, just five in six months. It's obvious you need a bit of time to bed back in.”
Ranocchia’s stunted growth hasn’t been helped by fitness issues either, but it is somewhat premature to dispose of the idea that this centre-back will never make the highest grade for club or country. He may not be the complete player, he admittedly lacks pace, but there are signs that his reading of the game is improving and he certainly doesn’t lack focus. “I think concentration is my best characteristic.”
History also shows us that one bad season at Inter isn’t enough to ruin a career. Fabio Cannavaro endured two before he joined Juventus in a bizarre swap with Uruguayan goalkeeper Fabian Carini. The Nerazzurri would be making one massive mistake in letting go of a player who can only get better with patience and opportunities. Now that Lucio has gone, maybe that will finally happen.
“Last term I struggled to do anything really, but I've worked hard to reach this stage of pre-season in top shape so that I can go on to have a great campaign,” Ranocchia stated recently. “I’m striving every day not just to be a better player, but to become the best.
“I've learnt from the mistakes I made last term and I'm trying to make up for it. I've paid my dues and worked my way up through the different categories. Now I hope to stay here for as long as possible and prove that I’m worthy of this shirt.”
It’ll take more than summer statements of intention to silence all of his doubters, but this kid has to be believed in. He needs a first team shirt, he needs to stay fit, he needs to be allowed to make mistakes and Inter need to keep the faith. Give him a bit of time and Ranocchia could one day be the new poster boy of Italian football.