The presence of the likes of Stephan El Shaarawy and Antonio Cassano in Cesare Prandelli’s squad to undergo physical testing over the next couple of days may have provided the bulk of the headlines, but the Italian Coach’s selection most far out of left field was undoubtedly that of Crotone’s Federico Bernardeschi.
The 20-year-old attacking midfielder, on loan at the Serie B club from Fiorentina for the season, is the only player from Italy’s second tier to be included in Prandelli’s 42-man party and is still yet to make a first team appearance for his parent club – though he has been an unused substitute on five occasions. Although many regard the test squad, foreign based players excluded, as the Azzurri’s unofficial preliminary squad for the World Cup finals, any prospect of Bernardeschi ousting fierce competition to claim one of the 23 places on offer in Brazil still seems remote in the extreme.
Nevertheless, Prandelli’s decision to call him up casts light and attention on a highly promising young talent who until Friday remained very much under the radar due to his lack of experience at the top level. While the physical tests at Coverciano are highly likely to be as close to a role in Rio that Bernardeschi gets, the national Coach clearly rates him very highly and wants to accustom him to the way in which the Azzurri work so as to prepare him for future action.
But what of his past and present? Born in the Tuscan town of Carrara in 1994, Bernardeschi joined local side Atletico Carrara as a young boy and was scouted in 2001 by Ponzano, the name of Empoli’s renowned youth academy. There he remained for two years before, at the age of nine, he was spotted and signed up by then-Viola sporting director Pantaleo Corvino, who had built up a reputation based on his ability to sound out young talent.
He has worked his way up through the ranks in Florence ever since, with appearances for Italy’s various youth teams only serving to underline his potential. Eventually he reached Primavera level, where in the 2012-13 season he scored a whopping 17 goals in 22 appearances and established himself as a leader in the dressing room. This was reportedly enough to attract the interest of a certain Sir Alex Ferguson, who was keen on tempting the youngster to Manchester. After much consideration however, the player and his family opted that his development should continue closer to home.
It has since proved a wise decision and, in the summer of 2013, it was decided that Bernardeschi was ready to take the next step in his career. A loan spell with Crotone was arranged and his nine goals and five assists in 31 Serie B appearances this season have played a major part in the Calabria side’s promotion push to date. He has been regularly deployed on the right of Crotone boss Massimo Drago’s front three, allowing him to cut inside on to his favoured left foot to great effect as Pitagorici fans have been treated to watching the growth of a player with precocious technical ability, accurate shooting, frightening pace and excellent dead ball skills.
In March this year his form was rewarded with a maiden call-up to Italy’s U21 side for their must win European Championship qualifier with Northern Ireland, and a few days ago came the latest significant stepping stone in his rapid rise, as Prandelli named him among his World Cup hopefuls.
Though Bernardeschi’s World Cup dream this time around will in all probability end once he has completed the tests set out for him in Coverciano, his form and presence in the squad suggests we should be seeing a lot more of him in years to come. With the player set to return to Fiorentina for next season, there is every chance he will make his full Azzurri debut sooner than many might think.