Today we celebrate Nicola Ventola’s 39th birthday, and wonder why Erick Thohir’s favourite Interista never quite turned out how he was supposed to.
Words: Edo Dalmonte
It is a well-known fact that many talented prospects don’t turn out, with the mental and tactical rigours of modern football often too heavy a load to carry. It hurts far more, however, when a player has the brains, the technique and the guts to go far, only for it to become clear that his body - and his luck - were never cut out for a career in the pros.
Such is the story of Nicola Ventola, whose 39th birthday we celebrate today by remembering who he was, but especially who he might have been. Having won the European Under-21 Championship in 2000 with the likes of Gennaro Gattuso, Simone Perrotta and Andrea Pirlo, the powerful striker with a penchant for diving headers was expected to go far, not retire a Serie B player eleven years later.
This is not to say that the Grumo Appula (a suburb of Bari) native has been forgotten altogether. Asked to name his favourite player when he took over at Inter, then-president Erick Thohir singled out Ventola, claiming that “anyone could say Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, but it says something else by knowing other players.”
Inevitably, however, any mention of the former Inter player will always be accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders and a commiserating grimace. Things shouldn’t have turned out this way for a youngster who made his Serie A debut for Bari aged just 16 years and 166 days old, or who joined Inter four years later in 1998 for a stunning 24 billion Lira - €21 million in today’s money.
Devastated at being separated from his childhood team, Ventola pleaded with president Antonio Matarrese to keep him for another season, but to no avail. Known for his power, his accuracy and his great positioning, the 20-year-old didn’t even let the likes of Ronaldo, Ivan Zamorano, Alvaro Recoba or even Roberto Baggio stop him: whenever the Nerazzurri were in trouble - and it was often - he’d put the team on his shoulders, banging in five goals in his first five appearances in the 1998-1999 season - including two to rescue a draw against Empoli.
And then, just like that, his right knee came back to haunt him. Having torn his ACL and partially lacerated both his meniscus and collateral ligament back in his Bari days, it was the LCL which buckled again, preventing Ventola from starting in Italy’s upcoming friendly with Spain. Filippo Inzaghi was chosen instead, and went on to score twice in a 2-2 draw.
Such is life: though Ventola’s career would drag on until 2011 with its fair share of highlights, injuries would never leave him be for more than a season or two at a time, and even that was frankly pushing it.
Though he ended that ill-fated season with goals against Manchester United and Bologna, the 21-year-old was loaned out to the Felsinei to reboot his career, only for his blighted body to limit him to fourteen Serie A appearances.
Things looked to be going in the right direction the following year, however, when a loan to Atalanta saw him earn ten league goals and - almost as impressive - the love of the moody Dea faithful. Ironically, Ventola’s most memorable contribution - a surging run and finish past Edwin van der Sar to beat Juventus in Bergamo - relied on speed and power, two things his wobbly knees couldn’t guarantee long-term.
Returning to Inter, the Bari native finally seemed to have injuries on his side, fellow knee victim Ronaldo being sidelined long enough for Nicky to score in the Derby against Milan. Even the umpteenth trip to the infirmary couldn’t stop Ventola from nabbing five strikes in Europe, where Inter’s Uefa Cup run ended at the semi-final stage.
By this stage, however, the youngster incarnated a popular joke made about owner Massimo Moratti, who - the gag goes - plastered newspapers on the San Siro’s turf because Inter were strong on paper. In theory, the Nerazzurri could count on an excellent third striker just waiting to unleash his potential. In practice, Ventola was never more than a name on the team’s website.
After a poor stint at Siena and an entirely forgettable move to Crystal Palace, Ventola returned to where he was happiest: Bergamo. A fine Serie B campaign resulted in fifteen goals and promotion for the ‘Vava-Boys’, but Ventola’s spiral only went downwards after that, managing only fifteen goals in three seasons between Atalanta and an average Torino.
There would be one last hurrah: moving down to the third tier, the Bari native helped Novara seal promotion to Serie B with a fantastic double against fellow contenders Cremonese, including a thunderous half-volley from outside the box. It was an all-too-typical oasis amidst an ocean of injuries and disappointments.