'A standing ovation for [sporting director] Monchi,' said one sarcastic Romanista last summer, on an open call with Roma Radio, 'for giving away our best midfielder to a direct rival, in exchange for a piece of ballast and a nobody!'
The angry fan was commenting on the swap-plus-cash deal that ferried Radja Nainggolan from the capital to Inter. His call voiced feelings that were echoed almost ubiquitously in the capital.
The 'piece of ballast' mentioned by the fan was full-back Davide Santon, who ended up steadying the uncertain Roman boat so effectively that even its grouchiest passengers had to fall silent.
As for the 'nobody', that was a 19-year-old called Nicolò Zaniolo, the same boy who is now the object of this and other articles as potentially the greatest revelation for this season of Serie A.
"Zaniolo plays like a veteran," admitted Roma legend Francesco Totti, as impressed as anyone, after last Sunday's 2-2 draw against Inter. "He has explosive strength and technique, and everything it takes to become a truly great player. Don't let him hear me though. He may yet change course and I don't want that on my shoulders."
The Ex Pupone's prudence is understandable, especially at this delicate point in Zaniolo's career. For a kid who was discarded from the Fiorentina youth team in 2016, and who found a side-door back into elite football only thanks to Inter's scouts, the boy who came to Rome as 'a nobody' has enjoyed quite the glamorous three months.
First, on September 3rd, came the call-up to Roberto Mancini's Azzurri, making of Zaniolo only the fourth Italian ever to be bestowed such an honour without playing a single game in Serie A. Then his Roma debut on September 19th, playing on the biggest stage in the world against European champions Real Madrid, followed by regular minutes against Frosinone, Viktoria Plzen and Fiorentina.
To say that Zaniolo made good of his opportunities would be quite the understatement. Starting against Real Madrid (for the second time) and against Inter in Roma's last two games, he was arguably the best player in a Giallorossi shirt, ticking every last box in the job description of a trequartista, and burnishing his performance with a conviction and an attitude that had to be seen to be believed.
If you haven't watched him play yet, I recommend finding the time. Zaniolo plays as an offensive-minded midfielder, and his passes are correspondingly smart, quick and precise, equally effective from short and long range. He is exceptionally composed for a player in his late teens, and against Inter he showed signs of having a solid shot on goal too.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the former Interista, at least from what we've seen so far, is his mastery of one of football's absolute basics: just not losing the ball. Zaniolo is already roughly the size of Paul Pogba and could easily put on more muscle. As well, he compounds his physical qualities with a fighting spirit like that of a mother hyena protecting her cubs.
Simply put, Nicolò never gives away the ball if he doesn't go down, and he never goes down unless someone is able to take him down. The likes of Real Madrid's Luka Modric and Inter's Marcelo Brozovic tried dispossessing him, and both were repeatedly dragged into something like a professional Sumo bout.
To top off this remarkable list of qualities, 'Mr Nobody' has something even Totti never had: the humility to deal with the mad world of football. Zaniolo is level headed and mature with the Press, does not fall for trick questions, and knows how to choose his words carefully. One imagines the boy's father Igor, himself a modest ex footballer, must have done a sterling job as a mentor.
Zaniolo has silky, polished technique, he thinks quickly and well, and he boasts an Olympian physique which makes him a nightmare for opponents to contain. Roberto Mancini recently lamented that "Italy don't have superstars anymore", but before the next World Cup comes around, he might have to eat crow. This kid has all the makings of a superstar.