Tuesday October 6 2020
The slow rise of Caputo and Toni

Francesco Caputo isn’t the first forward to take the long route to success, as Giancarlo Rinaldi looks at the Sassuolo forward and predecessor Luca Toni.

In an age when we tend to want everything yesterday, patience can be something of a vanishing virtue. It is easy to forget just how rewarding things are when they require a little time and effort. That is why there is so much to savour in the slow-cooked success of Francesco Caputo.

There is plenty to admire, of course, in those footballing wunderkinds who fly up the sporting ladder in their youth and scale great heights before turning 20. However, you always get the feeling that players who have had to graft for their glory have a greater sense of appreciation. And few have had to spend more time carving out their place in the game than the Sassuolo striker.

Seeing the 33-year-old’s name among the Italy call-ups by Roberto Mancini, it is hard to stifle a smile. He wouldn’t be the oldest debutant in Azzurri history if he gets a game - that honour falls to Emiliano Moretti - but he would run him pretty close. Surely only those without a shred of romance in their body would want to see Altamura’s finest denied.

Italy has always had a bit of a love-hate affair with its bomber di provincia - goalscorers from outside the big clubs. Those with long memories could think of the likes of Dario Hubner, Igor Protti or Cristiano Lucarelli - men who made their names with sides outside the usual giants. Between them they managed more than 200 Serie A goals - but their international caps barely require more than the fingers of one hand to count. It is almost as if finding the net at a smaller side is somehow of less value than when surrounded by superstars.

Not that the national team has ignored every striker who has had to work hard to move through the ranks. Luca Toni shuffled around the lower levels of the Italian game - much as Caputo has done - before eventually convincing everyone that he was actually a bit of a player. From Fiorenzuola to World Cup winner in the space of a decade is a pretty impressive journey.

They could hardly be more different in playing styles, mind you. Big Luca always gave you the feeling of having had to work for hours to allow his impressive physique to achieve the technical skills needed to succeed at the top level. No matter how much you watched him, there was always a sense of wonder that such a sizeable guy could manage so much subtlety in his finishing.

Our Ciccio comes from a different breed. Watch his highlights reel and most of the headers you will see are from about a step away from goal. But, when he gets a chance, he does not mess about. Right foot or left foot, he rarely wastes more than one touch before finding a way past a despairing goalkeeper.

If anything, though, Caputo’s journey to Serie A has been even more arduous than Toni’s. He made a brief appearance with Bari about a decade ago but then it was back to the lower reaches of the Italian game. There must have been spells when he thought about throwing in the towel and giving up hope - and then it could well have been kaput for Caputo’s career.

Somehow, though, he found the faith to stick at it and slowly rise again. On a winding route through Bari, Siena and Virtus Entella he eventually clawed his way back to the top division. Suddenly, with his 30th birthday already been and gone, he was ready to be an overnight success.

It was with Empoli a couple of seasons ago that he was able to announce his arrival with a 16 goal haul that made some sit up and take notice. The late bloomer then moved on to Sassuolo where he hoped to match his goalscoring achievements in Tuscany, but actually surpassed them. His 21 strikes are supposed to have won him a bet for a dinner with footballing idol Alex Del Piero. Italian TV viewers will know what brand of mineral water to expect on the menu at that meal.

This term the hitman has showed no signs of slowing up in a Sassuolo side playing football to die for. Roberto De Zerbi’s team have become the uber-hipster’s answer to Atalanta and - although the goals are liberally sprinkled around the side - Caputo is the undoubted leader. Little wonder that many fantasy football managers - including the man himself - make his the first name on their team sheet every week.

And what about his Italy prospects? A call-up, of course, is no guarantee of playing time but Mancini has shown himself willing to take a few risks with left-field selections. The position of striker in his Azzurri set-up remains a potential vacancy with Andrea Belotti leading the way while the most obvious choice - Ciro Immobile - seems not to have convinced his coach that he can deliver in key clashes.

We love a Toto Schillaci type tale, after all, don’t we? Could it be that Caputo might be the man to ignite a national team which has been big on creating chances so far, but not so strong at taking them? It is a long shot, of course, but the striker has shown he is more than willing to wait to take his opportunity. And if it all ended with a starring role in a triumphant European Nations campaign then we could all be mimicking his beer-drinking goal celebration next summer.

Giancarlo Rinaldi is the author of a number of books about Italian football. You can find out more about them here

Have your say...
I think Sebastiano Esposito should be called up along with Andrea Pinamonti in place of Petanga and Berardi who will always be a middle team player as he feared taking a step up to Juve.
on the 16th October, 2020 at 4:32pm
@ Sam Martino, Spinnazola has to be on the squad... he's a gem and to me the top 3 picks of the entire team.. did you see him against Holland..
on the 9th October, 2020 at 10:18am
In response to message about Grifo. I have watched him a bit at frieburg. He is a good player and did well when he came on last night. I didnt include Grifo or Spinazzola in the squad I picked there is an argument both should be included. Glad i dont have to pick the 23 for the euros, not easy at all. Good performance last night against limited opposition. Its nice to finally see us putting these teams to the sword instead of scrapping narrow victories like in the past.
on the 8th October, 2020 at 6:44pm
@Maldini's Heir, some of those players ain't worth missing so don't feel so bad... Cutrone, Darmian, Desciglio, Petagna? Meh...Jury still out on Caldara... El Shaaraway has bee inconsistent, partly due to do with a lot of injuries... Jack's ok... that it.. I think Locatelli will be missed! He seems to be rounding nicely into form... Cristante is a decent player too...
on the 8th October, 2020 at 9:25am

With the exception of Locatelli who looks good and young enough to go on and have a career as a starter at a top club not one of those players are anything more than a squad player. For one reason or another all of them failed to live up to their early potential or were players who were destined to have mediocre careers. I wouldn't be too infuriated by losing them. Losing Aubameyang for peanuts is another story though.
on the 8th October, 2020 at 8:03am
The Italy game has inspired me to put together a 1-11 of ex-Milan Azzurri who are still active:

GK (nobody, because we backed Donnarumma despite his many mistakes)
Darmian, Caldara, Acerbi, De Sciglio
The Italy midfield: Locatelli, Cristante, Bonaventura
Cutrone, Petagna, El Shaaraway

I've loved all of these players and they were taken away from me prematurely.
on the 8th October, 2020 at 1:01am
@sam de martino
Sorry Sam Grifo is excellent you are wrong there just saying
Grifo is worth a place for his free kicks alone.
Have you actually watched him
And he can set up goals.
No offence but watch him on YouTube
Free kicks are magical
on the 7th October, 2020 at 10:41pm
5 ex-Milan players in Italy’s starting line up this evening. Infuriating.
on the 7th October, 2020 at 10:32pm
@Sam De Martino

Good picks, I would have included Spinazzola personally.
on the 7th October, 2020 at 8:58pm
Really hoping Berardi builds on last season which was probably his best ever season with 14 goals and 10 assists in Serie A. At 25/26 if he can perform again consistently this year he could be a great asset to the national team. He just needs to keep on top of his hot headed temper and stay clear of injuries and he's a shoe in for the Euro squad and could then finally get a move to a big club for his peak years. Now they missed out on Chiesa could Berardi be the answer to Milans RW issues?
on the 7th October, 2020 at 2:38pm
Mancini has picked 34 players or these games - my 34 if all fit would be.

GK - Donnarumma , Sirigu, Meret, Cragno

Def: Biraghi , Bonucci , Chiellini, Bastoni , Romagnoli, Caldara , Palmieri , Lazzari, D Ambrosio , Mancini , Di lorenzo.

Mid: Barella, Castrovelli , Pellegrini , Sensi , Jorginho , Verratti , Zaniolo , Cristante , Locatelli , Tonali

For : Immobile, Belotti , Chiesa , Kean , Orsolini , Caputo Berardi , Insigne , Petagna.

Any thoughts?
on the 7th October, 2020 at 9:35am
Happy in general with Mancini squad picks. Bastoni should be there without a doubt. Romagnoli and Caldara should come in when fit also. Meret, Di lorenzo and Insigne also. Get rid of florenzi and lasagna - please. El sha inclusion is a mystery as is grifo. Caputo is my favourite player he is top draw - age is only a number - he could play a crucuial role at the euros if given the oppportunity. Hopefully he starts tonight and scores. Hoping for a good win tonight with goals.
on the 7th October, 2020 at 9:11am
Brilliant article. A real grafter and an inspirational story. I'm sure he's savouring every moment. I hope Mancini gives him a chance, especially if he keeps up this blistering form.
on the 7th October, 2020 at 5:48am
A much better player to spearhead Italy's attack.
Immobile has no business being in that squad.
on the 6th October, 2020 at 11:11pm
I was starting to think that he'd never get a call-up! He's a good finisher which is what Italy need. He's got a rocket of a shot too, and is good at finding space. Great story. From Altumara Bread and the steppes of Le Murge plateau and the lower leagues to Italy international! I hope it goes well for him. He's got a bit of charisma for a modern-day player, what, with his cheeky celebrations and that!
on the 6th October, 2020 at 7:33pm

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