What do the leading scorer of the Swedish women's team, the son of a North African dictator and a South Korean World Cup star have in common?
It sounds like the start of a terrible gag; indeed, Perugia's pursuit of Hanna Ljungberg, signing of Saadi Gaddafi and sacking of Ahn Jung-hwan, saw the club become the laughing stock of the football world in the early 2000s. At the heart of it all was colourful, controversial owner Luciano Gaucci -- a man who believed any publicity was good publicity.
Gaucci's decision-making -- nay, his sanity -- was regularly questioned during an ill-fated tenure that ended with Peruguia's bankruptcy in 2005, and few of the ideas he espoused have been revisited. One, however, has just seen the light of day again. No matter Gaucci's reputation, it does seem somewhat surprising that it took 11 years for another Serie A club to sign an Englishman.
Ashley Cole's move to Roma makes him the first of his countrymen to play in the Italian top flight on a permanent basis -- David Beckham had two loan spells at AC Milan -- since his former Arsenal academy teammate Jay Bothroyd donned the red of Perugia. Bothroyd's signing, in 2003, was another one out of the Gaucci book of shocks -- the eccentric entrepreneur raiding Championship side Coventry City for a 21-year-old striker who had once promised great things as the attacking focal point of the Gunners' youth team.
"Playing in Serie A was always something that I'd wanted to do," Bothroyd tells ESPN FC. "When I was a kid, I used to watch Italian football on television with my dad, when Paul Gascoigne was playing for Lazio. There were all these great players -- the best in the world -- so when Perugia showed interest, I was never going to turn it down."
As Gaucci defended his unconventional transfer policy, Bothroyd set about adapting to life in unfamiliar surroundings, aiming to avoid the fate of the last Englishman before him to grace Serie A. Four years earlier, an out of shape and out of sorts Lee Sharpe flopped at Sampdoria, the waning winger a shadow of the mazy, hip-swinging dribbler who had won trophies galore at Manchester United.
JAY BOTHROYD PROFILE
Born: May 5, 1982, Islington
Clubs: Coventry City, Perugia, Blackburn Rovers, Charlton Athletic, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Stoke City, Cardiff City, Queens Park Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday, Muangthong United
Career appearances: 405
Career goals: 101
International caps: 1
"I didn't go there to try to be the English guy in Italy; I went there to embrace their culture on and off the pitch," says Bothroyd. "I had a boy's mentality when I arrived, though, to be honest -- I'd played for Coventry in the Premier League and thought I knew it all, but suddenly everything was about football -- eating, sleeping, preparing.
"It was all more professional. At Arsenal, we were in a bubble in the youth team, we were playing football with our mates. And it was similar at Coventry, with a lot of young players. The training regime at Perugia opened my eyes, I realised how important it was to give everything in training, as well as in the matches. You couldn't mess around and always left sessions knowing you'd put in a shift. It was a major increase in intensity and the making of me as a professional, really.
"Outside of the football, it was obviously a bit of a strange situation with our chairman. He was a real character, a crazy guy really. He used to talk a lot to the media just to get attention; I'm not sure how serious he ever was about signing a female player for example, but he enjoyed the spotlight. I ignored all the stories about Perugia -- mainly as I didn't read Italian, which was probably for the best! I only knew what people and teammates told me. I think the general feeling was that he was just messing around and having a laugh and a joke at the media's expense."
Having experienced a thorough preseason with new teammates, Bothroyd enjoyed an impressive start to life in Italy; he scored on his debut and shortly after helped his side to an admirable 1-1 draw with the mighty AC Milan -- a performance that prompted Gaucci to describe his English forward as his "best acquisition," adding that "you should have seen him run rings round Paolo Maldini."
Bothroyd remembers the match well.
"The Milan game was the highlight of my time in Italy," he says. "I had scored on my debut against our local rivals Siena but against Milan I got the man of the match award. I remember speaking to Paolo Maldini afterwards and we swapped shirts; this was a player who I had grown up watching on television. I cherish that shirt, especially as his number has since been retired by Milan. It was probably the best moment of my career. That team we played -- Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Gennaro Gattuso, Kaka, Andriy Shevchenko, Rui Costa -- was an amazing team. It was a great occasion. I walked onto the pitch and I'm not embarrassed to say I was in awe.
"It seemed that each week I was playing against these unbelievable players. I collected loads of shirts -- Roberto Baggio, Adriano, Kaka, Gianluigi Buffon, Francesco Totti -- and they are all framed."
While Bothroyd bought into a new approach to football, the biggest difference came in his lifestyle. Swapping Coventry for central Italy was a dramatic shift in climate and culture, but it was a challenge that the young striker embraced.
“It seemed that each week I was playing against these unbelievable players. I collected loads of shirts -- Baggio, Adriano, Kaka, Maldini, Bufffon, Totti. I cherish them all.”
"I was born and bred in North London but I just don't get homesick," Bothroyd says. "I'm not that person. When I first went to Italy it was very difficult, of course. No one really spoke great English so I had a translator while I tried to pick up the language. At the beginning it was tough to communicate, but I learned Italian and that was obviously a huge help. Our coach, Serse Cosmi, was a great guy, too, and helped me a lot. He and his wife spoke a bit of English; they always made me comfortable, invited me round for dinner, took me out shopping. They were really accommodating.
"After three or four months, things were just like anywhere else really. I would go to Florence, which was only a 45-minute drive away, and Rome, which was only about an hour and a half away. I was enjoying the lifestyle, I'd made friends -- one of my good friends was a hairdresser who was half Italian, half English. Football was great, it was very positive. And most importantly, of course, I met my future wife there -- so that was obviously a highlight!"
Not all of Bothroyd's experiences were so positive, however.
"I experienced racist abuse a couple of times," he recalls. "The first time was at Inter Milan, which I remember thinking was strange as they had Obafemi Martins and Adriano at the time. Whenever I touched the ball, I heard monkey chants from the Inter supporters. I've always been thick-skinned and just ignored what people say and got on with my game, but it's just not nice to hear.
"The second time I was racially abused at Verona. Italy is a beautiful country but it is still a bit behind in that respect. My coach [Cosmi] spoke to me before the game and warned me there was a chance I'd experience racism -- he told me not to let it affect me. I was as ready as you can be for it. The club reported Inter Milan and Verona and I think they were fined, but what's a 100,000-euro fine to multimillion-pound businesses? The only way you can get rid of it is by docking the club points, as no fans want that."
Bothroyd, now 32 and with three more Premier League spells and an international cap with England to his name, has been following news of Cole's move from a distance. Currently plying his trade in Thailand with Muangthong United, Bothroyd is once again enjoying a totally different slice of life on and off the pitch, having first acquired the taste for it more than a decade ago.
Cole's and Bothroyd's footballing educations were closely intertwined, taking in junior football with Westward Boys in the London borough of Hackney before the pair became reacquainted in the Arsenal academy, with Bothroyd recalling how Cole -- a "quiet lad" who played in the year group above him -- started life as a forward before being shifted to left-wing and then left-back. Now, like Bothroyd, a player from a modest background in London will take to the pitches of Serie A.
"I'm really happy that Ashley's gone to Roma -- I've known him since I was a kid and it's a great move for him," he says. "I don't doubt for a moment that he had options in the Premier League, but there's been a lot of attention on him from the English media over the years and he's been treated unfairly -- he's a nice guy, a lot more humble than he's portrayed in the press, and I think he wanted to move abroad and just take a break from all that. And as for his football, for me he's still one of the best left-backs in the world and it's an absolute travesty that he didn't go to the World Cup -- I couldn't believe it. Roma's a massive club and he's a massive player so they should be a good match.
"If I could give him some advice it would be to pick up the language as soon as possible -- I watched Italian television and movies dubbed in Italian with English subtitles. And obviously I met my wife out there as well so I spent a lot of time with her and she would speak to me in Italian; it would be a big help if Ashley can find himself an Italian woman! The best thing to do, as you should when you go to any new country, is to embrace the culture, embrace the language, embrace a different approach to football, too. Training will be different; routines will be different. Ashley's a model professional, though; he's had an incredible career -- I'm sure he'll shine through on the pitch."
Playing in Italy opened Bothroyd's eyes to a life in football away from English shores, and he hopes it will prove the same for Cole. But theirs is not a well-trodden path, and though many felt Beckham's globetrotting would see him become a 21st-century pioneer for English players abroad, it has not proved the case. Cole is the latest big name to show a modicum of bravery by leaving for the unknown. But will others follow this time?
"It surprises me that it's taken a decade for another Englishman to move to Italy, but I think English players are guilty of living in their comfort zone too much," Bothroyd says. "They'd rather play in the Championship than move abroad -- which is a bit sad really. It's like with Tom Ince recently -- no disrespect to Hull, but if Inter Milan were genuinely interested in Ince, why on earth has he not snapped up that chance? It doesn't make sense.
"People like Cole and Beckham, even Jermaine Pennant, who went to Spain -- they should be inspiring people to do it in the future. Hopefully in turn that can help the England national team in the future, because currently the outlook is bleak. Not enough players are playing regularly in the Premier League -- rather than picking up their paycheck and playing on loan around the lower leagues, they should look for different opportunities overseas. You look at other nations and their players are all prepared to travel, but our lads shy away -- they've no sense of adventure."
Mark Lomas is a journalist and editor working for ESPN FC. He reported on Euro 2012, couch-surfing his way around Ukraine, and has travelled across Europe covering the beautiful game. You can follow him on twitter @MarkLomasESPN.