Sassuolo have become the envy of Italian football in just 12 months
Sassuolo owner Giorgio Squinzi has a curious iPhone cover. It's red and black and bears the crest of AC Milan. He grew up in Cisano Bergamasco, the birthplace of Milan's former winger Roberto Donadoni, and has been a fan of the Diavolo all his life. Upon entering the football business more than a decade ago and declaring "one day we'll get into the Champions League and buy Kaka," the bespectacled Squinzi was asked who he would root for if his new club were ever to face the team of his heart. "I'd support Milan," he said. When the moment finally did come last year, Squinzi took the Switzerland position. "I will be absolutely neutral."
At the time, Eusebio Di Francesco, the coach who had gotten Sassuolo into the top flight for the first time in their history, was close to the sack. Renting an ex-convent, he confided he wouldn't trouble God over a game of football. But Sassuolo had lost four in a row and were in the relegation zone. Di Francesco could be forgiven for seeking divine intervention. Without asking for it, he did behold a revelation.
Teenager Domenico Berardi, a player they had spotted in a students' five-a-side game after he came to visit his brother at the nearby University of Modena, became the second-youngest person ever, after Silvio Piola, the league's most prolific goal scorer of all time, to score four in a match. "Of all the teams you had to do it against, it had to be Milan," Squinzi joked in the dressing room afterward. It sealed a famous 4-3 win.
Then-Milan manager Max Allegri, who had established his reputation in coaching by guiding Sassuolo up into Serie B, was made to rue his first encounter with his former employer. He was dismissed that night. Di Francesco, meanwhile, was granted a reprieve, even if Sassuolo's victory had left their Milan-supporting patron with mixed emotions. Alas, it didn't last long. Consecutive defeats to Torino and Livorno got Di Francesco fired. That was a year ago last week.
Hunting for a replacement, Squinzi phoned a friend. He asked Silvio Berlusconi if he could appoint Milan's youth team boss at the time, a certain Pippo Inzaghi. The answer was no. And so enter Alberto Malesani, the coach who, in addition to winning the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia in the late '90s, is known for using one particular expletive no fewer than 21 times in a single Panathinaikos news conference. Twelve new players were signed. Sassuolo looked desperate and things quickly became even more so. After five games, Malesani's win percentage was a big fat zero. Squinzi brought Di Francesco back in mid-March.
"I never unpacked my bags," he told Il Corriere dello Sport. Named after the legendary Benfica and Portugal striker and mentored by football's guru of go Zdenek Zeman, his former coach at Roma, an emboldened Di Francesco went on the attack. If Sassuolo were going to go down, they would do so guns blazing. "We played football and tried to win, always," he said. "Football is emotion and it's better for the fans to watch a game that finishes with loads of goals. This is the tendency in Europe and Italy has to adapt to keep up with the times."
Four points adrift of safety upon his return, Sassuolo survived with a game to spare. Berardi finished with 16 goals, among them four hat tricks, the most in Europe's top five leagues. All 42 of their goals were scored by Italians. They were held up as an example then and especially after Italy were knocked out of the World Cup at the group stage. If the Azzurri are to improve, more clubs could do with following the precedent set by Sassuolo. Italians played 84.9 percent of the minutes at the club last season compared with a league average of 45.9 percent. They are proof of what can be done if you put faith in homegrown talent.
How come Di Francesco is bucking the trend then? Is it the influence of the Piacenza teams he played for under Bortolo Mutti, Walter Novellino and Luigi Cagni, which were invariably all Italian? "A happy coincidence," he insists, "it's not an ideological decision. I am not against foreign players but they have to make the difference." Whether intentional or not, the Made in Italy trademark dusted off by Sassuolo has fostered a strong identity, something so many teams either lack or have lost. There's a great spirit and togetherness about the club.
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Captain Francesco Magnanelli has been with the Neroverdi since they were in the fourth division. Paolo Cannavaro, who used to wear the armband at Napoli before being marginalised by Rafa Benitez, has brought leadership and experience. Centre-back Francesco Acerbi was in remission from testicular cancer when he joined Sassuolo. When it came back, his teammates stood by him in a show of solidarity. Returning in September after receiving the all-clear, the scenes after his goal against Parma were one of the most memorable moments of the season so far.
Then there's the tricolor trident, an antidote to the practically all-Argentine group heading the goal-scoring charts. Nicola Sansone, the son of a fruit and vegetable wholesaler who immigrated to Germany, came through Bayern's academy with Diego Contento and Roberto Soriano, now of Sampdoria. He's due an Italy cap. The remarkable story of how Berardi came to Sassuolo's attention has already been told. Champions Juventus co-own the baby phenom as they once did his teammate, Simone Zaza.
Zaza made his Serie A debut five years ago, but was released by Atalanta after refusing to sign a contract for what he says was the minimum wage. Sampdoria offered him a place in their youth team but was loaned to second-tier Juve Stabia, where he hardly played. Zaza had to go down another division to get game time. For a time it didn't look as though he was going to make it. Nothing has come easy to him. He's had to fight to get where he is today. After shining at Viareggio and then Ascoli, where he was scoring at a rate of one every other Sunday, Sassuolo bought a stake in the player from Sampdoria. Samp then turned around and sold their remaining share to Juventus, a club whose recruitment strategy was by then being organised by Beppe Marotta and Fabio Paratici, their former general manager and chief scout.
Sassuolo bought him outright last June, but Juventus have an option to buy him in the summer for 15 million euros and are likely to do so after already inquiring about him in January. He has a touch of the Christian Vieri about him. Zaza scored on his debut for Italy and after a drought put down to the pressure of heightened expectation following his international appearances and the shaving off of his beard, the 23-year-old is now back in form. Over the last year he has established a reputation as an ammazza grandi -- a giant killer. Zaza has scored twice against Juve, Roma and Milan, and has also found the net against Napoli and, to Squinzi's delight, Inter. That was on Sunday.
Each member of the trident got on the score sheet that day. Zaza's goal called to mind those of his idol Marco van Basten. Sansone hit another stunner off the bottom of the bar and Berardi claimed one from the spot. All will be suspended for accumulation of bookings incidentally for Sunday's trip to Sampdoria. But this victory had a psychological significance. Sassuolo got over "the Inter syndrome as I defined it," Di Francesco said. After losing 7-0 to them at the Mapei last season and 7-0 at San Siro in September it was of great satisfaction to lay those ghosts to rest and give Squinzi a "derby" triumph.
Sassuolo also leapfrogged Inter in the table. Had they not conceded after the 90th minute against Roma, Palermo, Cesena and Genoa, this tiny town with a population around half the capacity of San Siro would be higher than 10th. "If you look at how things are at the moment, Sassuolo's squad has nothing to envy Milan's," Squinzi said. He's not wrong, and there has been clamour for him to buy Berlusconi out of Milan. The head of the Mapei empire that turns over 2.3 billion euros a year, Squinzi's Quick-Step team were once the Milan of cycling, winning 654 races, including five world titles, the Paris-Roubaix on five occasions, a Giro d'Italia and a Vuelta. He is proving as competent in football as he was in that sport.
As Milan unveiled plans for a new 48,000-seater ground to be opened in 2018 at an expense of 320 million euros, Sassuolo have been owners of the nearby Mapei stadium in Reggio Emilia since a year after Squinzi bought it at auction for 3.7 million euros in 2013. This is a smartly run club and a well-assembled, well-coached team.
Sassuolo have beaten both Milan clubs. They have also frightened Juventus and Roma, going in front before being held to a draw. "Chievo are our role models," Di Francesco modestly suggests. "We aim to make ourselves credible and stay in the league." More than credible, what Sassuolo have done is incredible.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.