Matteo Darmian won't be Man United's biggest signing, but he will play a part
Matteo Darmian has never lost sleep after a defeat or before a game. Apart from one.
"I woke up in the night a few times before the England game at the World Cup," the full-back admitted to La Gazzetta dello Sport in the spring. Everything was happening so fast. Relatively speaking, Darmian had come from nowhere in international football. His first cap for Italy had only arrived a fortnight earlier. A warm-up game against Ireland at Craven Cottage represented an opportunity for him to persuade coach Cesare Prandelli, at more or less the last minute, to take a chance on him and include the Torino player's name on the Azzurri's 23-man squad list for Brazil.
Darmian was impressive, but his performance and the rise that followed were a genuine surprise. Not only did he make the final cut, but all of a sudden he was propelled into the starting XI for Italy's World Cup opener, the rumble in the jungle with England in Manaus. Had Darmian slept the night before, he couldn't have dreamed of making a bigger impression. One imagines Raheem Sterling and Leighton Baines saw him in their nightmares in the days that followed; one didn't track back while the the other got pulled inside by Antonio Candreva time again.
It meant Darmian had the freedom of England's left side. He was a constant thorn in it. His combination play with Candreva even drew comparisons with Claudio Gentile and Bruno Conti in 1982 and Gianluca Zambrotta and Mauro Camoranesi in 2006. Understandably after Euro 2012, all the focus had been on Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli and, on the night, they definitely didn't disappoint. But there was great curiosity about this hitherto unknown right-back who had caused England so many problems.
Watching from the sidelines at the Arena de Amazonia was their assistant manager, Gary Neville. As a former right-back, he couldn't fail to appreciate Darmian's display. Brother Phil also happened to be commentating on the game for the BBC. It's not too great a stretch of the imagination for him to have suggested Darmian's name in discussions with former colleagues at their old club Manchester United, either then or at some point in the past year.
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As one of the few Italy players to exit the World Cup with his reputation enhanced, it was a surprise Darmian didn't immediately get a big move. High-profile interest was there, but with Darmian being mindful of how Torino had given him a shot and put faith in him when others in his career hadn't, he was willing to accept and respect their decision not to sell.
"After the World Cup last year I said to him: 'Matteo if an offer comes in for you, I can't sell you this year,'" Torino owner Urbano Cairo explained to La Stampa last week. "I had already let Ciro Immobile [the Capocannoniere in Serie A] and [his striker partner] Alessio Cerci leave the club and couldn't afford to lose a third excellent player. 'But,' I promised, 'next summer, we'll speak again.'"
What will impress United as much as Darmian's full-back play are the character references they will have received about him. Other players in his position a year ago would have agitated for a move and pushed one through. But not him. Like so many footballers in Italy, he grew up kicking a ball around in the courtyard of his local oratory.
"There was everything you could possibly need to be brought up well," he recalled in La Gazzetto dello Sport. "Lots of fun to be had, sport, friendship, values. I'm talking about honesty too, loyalty and understanding how to get along with other people." Darmian is grateful that the education he received was not only in mind, but in morals as well.
The son of a technical designer ("I like order and precision"), he might still become one once his playing days are over. Of course they began in earnest when a 10-year-old Darmian and three friends from the oratory in Rescaldina -- Salvatore, Roberto and Davide -- went for a trial with AC Milan. Even though he felt they all played better than him, Darmian was the only one picked. "We're all still friends," he told Sportweek. "One of them is a boiler repairman. The other still studies and the third has a kid."
Funny how things turn out, isn't it? The only explanation Darmian can think of as to why he made it and his mates didn't is that destiny played a role and that it's his destiny to be a footballer.
"In the first years I spent in Milan's academy, I was the smallest, the scrawniest, the least strong, and yet every summer a letter came through the post asking me to come back." Darmian had his coaches intrigued. They tried him out in several positions, imbuing a versatility that he retains and will be much to the liking of Louis van Gaal.
"In the beginning I was a central midfielder," he reflected in La Gazzetta, "and if you asked me then who my idol was, I couldn't not answer 'Clarence Seedorf.' Then they started to play me in defence at centre-back so I watched Alessandro Nesta. They then put me out wide to the full-back position and there was only one person I could look up to, right? Paolo Maldini and that was it. And you know what then happened in 2007? Heck, I was in the first-team squad with Seedorf, Nesta and Maldini. To say I tried to steal something from them would be pretentious. Let's just say Clarence taught me what it means to have personality, Sandro elegance and Paolo how to be professional."
As hyped as he was at the time, Darmian would only make four appearances for Milan. You have to sympathise. "Matteo needed to bulk up and go get some experience elsewhere," Maldini explained last summer. "Those were different times. It wasn't easy to find a place in Milan's starting XI." Not with that competition.
Loaned to Padova where he broke his scaphoid (a bone in the wrist) and was then sold in co-ownership to Palermo, it wasn't until Giampiero Ventura signed Darmian for Torino -- then down in the second division -- that he got the regular game-time he needed to develop. What Ventura found was a player he could trust and rely upon. "Matteo never misses a training session," he said earlier this year, "let alone a game."
The pair of them have been on an incredible journey together ever since. Darmian helped Torino return to Serie A and keep them up. He has been part of a team that has stirred emotions fans of the Granata haven't experienced in decades. They returned to Europe proper for the first time in 20 years and when they got there, Torino became the first Italian team ever to win in San Mames. Darmian scored in that historic 3-2 win, as he did in another famous, even more meaningful victory for the Toro: their first against Juventus in the Derby della Mole since 1995.
A popular figure, they'll be sad to see him go but Darmian leaves with their blessing and best wishes. There will always be a place for him in their hearts. As his talent flourished, Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi rued giving up on him too soon. "We sold him for €1 million," he sighed. "I reckon [Urbano] Cairo got a good deal." United have too.
"Three solid offers came in for him," Cairo told La Stampa. He wouldn't reveal the identity of the bidders but it's thought the others were Bayern, who are looking for an upgrade on Rafinha, and Napoli. Barcelona, whose current administration is advised by Milan's former talent scout Ariedo Braida, were also said to be considering Darmian as Dani Alves' successor, only for the European champions to extend the Brazilian's contract.
While Darmian does look to get forward as he showed so emphatically against England, his past as a centre-back means he knows how to defend too. In fact, Italy coach Antonio Conte redeployed him there in qualifiers against Malta and Croatia. A fine tackler, it won't be easy to get down United's right -- or their left for that matter, if Van Gaal chooses to play him there, as Conte has done more often than not for the Azzurri.
Now, a player's adaptability can often be a double-edged sword. It's true that they get to play week-in week-out, but not always in their preferred position, and that can sometimes lead to disgruntlement. Not with Darmian. With him, side comes before self. He's an altruist, comfortable in his own skin and with who he is.
Interestingly, Mahatma Gandhi is an inspiration to him in this regard. "His greatness lay in using it only to the benefit of others," Darmian explained to La Gazzetta. "I read about him, about his humility and simplicity, his silent protests, which spoke volumes as messages of nonviolence made history."
Make no mistake about it: Darmian's quiet stoicism will be appreciated by United fans. Yet they'll be hoping that he does make a noise in England.
Darmian featured in my latest Serie A team of the season -- Juve's Stephan Lichtsteiner is better in my opinion, but there's a debate to be had about who had the better campaign -- and the question now is will he push Branislav Ivanovic and Pablo Zabaleta for that honour in the Premier League? Bigger still, have United finally found a worthy successor to Gary Neville?
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.