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Mar 14, 2008

Ferrari on the verge of Sampdoria's first team

No one will ever confuse Catania with A.C. Milan, but the modest Sicilian club could hold a special place in Gabriel Ferrari's heart as the years unfold.

The worldly New Yorker, seemingly destined to play pro soccer due to his Italian and Brazilian ancestry, might finally make his Serie A debut when Sampdoria hosts Catania on Sunday.

Ferrari has impressed during his brief stint in Genoa, and Sampdoria, chasing a UEFA Cup spot, is currently short on strikers.

"I'm really itching to get in there," the 19-year-old said. "It's really opened up for me."

Ferrari has made quicker progress than expected since joining in January 2007, even coming off the bench to face Inter Milan at the fabled San Siro in last season's Coppa Italia. He was an unused substitute in a handful of league games and denied an initial appearance against A.C. Milan, his dad's favorite Italian team, when the ref blew the final whistle as he prepared to enter.

This campaign, learning a somewhat new position, Ferrari was on the bench at Atalanta in late February, then again Sunday in a 2-1 win over struggling Parma.

Sampdoria needs firepower up front with Antonio Cassano, the gifted but volatile former Italian international, in the midst of a five-game suspension for insulting and throwing his jersey at a referee, and veterans Vincenzo Montella and Claudio Bellucci out with injuries.

"I spoke about this with my father when the Cassano thing happened," Ferrari said. "I told him, 'If there's going to be a chance this year, this is definitely going to be it.' It's great to be on the bench in Serie A, which is something unbelievable for me, especially, but I mean, eventually I need to start playing. You need to participate."

He hasn't ruled out a possible loan move next season, though his priority is to stay at Sampdoria as long as he's in the first-team plans. None of the coaching staff has spoken to Ferrari about his future just yet.

His agent, Giuseppe Dello Russo, spends the bulk of his time in the Netherlands, and Ferrari was offered deals at Ajax and Vitesse Arnhem when he first began looking for a European team, a DVD of his best moments in tow.

"I don't think Gabriel will go on loan," Dello Russo said. "The fact he's at Sampdoria, and didn't go away, is kind of confirmation. At the end of last season there were six strikers ahead of him. Still, they didn't think about loaning him somewhere.

"From now until [the] end of the season he can improve, and can possibly play in the first team. I'm sure when he gets the chance, he won't let it go. For this reason, I don't think Sampa will let him go on loan next season."

Garnering playing time with the youth team or "Primavera," where only a few make the step up to the senior level, hasn't been a problem. This season, he's been used behind the main striker in a 3-4-3 formation (or 3-4-2-1, depending on your perspective). He has thus added to his skills by becoming a playmaker, though predictably has scored less.

Practicing with the big boys on the first team means he's learning even more. Ferrari teamed up with Cassano in a scrimmage last week and got yelled at by his strike partner when he messed up -- but loved every minute of it.

In fact, Ferrari, part of the U.S.'s under-20 World Cup side last summer in Canada, wishes he would have come to Europe three or four years earlier to hone his game.

Living in a new country has been relatively easy, given Ferrari enjoys traveling and has already done his fair share. He spent a year in Brazil, his mother's homeland, and cracked the youth squad at Cruzeiro, one of the country's most hallowed clubs and the former stomping ground of three-time world player of the year and World Cup winner Ronaldo, among others. There was no special treatment for an American kid -- Ferrari's tryout was on a dirt field, just like the locals.

A few years earlier, when he was 11, Ferrari and his father, Ralph, made their way to Sweden, rented a car and eventually drove around Europe, taking in cities such as Amsterdam, Venice, Milan, Munich and Copenhagen.

Ralph Ferrari turned into a soccer nut when he visited Argentina as an adolescent and got the chance to kick a ball or two with the pros at Boca Juniors. Later he played semi-pro soccer in New York.

"Being raised with all the opportunities to see new things, it was great," the younger Ferrari said. "I really do embrace the chance to see new places. I really enjoy it."

Gabriel Ferrari speaks fluent Portuguese, picked up Spanish through friends in high school, and is now virtually fluent in Italian. (He understood it well before arriving in Genoa.)

Ferrari talks to his parents, who are divorced, on the phone every day, and isn't far away from his paternal grandparents, who live near Genoa.

Italian clubs are notoriously rigid when it comes to diet and off-field activities, which can take some getting used to. Time permitting on weekends, he also enjoys mingling with the locals.

"If we have days off, we might go to a club and hang out, and try to meet some girls," he said.

The rest of the time, Ferrari tries to keep up with current affairs in the U.S. via the Internet, is into books, and doesn't mind video games, either. Just your typical teenager, albeit one that could potentially crack Sampdoria's starting lineup.

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.