AC Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri's assertion on Wednesday that Riccardo Montolivo "is one for the big stages, one of the best Italian midfielders blessed with great skills and athleticism" will have done little to soothe the discomfort Fiorentina fans have felt about their captain for a long time now. Call it ambivalence, mixed feelings, contradictory perspectives. Or downright disdain.
At 26, Montolivo has the honour of already being the skipper of a major club, but the fact is, he probably believes Fiorentina are not such. Last year, his agents approached La Viola's directors to initiate talks over an extension to a contract which runs out in 2012.
Fiorentina were ready to tie him up until 2016 and make him the foundation of their rebuilding efforts, but something changed. Montolivo has since baulked at the terms of the deal and appears unwilling to commit to a club that seems a long way of repeating the exploits of 2009-10. That year, Fiorentina enjoyed a fine Champions League run, doing the double over Liverpool along the way in what the local press, with typically unrestrained over-emphasis, recently termed "the wins all of England still remembers". You can't blame Montolivo for feeling he deserves better, a chance to repeat those glories, and at the same time you can understand the dismay of local fans at seeing that yet another top player seems to regard the Viola as a simple, slippery stepping stone to higher places.
The 2010-11 season was especially difficult for both Montolivo and Fiorentina, even before the verbal volleys between the two sides. The captain missed all of November and December after surgery on an ankle that had bothered him since the World Cup, and had to adjust on the fly as coach Sinisa Mihajlovic chopped and changed the side while different players lost form or, temporarily, the use of a limb following injury.
Having started as a proponent of a 4-2-3-1, where Montolivo manned the right central-midfielder role alongside Cristiano Zanetti (who then joined Brescia in January), Marco Donadel or less frequently Gaetano D'Agostino, Mihajlovic then shifted to a 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 where the captain was first in left midfield, with Donadel or another defensive player in the centre and Valon Behrami on the right.
In mid-March, though, Montolivo went back to the centre, which prompted his coach to say: "I'm the first to use him there. He can change games in that position, where you're required to play it simple, and that's a more difficult skill in football than you'd think."
Another shift to the left occurred in late April before Montolivo again manned the central position in the last couple of games, with the end-of-season clash at already-relegated Brescia being marked by occasional urges from the away end for him to "take off his captain's armband". In the fans' eyes, he no longer deserved to be skipper after going back on his commitment to the club.
Hell hath no fury like a supporter scorned, and you can see where this may lead. Montolivo showed up for pre-season training on Monday as if his future were still with the Viola, but with most of the fans disappointed that head coach Mihajlovic did not join Inter, and the captain being linked with a transfer every other day, this again looks like a troubled season for the great club from Northern Tuscany.
Angel or devil, Montolivo will be a loser anyway by the end of the transfer market. Stay in Florence, and grumbles from the terraces will start as soon as he misplaces a pass - strange as it may seem, he does do that from time to time. Leave for a bigger club, and his name will be filed away with several others under 'Judas'. Never mind that Montolivo was not born in Florence and did not come through the youth system either.
He grew up in Caravaggio, a city of 17,000 located halfway between Milan and Bergamo and best known for providing the nickname of the famous XVI painter whose parents hailed from there. As a kid, Montolivo was spotted by Luigi Rossi, a scout for Atalanta, playing in that breeding ground for generations of Italian footballers, the church playground. He soon became a star in Atalanta's renowned youth teams, where his friends and colleagues were future Serie A players such as Giampaolo Pazzini, Rolando Bianchi and Michele Canini,
He made his first-team debut in Serie B, contributing to Atalanta's promotion to the top flight with four goals in 41 games in 2003-04. However, the Nerazzurri could not retain their Serie A status, and Montolivo joined Fiorentina in the summer of 2005 for €3.5 million in that peculiar form of transfer that allows the buying club to purchase half of a player's registration before deciding whether to acquire the remaining 50% for a set price - a further €2 million in this case.
He had been a trequartista at Atalanta, often paired with a colleague in a 4-3-2-1 that ultimately proved ineffective as his game is not suited to playing with his back to the goal, but when Delio Rossi replaced Andrea Mandorlini Atalanta moved to a 3-5-2. As already noted, Montolivo has also played a lot as left midfielder in a 4-3-3, which he's often said is his favourite position. It's one that allows him to keep the whole pitch in his line of sight and, as a right footer, provide quicker passes, especially towards the forwards, a la Steven Gerrard, his favourite player.
His mentor, Cesare Prandelli, who has now made him a regular for Italy, agreed that Montolivo's best position was left of centre, especially in a 4-3-1-2, in a 2007 interview with monthly magazine Il Nuovo Calcio, but added he could "become a playmaker in the centre of a 4-3-3 once he has learned the timing" and specific skills the position requires.
While still learning the nuances of the game, especially on the defensive side - "He was not used to chasing after opponents as a trequartista," Prandelli has said - he has improved on all aspects of his game in the past couple of years and as a more complete midfielder one can understand his desire to prove himself at a higher level, although that would drive a further nail in the coffin of everyone who wishes clubs such as Fiorentina or Udinese could retain their best players and build a team around them.
With his contract up in 11 months, clubs wishing to acquire him may want to wait until the end of August in the hope of forcing Fiorentina to sell him at a reduced price, but the more this situation drags on, the worse for the Viola and their fans. Mihajlovic, by the way, has already stated he will use a defensive midfielder, not a playmaker, in front of the defence next season, but this would be just a minor tactical change for Montolivo, as we've already seen he likes playing off centre.
Long before Allegri praised him on Wednesday, his situation had fuelled the inevitable speculation that Milan may be his next stop. All it had taken, for a traditionally quote-hungry media, was Milan supremo Adriano Galliani mentioning how the Rossoneri's next great arrival would be a left-sided midfielder with "cerulean (sky blue) eyes".
Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Inter, Arsenal, Juventus have also been linked with Montolivo, though, while the Fiorentina faithful were fuming that the Viola seem to be out of the equation as the midfielder is still training with his team-mates in Cortina in front of just a handful of fans, something unusual in Italy, where thousands of supporters deem it sane to spend days watching 25 men do calisthenics and run around the pitch in mid-July.
As late as Thursday morning, Fiorentina honorary chairman Andrea Della Valle - who's' also the brother and business partner of owner Diego Della Valle - mentioned the Montolivo situation as "a farce... we're waiting to learn what he plans to do" and added further intrigue to his club's torrid summer.
Montolivo has sailed through all of this with his typical stoicism, a trait he himself attributed, in an interview with weekly Guerin Sportivo two years ago, to the maternal side of his Milan-supporting family. His mother, Antje, hails from Kiel in Northern Germany, and in fact Riccardo has a dual passport and speaks perfect German, something that has often been mentioned as a possible, simplistic reason for a move to the Bundesliga.
So far, in actual football terms, speaking German has only served him well once, when his then-team-mate Zdravko Kuzmanovic fooled Chievo's defence by shouting for the ball in that language from a free-kick and receiving it before anyone else could notice.
If you look at the he-said, she-said situation between Montolivo and Fiorentina, though, something seems to have been lost in translation, and despite team-mate Alessio Cerci's jovial remark and self-deprecating claim that he and the his captain have little in common because "Riccardo speaks five languages and visits museums", the feeling is no crash course could restore communication between club and club captain. Fiorentina's squad will be all the poorer because of that.