THERE’S A SONG by Sud Sound System, a reggae group from the Italian region of Apulia, that begins like this: ‘If you never forget your roots, you’ll be able to respect those of every foreign country. If you never forget where you come from, you’ll be able to value your culture properly.’ Sud Sound System sing their songs in the dialect of Salento, an area which occupies the final part of Apulia, corresponding to the ‘heel’ of Italy.
These two lines are particularly relevant when discussing the life of Fabrizio Miccoli, a Salentino himself and one of the most extraordinary artists to step upon Italian pitches in the post-Roberto Baggio era. The captain’s armband he used to wear at Palermo perfectly embodied the values and rhythm of that song.
Not white, but with the three colours of the Ethiopian flag, hinting at the place where Rastafarianism, intimately linked to reggae music, was born. On the tricolour are also the names of his two children, a big black number 10, and, just to add some more cosmopolitism, the Chinese characters for chuanzhang, which means ‘captain’. Such a pity that the Chinese use that word for boat skippers and not for the captains of team sports, but does it really matter? As a big fan of Sud Sound System, Miccoli has always been particularly sensitive to the words they sing, especially when it comes to one’s roots.
Everybody knows the importance of saudade in football, a Portuguese word denoting a particular kind of melancholic affection for one’s own country, which makes many Brazilians long to see their homeland as frequently as possible. Even if the Italian vocabulary doesn’t have such a word, we can consider saudade a fundamental component of Miccoli’s DNA. The others are brilliance, vision and brazenness.
San Donato di Lecce, the little town close to Lecce where he grew up, is a football factory. Despite having only 5,000 inhabitants, it has given birth to Marco Serra, famous for the goal with which Casertana sent Inter Milan out of the 1991/92 Coppa Italia, to the violent Pasquale Bruno, nicknamed ‘The Animal’ during his Juventus days, and Domenico Progna, who had a modest career in Serie A at Atalanta, Pisa and Bari. By coincidence, the little window of the house where Progna’s sister lived was the very target used by a young Miccoli to test the accuracy of his right foot, much to the dismay of its owner.
Luckily enough, that window was protected by a metal grate, and Miccoli, after hours spent shooting the ball right on that spot, was confident enough to take his ability to a proper pitch. Aged six, he turned up to the local football team and started mimicking Diego Maradona, who he’d seen on TV. Some keepie-uppies and back-heel passes were enough for him to earn the nickname of ‘Lu Maradona’ (The Maradona).
The coach of Delta San Donato, Pasquale Bruno’s father, could do nothing but welcome him into the team, even if he was too small. In order to allow Miccoli to take part in kids’ tournaments, his photo was pasted onto the badge of a player two years older than him, which meant he was formally allowed to start driving rival defenders crazy. Even if it was under the name of Gianluca Luceri.
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In 1992, AC Milan believed it was the right thing to invest 10 million lira on the 13-year-old striker, and brought him to their youth academy. Here, he was able to score 28 times in one season but, after a couple years, the distance from Apulia became an unbearable burden for Fabrizio. The fog and the grey sky above Milan were more than enough to make him take a decision that many would have regretted, leaving Italy’s biggest club to go back to his hometown, where his mother Enrica was waiting with the arms wide open and a plate of ciceri e tria (beans and fried pasta) on the kitchen counter.
After a failed attempt at Lecce, his boyhood team, Miccoli found a new home at Casarano, a little club floating between Serie C1 and Serie D. Being just 40 minutes from home by car, Miccoli re-found the joy of playing that he had often lost by living too far from his roots. Aged 16, he was given his debut in professional football, and he repaid that trust with goals.
Those goals, in the end, were the thing that won him the interest of Ternana in Serie B. He was not a kid anymore; his shoulders were wider than during his Milan spell and allowed him to stay with the red and greens for four seasons, scoring 32 goals in the process.
By that time, Italian powerhouses started noticing that this short Salentino guy had something special. He was powerful yet delicate in his touch, clever yet bold when deciding what to do on the attacking line. These singularities proved instrumental when Juventus decided to bring Miccoli under the Mole Antonelliana in 2002. In his first season in Serie A, on loan to Perugia, Miccoli became top-scorer in the Coppa Italia and guided Serse Cosmi’s team to an unlikely ninth place. It was now time to get back on the mothership.
Although a reserve, Miccoli was able to put together eight goals in the 2003/04 season, plus one in Champions League against Olympiacos, proving a useful alternative to Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet. However, his relationship with the management was far from ideal and, with the purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimović, there was no room for him anymore, and Miccoli was forced to leave Turin for Florence, where newly-promoted Fiorentina were looking for a top striker.
This is what they eventually found as the boy from San Donato had a great season in the purple jersey, before moving to another country for the first time, going to Benfica in the summer of 2005. His Lisbon spell, despite the distance from home, was memorable. He put together just 19 goals in the span of two seasons, four of which came in the Champions League, but managed to find his way into the heart of the Lusitanian supporters, who rubbed their eyes with some regularity before his trickery and considered Miccoli an authentic idol.
It was inevitable that the talented son of San Donato couldn’t stay away from his country for too long. Accordingly, he didn’t think twice when he was given the chance to enjoy the scorching sun of southern Italy. In 2007 he moved to Palermo, with the Sicilians coming off two fifth-placed finishes in a row and qualifying for the UEFA Cup. With the ambitious pink-blacks, in a city just as colourful and warm as his beloved Apulia, Miccoli became a legend.
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During his six seasons in Sicily, he amassed 179 appearances, 81 goals and 49 assists, becoming the most capped player and the top scorer in the history of Palermo. Beyond all these numbers, what remains in the mind of every Serie A enthusiast is how deadly a partnership he formed with Amauri and Edinson Cavani.
Hailed by Palermitans for his loyalty and for being a southerner, respected by every defender he found on his way, Miccoli became the captain in his second year and finally established himself as one of the strongest 10s in the boot-shaped country. Everything was perfect but, as it’s known, each fairytale must inevitably come to an end.
Sadly, the end of his Sicilian adventure was brought about at his own hands, and came in the most dishonourable manner possible. At the end of 2012/13 season, Palermo were relegated after a disgraceful campaign, but the worst was yet to come. By the onset of the summer, an investigation brought to surface Miccoli’s implication with a not-so-clear affair. The Rosanero striker had obtained four SIM cards assigned to as many unaware Palermitans, and had given one of them to Mauro Lauricella, the son of a mafioso on the run, perhaps to allow him to keep in touch with his father, even if this last point wasn’t ascertained.
Life around Miccoli was already heated enough when, a couple of weeks later, something worse was brought to the attention of the whole country. He had asked Lauricella to collect the money that an entrepreneur owed to a former physiotherapist of Palermo, a task allegedly accomplished with violent means.
But what definitely ratified Miccoli’s break-up with the city of Palermo was the content of a telephone tapping in which, talking to the mobster’s son, he described Giovanni Falcone as ‘mud’. Falcone is a magistrate murdered in 1992 with 400 kilograms of explosives placed in a culvert above which his car passed, and is an iconic figure in the fight against the mafia. The words spoken by Palermo’s captain were simply intolerable for every supporter who stick to the principles of legality and, as a consequence, Miccoli could do nothing but leave the city that had made him into one of the most attractive strikers around, bidding farewell in a tearful press conference in which he stated to be “a footballer, not a mafioso”, and expressed his will to take an active part in the anti-mafia organisations managed by Falcone’s sister, Maria.
The stain on his conscience was indelible but, as often happens in football, who you are on the pitch football is all that counts and, for the free-agent Miccoli, offers started to rain in. More than one person must have recommended him to go abroad for a while, and maybe he contemplated the idea, at least until an offer impossible to turn out was received – that of Lecce.
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Jumping down from Serie A to the third tier had never been sweeter. Already an idol for every supporter, Lecce’s executive Antonio Tesoro defined him as “a real ultra” during the presentation. He instantly received the captain’s armband, much to the anger of old captain Guillermo Giacomazzi, who left the club right away.
After an honourable 49 games and 19 goals with the team of his dreams, the striker from San Donato decided it was time to approach the end of his footballing days, although there was still time for one last adventure abroad. ‘Abroad’, in pure Miccoli style, meant the closest possible location, namely Malta, where he played 17 matches in the colours of Birkirkara FC. Not only was the club 30 minutes from home by plane, but its shirt was also decorated with red and yellow stripes, resembling that of his beloved Lecce. Having delighted Maltese football enthusiasts for a few months, he finally hung up his boots in December 2015.
During his long career, Fabrizio Miccoli has earned two monikers: ‘Il Romário del Salento’ and ‘El Pibe de Nardò’, from the name of the city where he was born, just next to San Donato di Lecce, that lacks a hospital. Miccoli shares a short, agile and a rounded physique with both the Brazilian legend Romário and Maradona, paired with a natural predisposition for goal scoring, which make the reasons behind those nicknames pretty clear.
The link with Maradona, in particular, has been suggested since he was a child, and has much to do with a personal infatuation. Sure enough, the most legendary number 10 of all-time has been a major inspiration for Miccoli. He named his son Diego and, in 2010, he bought to an auction an earring that the Italian fiscal police had confiscated from the former Napoli striker, in order to give it back to its owner. Despite the presence of such a role model, the style of ‘El Pibe de Nardò’ has forged into something unique over the years.
The thing that struck people the most was his ability to play fantasy football, served by two perfect feet which were nimble, precise, powerful. If Del Piero gave life to the commonly-used expression in Italy ‘Del Piero-style goal’, then there should be a Miccolian counterpart, for the goalkeepers who have been embarrassed by the gifts of the Apulian talent are far and wide.
With a defender in front of him, the ball on the right foot and in a central position; it takes talent merely to touch the ball to the right and shoot, but it takes something special to do it the Miccoli way, namely without moving the ball, simply using the inside of the boot to fire the most accurate and beautiful of shots that often ended up behind an unsuspecting goalkeeper’s back. It takes a rare kind of genius to invent feints and put them to work moments after they’ve been conceived, like the sci-fi twirl that made the head of Beira Mar’s Ricardo go round and round in 2006. It takes all these things plus a healthy dose of boldness to strike a volley from the centre circle and score the most beautiful screamer the people of Palermo have ever witnessed.
All these things are naturally embedded into Fabrizio Miccoli’s brain, together with occasional homesickness, shards of controversy, and the words of a song which kept playing behind those brown eyes during the length of his career: ‘If you never forget your roots, you’ll be able to respect those of every foreign country. If you never forget where you come from, you’ll be able to value your culture properly.’