Following Fiorentina’s extraordinary 7-1 victory over Roma in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia, La Viola faithful enthusiastically anointed their newest hero, Federico Chiesa. The effervescent 21-year-old winger, in only his third season of professional football, had been rampant against a capital outfit that had reached last year’s Champions League semi-finals.
His pace and clever movement saw him score twice within the first 18 minutes as Fiorentina brushed a turgid Roma aside. Chiesa’s first was a neat near-post finish following a blind-side run; the second, a deft chip over the goalkeeper after springing Roma’s offside trap. The hat-trick was completed late on with a sharp half-volley.
With Fiorentina through to the semi-finals, Chiesa’s tally stood at five goals in two games. In the next round against Atalanta the following month, he would extend it to six in three games. Fiorentina’s charge towards the final bears striking hallmarks to their unstoppable march to the 1996 crown – and Chiesa’s breathtaking goal-scoring run reminiscent of a long-haired Argentine who single-handedly carried the class of ’96 to glory.
Despite only being 21-years-old, Chiesa is a familiar name to every red-blooded Florentine. It’s as though history is repeating itself within the purple-clad walls of the Artemio Franchi. There is a succulent sense of déjà vu every time his name and number is announced on matchday, for to fully understand the story of how Chiesa came to be christened Fiorentina’s newest darling, we have to go back to a balmy autumn afternoon 16 years prior.
It was 30 September 2002, and Fiorentina lined up against Venezia in front of an unsettled home crowd. The home fans’ patience had been slowly dwindling following a rotten start to the season that had seen Fiorentina lose three of their opening four games. With Christian Panucci’s 87th-minute winner fresh in Viola minds, tensions ran high, but after only five minutes of play, talismanic forward Enrico Chiesa – bought two years prior to supplement club legend Gabriel Batistuta, and then subsequently fill the void the Argentine left – opened the scoring with a crisp volley following Nuno Gomes’ knockdown. The Artemio Franchi erupted in equal parts relief and jubilation as Chiesa wheeled away in celebration.
After recording 22 league goals in the 2000/01 season, Chiesa had gone some way to filling the Batistuta-shaped hole in Fiorentina hearts. With him up front, ably supplied by the inimitable Rui Costa, Fiorentina were surviving the departure of their greatest ever player.
Thus, with the dawning of a new season in 2001, Chiesa helped himself to five goals in his opening five games and seemed set to continue the form that had resulted in him finishing third in the Capocannoniere. Little did La Viola faithful know it, but his goal against Venezia would be the final goal Chiesa senior would score for the club.
Carried off on a stretcher with what later transpired to be knee ligament damage, Enrico would miss the rest of the campaign, and on that bright day in September, Fiorentina’s hopes died. His absence would prove catastrophic. They would suffer relegation for the first time in a decade and a mass exodus, enforced by financial troubles, soon followed. At the end of the disastrous campaign, Chiesa would leave the club. He would never kick a ball for them again.
That was until 2016, nearly 14 years later. The Chiesa magic, which had been so tragically sundered in its prime, re-emerged in the boots of Enrico’s son, Federico.
When you consider the achievements of his father, Chiesa junior’s hat-trick against Roma seems almost inevitable. Though it propelled him into the consciousness of football fans across Europe, he was already coveted in Florence. He was the footballing prodigy they had waited for. Through all the hardships the club had endured since his father had scored that volley against Venezia – the relegation, the bankruptcy, the ignominy of playing in Italy’s fourth tier, the match-fixing scandal – they had remained hopeful that like their club, a new talisman would rise from the ashes.
Christian Rigano had inspired them on their voyage up through Serie C and Serie B; Luca Toni had assumed the mantle briefly during his prolific three-year stay; while Riccardo Montolivo was Mr Fiorentina without ever setting the world alight.
But in Chiesa, Fiorentina finally have a player capable of changing their fortunes for the better – and his ties to the club run as deep as any purple-blooded Florentine. In the post-Baggio, Del Piero and Totti days, Italy have struggled to replace the footballers who transcended the limits of their respective clubs. Since Totti, only Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano looked like they could inspire Italy to repeat its former glory, but both fell by the wayside, products of the enormous pressure the world of football can so often cruelly apply.
Yet, for Chiesa, the route into football, which is for so many young talents a single-minded venture, was a circuitous one, fraught with uncertainty. In his youth, despite the genes inherited from his illustrious father, it at one point seemed that a career in the sport would pass him by. His slight build and under-developed technique saw him relegated to train with the younger age groups as he made only a single appearance for Fiorentina under-15s.
Fortunately for the youngster, he was guided by a wise hand. Enrico insisted his son gain an education, wholly aware that the sport his son was attempting to break into is a fickle business. Federico was enrolled at the International School of Florence where lessons are taught in English, not Italian. Equipped for the wider world and able to access opportunities beyond his monolinguistic peers, he continued his studies at the Faculty of Motor Sciences. Had football not worked out, he expressed a desire to become a physicist.
After working his way through the youth ranks while still maintaining his studies, Chiesa was promoted to the under-19 squad upon completion of his degree. However, his progression as a footballer was still occurring at a modest rate. In the 2014/15 season, he scored once in seven appearances for the Primavera side. It was a chance change in academy tactics that saw him make his breakthrough as he was moved from centre-forward to the right wing.
Possessing the pace and industrious nature that made his father famous, Federico soon broke into the Fiorentina first team, occupying one of the wide positions in a 4-2-3-1 system. In a relatively short time span, he went from struggling striker to rampant winger, troubling defences with his intelligent running and direct dribbling.
By no means the finished product, Chiesa developed in his first two full seasons at La Viola, but was still prone to bouts of inconsistency and rash decision-making. At times, he was guilty of dribbling into trouble, failing to get his head up at key moments to offload the ball. In all, he registered ten goals in 72 appearances and contributed seven assists across both campaigns.
But the 2018/19 season has seen him blossom into a footballer now venturing onto the radars of Europe’s elite. His talent hasn’t been confined to the 7-1 thrashing of Roma alone. Already, he has scored more goals than in his two previous seasons combined and provides incredible dynamism in a Fiorentina side that has, for the most part, been failing to meet expectations.
As is often the case with Fiorentina, early-season hopes that they might finally make a genuine assault on the higher echelons of Serie A have since fizzled out. Yet, just like his father before him, and Batistuta before that, Federico Chiesa has captured the imagination of Florentines, offering glimmers of excitement, a route to shimmering glory, in an otherwise glum landscape.
He has since made his full debut for an Italy team very much in transition. After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia – the first time since 1958 – the Italian FA entrusted the much-needed rebuild to Roberto Mancini via Dino Baggio. Alongside the sudden emergence of Nicolò Zaniolo at Roma and Moise Kean at Juventus, Chiesa presents Italy’s hopes for the future: hungry and diligent, but also capable of moments of enormous quality.
It would be unfair to liken him to his father – who once said you only become a Serie A player once you have played 300 games – and it would be unfairer still compare him to Baggio, Del Piero and Totti, but Chiesa possesses such potential as has not been seen in Italy since Antonio Cassano.
In contrast, Cassano, who was plucked from small-time Bari at the age of 19 by defending champions Roma, developed a crippling ego problem that would hamper his extraordinary talent. Ever at odds with senior figures of authority, his career never truly hit the heights his talent demanded.
For Chiesa, though, a level head and a diligent nature has already set him in good stead. He may not have the innate technical ability that was evident in Cassano from an early age, but his determination to make the most of his talents has contributed to his success.
He is being measured and polished by Florentines to assume the mantle of the jewel in their crown, but in glittering so brightly he inevitably attracts the avaricious gazes of Europe’s affluent elite. A traditional wide-man in a world full of inverted wingers, Chiesa’s pace, trickery and movement aren’t exactly unique, but what sets him apart from the rest is his willingness to do the dirty work: the tracking back, the harrying of opposition full-backs, the desire to sacrifice his attacking instincts for the greater benefit of his team.
He’s a Guardiola winger – direct, quick, and looking to get to the by-line for a pull-back – crossed with a winger in the Mourinho mould – industrious, disciplined and selfless. It’s an intriguing blend of ability and attitude. It remains to be seen where his footballing future lies, whether the path he will tread will wind up and down the avenues of Florence for years to come, or whether he will leave behind the sun-drenched red roofs of his home city for climes further afield.
With his aptitude for English, perhaps the prosperous shores of the Premier League await, and Federico will take the Chiesa name to places Enrico never ventured. His style of play – direct, intelligent and dynamic – would suit the English game, but, like Cristiano Ronaldo before him, Chiesa will find first-hand that the theatrics that inhabit his game won’t be so readily tolerated.
It would seem felicitous then for Federico to continue the Chiesa legacy that was robbed of Fiorentina long before its time.
For many years, the name Chiesa only meant one thing: Enrico. The man who was an integral part of the glittering Parma side of the 1990s that won the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia. The man who lifted Fiorentina spirits in the post-Batistuta wasteland. The man who kept lowly Siena in Serie A for three straight seasons. The last Italian to score twice in his first two international caps.
Yet, it is not with melancholy that Enrico begins to relinquish his grasp on the Chiesa name. It may be early in his fledgeling career, but Federico is crafting new chapters in the Chiesa tale.
By Josh Butler @JoshisButler90