In 2003, the world was positively inundated with nascent footballing wealth. Both Europe and South America, the traditional purveyors of luxurious and luxuriant talent, were hawking their newest wares – shinier, more iridescent, more opulent than ever before.
Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Antonio Cassano, Robinho, Carlos Tevez, Rafael van der Vaart – the latter of whom won the inaugural Golden Boy award – had been cultivated in academies across both continents and were unveiled to a new level of pageantry. The future of football unfolded before them, a lavish, gilded vision, glittering with innumerable riches; these were boys, barely even men, who were predicted to strive for the highest accolades in the sport for decades to come.
Some would attain the promise hinted at in their youth; others, for one reason or another, would fall by the wayside.
There is one name, however, excluded from the aforementioned list, whom the scouts working on the FIFA video game series venerated above all else. On the 2003 edition, they bestowed upon a 22-year-old Matteo Brighi a potential rating of 97 – a feat which has now passed into internet folklore.
While this could be ascribed to some sort of computational anomaly on behalf of the Canadian programmers responsible for the FIFA video game series, the charter members of the Italian Footballers’ Association agreed in overwhelming numbers. Brighi had been conferred with the prestigious Serie A Young Footballer of the Year award in 2002, where he joined an impressive panoply of luminaries, among them Francesco Totti, Alessandro Nesta and Antonio Cassano.
It was an achievement made all the more remarkable given that only two years previously, the precocious Brighi had been playing in the inauspicious surrounds of Italy’s Serie C2 for his boyhood club Rimini. He would help guide them towards the promotion playoffs, scoring twice during their ultimately unsuccessful attempts to escape Italy’s fourth tier.
It was during this second season at Rimini that Brighi began to display signs that he was not perhaps the typical teenage starlet determined to accrue wealth and fame as quickly as possible. He had been purchased by Turin giants Juventus in the summer of 1999, who intended to develop him in their Primavera side, but the Bianconeri were surprised to discover their latest signing requested leave to stay at Rimini for a further season to allow him to obtain his diploma in accountancy.
“I didn’t feel like coming immediately, I wasn’t ready yet,” said Brighi in 2000. “It was better to wait, and have a little more experience.” Thus, Brighi cut something of a figure of incongruity at Rimini; too talented by far for the level he was playing at, but content to wait until his studies were completed.
When he did arrive in Turin, he did so without fanfare, but with an endearing sense of humility. “It is too early to make judgments, I don’t even know if I am able to stay at these levels. I am here to learn. In a couple of months it will be decided if I can stay in the first team.”
His ascension from the basement of calcio to the lofty penthouse of Serie A initially appeared to have come at too quick a pace. His first season in the black and white of Juventus was tentative: 11 appearances in the league for Carlo Ancelotti’s side was enough to demonstrate his promise, but Brighi was loaned out at the start of the 2001/02 season to Bologna. It was to be a watershed moment.
Free from the unyielding scrutiny of the Bianconeri faithful, an omnipresent vigilance that can make or break a young footballer, Brighi flourished under Francesco Guidolin at Bologna. At the end of the season, his achievements were crowned with the Serie A Young Player of the Year award, but it is easy to overlook the fact that the spry Italian midfielder had failed to score a single goal in the previous campaign.
Sometimes, it is easy to become beguiled by the statistical obsession with modern football: who scored the most goals? Who provided the most assists? Who has the highest xG? But, after a stellar campaign for Bologna, during which the inexperienced Brighi belied his tender age with a catalogue of assured performances in the middle of the pitch, Italian football truly believed they had found their new star.
Though he had not found the net, his all-round game appeared to have no other defects. Almost immediately, as is the nature of football, he was compared to Argentine legend Fernando Redondo by the jubilant Juventus hierarchy. He was composed on the ball, knowing when to release a teammate with a well-timed through pass and when to recycle possession prudently, but what he lacked in the inherent directorial skills of Redondo, he compensated for in his off-the-ball work.
Not content to sit in the fulcrum role an operate as the orchestrator of his team’s attacking intentions, Brighi was a hunter. Acutely aware of geometry, he developed a reputation for seeking out space and exploiting it – whether that was by drifting between lines to create confusion amongst the opposition, or reading the play so expertly as to apply pressure immediately.
In Serie A at the turn of the century, the likes of Edgar Davids, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessio Tacchinardi, Emerson, Clarence Seedorf and Damiano Tommasi were on the prowl in the middle of the park, preying on any sign of weakness in their opponents, but Brighi displayed none. He was, by definition, the complete midfielder.
Thus, at the culmination of the season, and with their latest star in possession of the highest accolade Italian football could bestow upon a young footballer, Juventus recalled Brighi, keen to install him in a midfield which was already swollen with the likes of Davids, Antonio Conte, Tacchinardi and Pavel Nedvěd. However, Brighi’s stay was to be brief.
Despite clinching the Supercoppa Italiana with his parent club, it was decided that his development lay away from Turin. Thus, as was customary in Serie A at the time, Ancelotti sanctioned the sale of 50 percent of Brighi’s registration rights to Parma, with the move becoming immediate.
It was seen as the perfect remedy for a situation entirely of Juve’s own making: they would retain half of Brighi’s rights, receive a decent sum in the process (approximately £5m) and have the chance to bid for all of his rights at the end of the season, dependent on how he performed for Parma. Ideal in theory, but in reality, the enormous snowdrift of expectation that had gathered around the young Italian began to weigh him down. A constant flurry of comparisons with Redondo, not to mention being thrust onto a stage that had bore the considerable might of Totti, Cassano and Nesta, affected the timid Brighi and his development faltered.
Talent can take you only so far in football. Most professionals will lecture everyone on the importance of application. Occasionally, this application manifests itself in what others perceive to be a show of arrogance; the truly top footballers know they are going to make it because they are not shy about putting in the required effort to achieve their goals. In Brighi, however, this innate self-confidence was either lacking or had become inhibited by his introverted demeanour.
While he may have been an unmistakable thunderstorm of energy on the pitch, he was a gentle spring breeze off it. As Ancelotti said of his prodigy: “In some ways he looks like me – he’s a simple, linear player. He should only be less shy.” And as written in La Repubblica, in 2001, “He does not speak but whispers; he moves as if he should always ask for permission.”
As such, two lacklustre seasons with Parma and then Brescia followed, with injury troubles hampering his progress. In the two seasons since he had been named the Serie A Young Football of the Year, Brighi had been surpassed by his contemporaries.
Andrea Pirlo, a man whom he had played alongside in the Italy under-21 set-up, was now a regular at AC Milan and had both Serie A and a Champions League winners medals to his name. Cassano, the man who had both preceded and succeeded him in being named the finest young Italian footballer in Serie A, was in compelling form for Roma and would soon attract the attention of Spanish heavyweights Real Madrid.
Juventus, who had signed Brighi at the age of 18 as part of a concerted drive to secure one of the finest young talents in Europe, had a quandary on their hands, which they solved by dealing with him as if he were a mere commodity. Juventus bought the outstanding 50 percent of his rights they had sold to Parma, thus recalling him to the club where they immediately used him as a makeweight in a deal to sign Emerson from Roma.
Brighi, by now 24 and supposedly at the peak of his powers, travelled south to Rome, only to find that i Giallorossi had no intention of playing him either. Instead, they loaned him to Chievo as part of a deal to secure Simone Perrotta, the man who they had identified in the first place to replace the recently departed Emerson. The transfer merry-go-round complete, Brighi found himself plying his trade for Chievo.
By now, the furore that had surrounded him following his transfer to Juventus at such a young age had died down, and the reserved midfielder found a semblance of stability in his ever-shifting world. For three seasons straight he was loaned to Chievo, where his assured performances in even helped the Venetian club qualify for the Champions League.
Then, once i Gialloblu were relegated, he settled into a comfortable career in the employ of Roma, where the burden of expectation that followed him around in his formative years was eased. It was during this time that the notoriously media-shy Brighi gave journalists an insight into his career thus far.
It would transpire that Brighi possessed a disposition utterly at odds with his contemporaries. Despite possessing the dark, brooding good looks that the likes of Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta profited from, Brighi preferred to shun the limelight. Clubs, parties, modelling gigs – none of these were of any concern.
Rather, he preferred less ostentatious past times: reading, attending concerts and dinners with friends. During an interview in 2013, he expressed his distaste for the opulent lifestyles some footballers choose to lead, one which he considered removed them from the supporters in the stands. “I like to work, not talk,” he once told Sky Italia. “Other players talk and sell themselves, certainly better than I do. I don’t blame them for it. It’s just not me.”
It is thus that, in spite of his promising beginning, Brighi was content with a career minus the trappings of the kind of glory he was predicted to enjoy. Following four-and-a-half more years in the capital, during which time he collected a runners-up medal with Roma, Brighi left the past behind him and embarked on a nomadic existence, turning out for the likes of Atalanta, Torino, Sassuolo, Bologna, Perugia and Empoli in the twilight of his career.
Much was made of why he never attained the heights expected of him. Some, like the great Marcello Lippi, bemoaned the enormous pressure he was put under far too early. “From the human point of view he is a splendid boy, and from the technical point of view he is one of those diligent midfielders that every trainer would want to have. To my warning, at the beginning of his career, he was praised so excessively that too many expectations were created around him.”
Despite enjoying a humble career, you do not have to hunt too hard to find that Brighi is still a man upon whom so many of his contemporaries relish lavishing praise. Long-time Roma midfielder Damiano Tommasi, an integral fixture of the 2000/01 title-winning side, opined of him: “He’s more talented than I am. I just got the chance to play in a great team and win something special. I hope Matteo gets the same chance.”
Cruelly, Matteo Brighi never did get that chance. The young boy from Rimini, who seemed so at odds with so many unpalatable facets of football, has been without a club since 2018, and now, at the age of 38, it seems that time has finally been called on the career of the man who was boldly predicted to be the best footballer in the world.
By Josh Butler @Joshisbutler90