How Sassuolo’s Ciccio Caputo, and his remarkable journey, inspired the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic

How Sassuolo’s Ciccio Caputo, and his remarkable journey, inspired the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic

Early June 2020: warm summer rays start to heat the asbestos roofs of old tenement buildings in the northern outskirts of Rome, which gently fade into a yellowish canvas pointed with gracious villas as one heads towards the countryside.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic being in its final stages – the lockdown had been lifted two weeks earlier – almost all balconies and porches are still adorned with two things: an Italian flag, a poignant reminder of a hastily-recalled patriotism, and a piece of white cloth with a hand-drawn rainbow emerging from two clouds, paired with the phrase “Andrà tutto bene” (‘Everything will be alright’).

It was exactly the same all over Italy, not just around the capital, since that very phrase had been sweeping the country for the past three months under the form of a hashtag. Facebook-savvy parents with children all absorbed into the careful design of the aforementioned white flags, TV presenters, music stars live-streaming on Instagram, even on-duty nurses and doctors: nobody could refrain from sharing the #AndràTuttoBene hashtag in one way or another.

As silly as it may sound to keep repeating that everything will be alright while columns of military trucks full of coffins were leaving the city of Bergamo to relieve local cemeteries, the popular hashtag must be credited as a mantra that accompanied millions of Italians through dark days spent between the fear to go outside and the desperation for an epidemic curve that kept soaring hour after hour.

It was a way to keep kids in the know about what was happening without letting the true scale of such a tragedy oppress their young minds and, ultimately, a stubborn source of optimism that illuminated the darkest hour as gracefully as those hand-made flags brought a much-needed touch of colour on the façade of crumbling public housing buildings.

This message of hope, which inspired many to carry on through the roughest times since the end of World War Two, came from someone who was just perfect for the task of reassuring everybody that things will eventually work out; someone whose life has been all about refusing to give up.

Francesco ‘Ciccio’ Caputo was born 33 years ago in the southern region of Apulia. He’s from a town near Bari called Altamura, mostly famous for the namesake naturally-leavened bread made from re-milled durum wheat semola. The nickname “Ciccio” is typically reserved for people named Francesco, but not all of them can sport it in such a natural way, which is the reason why nobody ever heard of Francesco ‘Ciccio’ Totti or Francesco ‘Ciccio’ Acerbi.

“Ciccio” was specifically created for those Francescos who feel like a cousin, a classmate or an old friend whenever you run into them, no matter who they are. It’s for those Francescos who favour horizontal relationships over vertical ones, regardless of their own status. In a word, it’s for someone like Francesco Caputo.

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“If you trust me, just play one more year at Toritto. There will be other chances. I promise you.” It was the last resort for coach Onofrio Colasuonno to try to persuade 16-year-old Caputo not to leave football (and his seventh-tier team) forever. A few months earlier, his trial with higher-ranked Grosseto had gone fairly well, and he was ready to join their youth sector.

However, Colasuonno had blocked everything because he didn’t deem it fair that Grosseto demanded €800 from their boys’ families every month. Ciccio didn’t take it well and ceased to show up at training sessions. He preferred going to work with his father, a bricklayer.

But with just a few words and a hug, Colasuonno seemed to pull the right strings and, despite the discouraging perspective of going back to little Toritto, Caputo swallowed that pill and started to work his way up the football ladder. That season, he scored 12 goals to help his team earn an unlikely promotion.

In 2006, another good chance finally presented itself. It wasn’t Grosseto, but at least Real Altamura allowed Ciccio to jump up to the fifth tier, and the name of this young striker who’d always known how to pierce goalkeepers slowly became a familiar one among local football enthusiasts.

As a result, at the end of the season, Serie C2 club Melfi decided to gamble on him. Ciccio sensed they envisaged a full-back role for him, though, and didn’t sign the contract. Luckily enough, Noicattaro soon came forward and offered him the opportunity to play in Serie C2 without compromises.

The overall level there was much higher than he’d experienced before. Caputo was not Apulian football’s next Antonio Cassano but was determined to make the most out of that opportunity. His hard work, smart positioning, and will to help teammates retrieve the ball swiftly turned him into a player that coach Pino Giusto couldn’t do without, netting 11 times in 29 appearances in the process.

His performances caught the eye of an emerging coach who would have loved to fit Caputo into his exciting offensive schemes. His name was Antonio Conte, he was in charge of Bari, and he was destined to become one of the finest managers of his generation. In 2008, Ciccio finally made his Serie B debut with the shirt of the club he supported as a kid.

Compared with Noicattaro, the second tier of the Italian football pyramid was something else. And yet, it looked like it was exactly the same for Caputo, humble but resolute to step his game up just as he’d been doing over the past five years, season after season. And he didn’t fail.

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In October, he scored his first hat-trick versus Grosseto, the team he could have been a part of. “A movie? What movie?” replied Ciccio to a journalist with a soft spot for clichés when asked about the hat-trick. “This is not a movie, this is real.” He bagged another seven that season, which was remarkable for a player coming from Serie C2. The Cockerels were promoted to the top tier but he was loaned out to Salernitana.

He went back to Bari in 2010 and was finally handed not only his top-flight debut, but also the joy of slotting in against Cesena on 28 November. In that moment, Caputo was on the roof of his personal world, but the fairy tale of the boy from Altamura who went from the seventh tier to a Serie A goal in five years was just too good to be true. In January he left again, this time for Serie B contender Siena, still on loan. At the end of the season, Bari were relegated. His downward spiral had started after only a little peep into the Garden of Eden.

He found comfort in the arms of Bari supporters, becoming the team’s captain in 2012 and establishing himself as one of the best strikers in Serie B. That was until 2013, when he was found guilty of passive involvement (misprision) in a betting scandal that shook the foundation of Italian football. Consequently, he was forced to miss the entire 2013/14, before being cleared of all charges in 2016, when it was already too late.

For the second time in his life, Caputo thought about hanging up his boots. His wife Anna Maria and Bari sporting director Guido Angelozzi, among the few to believe in his innocence, strived to keep him on the straight and narrow, but the whole matter took a toll on the Apulian striker’s career. Nothing was the same upon his return on the pitch.

Burdened with the pressure of a city disappointed by the conduct of its favourite child, his performances lost their shimmer. Unable to score as regularly as before, his nickname quickly turned into “Ciuccio” (dunce) and echoed in Caputo’s ears as he approached the exit door at Bari. 

It was time to start all over again. The perfect place to do it was Virtus Entella. There, he quickly recovered his scoring habits but, as years went by, his career started to look like that of nothing more than a solid second-tier player. A player like so many others; one who nobody outside of his teams’ supporters remembers; one of the hundreds who manage to reach Serie A after many sacrifices and a bit of luck but can’t stay there for more than a few months.

For some, he’d become one of those ex-pros who spend the rest of their days running a small football academy in some unknown sun-drenched town, thinking that their four appearances in the top flight are enough for parents to entrust them with their children and open up their wallets.

“My first and only Serie A goal is a sweet memory, but it’s a distant one,” recalled Caputo in an interview prior to his first-tier comeback, his bitter smile and sad eyes betraying his frustration. There was still time for one last try, though – one final chance to be remembered. But he had to be quick, for the opportunities that life gives to 30-year-olds with a meagre four months of Serie A experience are rare.

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Caputo’s last train out of the obscurity had the name of Empoli. The Serie B side welcomed him in 2017 to chase their promotion dreams. His new Tuscan supporters were not disappointed: Empoli reached Serie A and the striker from Altamura won the top-scorer award with 26 goals. At 31, he was finally ready to make the top flight his hunting ground. 

In the 2018/19 season, he played every minute in Serie A and the Coppa Italia; 39 consecutive games from the start without ever being substituted. He even managed to score 16 goals, which is impressive considering that it was his quasi-first experience in the top flight and he played with a team that didn’t manage to avoid relegation.

In the process, he became an idol not just to Empolesi but to every calcio lover, thanks largely to his down-to-earth, not to mention his stunning price-per-goal ratio in fantasy football. Meanwhile, Caputo also found the time to start producing Birra Pagnotta, an Altamura bread-flavoured beer that inspired his iconic “have a pint” celebration.

Besides all this, Ciccio Caputo is also a great striker and, since he stepped into Serie A again, he’s scored with greater regularity than many of his more illustrious and better-paid colleagues from bigger teams. The quality of his touch and his dribbling, definitely among his weak points as a young player, have greatly improved over the years and, together with his eye for goal, they persuaded Sassuolo to offer him a contract to remain in Serie A following Empoli’s relegation.

Caputo, for his part, didn’t disappoint his new fans, having an impressive 13 imaginary pints before Italian football entered its long coronavirus-induced coma.

Two of them came on 9 March 2020, when 16 million people in northern Italy had already entered lockdown as Sassuolo beat Brescia in the very last game before the rest of the country was shut down as well. In the dying moments of the first half, Caputo stopped the ball with his right foot ten metres away from the goal, standing right on the offside line. Before Brescia defenders could even notice, he’d already put it past Jesse Joronen with his other foot.

After a while, the Apulian striker was running towards the technical area, carefully avoiding contact with his teammates, not because of sanitary dispositions, about which nobody knew much back then, but simply because he wanted to grab something just as meaningful as the path that had brought him to that empty stadium, on that night, with that black-and-green shirt.

That thing was a piece of paper with a few words on it. After fiddling for a while, Ciccio finally managed to unfold it and show it to the camera, so that every Italian could see his calm, reassuring eyes and the hand-written message below them: “Andrà tutto bene, restate a casa.” Everything will be alright, stay home,

By Franco Ficetola @Franco92C14

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