The eye of the tiger: how Stefano Sorrentino become one of his generation’s most underrated goalkeepers

The eye of the tiger: how Stefano Sorrentino become one of his generation’s most underrated goalkeepers

It’s a story akin to that of an ageing prizefighter on a quest for one more rodeo. An old dog craving to learn new tricks, dripping sweat and absorbing pain while the next crop of superstars punch their tickets to stardom. Chiselled, shredded and built like mythological gods.

They are billed as new shiny toys of promoters around the circuit. Many believe time has made its choice on the prizefighter, but they refuses to call off their search for one final showdown. There’s a fire inside kept alive by an endless burning log of hunger and determination.

Stefano Sorrentino refused to see a light at the end of the football tunnel. A vintage Mustang fine-tuned and maintained to hang with the Aston Martins and Teslas. If the engine still roars, there is fuel to hit the road for one more ride. The sight of the pitch continued to ignite a childlike enthusiasm inside.

Retirement was not on the agenda nor did he let the thought of it hover over his conscience; a word, at least for a moment, axed swiftly from his vocabulary. Conventional wisdom says to walk away if the heart is no longer in it but Sorrentino’s heart beat fervently, unwilling to detach from the position his body and soul was married to his entire career. 

When Chievo confirmed their permanent residency in the cellar of the Serie A table at the conclusion of the 2018/19 season, uncertainty consumed the air on if the Flying Donkeys’ relegation would also signal the ageing shot-stopper’s farewell to the game. His ten-year stay in the top-flight had reached an expiry date. Serie B was the pill no liquid could make easy to swallow.

However, as goodbyes were waved, and heartstring-tugging social media posts were drawn up in honour of the club he played over 200 games for, Sorrentino was not ready to trade in his gloves for a post-career life of normalcy and tranquillity. It was his addictive thirst to the chaotic nature and adrenaline of standing between the two wooden pillars that kept him yearning for more. As long as he had a seat at the table, he would continue to feast on the full-course meal of pressure, responsibility and unpredictability.

Everyone has their calling – destiny uncovered through experiences mapped out over the course of one’s life. Sorrentino may not have known it during his childhood, but it only became a question of time before the cards would fall into place for the Cava de Tirreni native to make his living inside the 18-yard area. The talent was in his genes and flowing in his veins.

He idolised his father, Roberto Sorrentino, a former goalkeeper in the 1980s and ex-captain of Catania who spent the majority of his career between Serie B and Serie A. In his eyes, a real-life superhero lived under the same roof, one who had the privilege to stand across the pitch from the legendary Diego Maradona.

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Watching his father face the biggest stars in calcio every week sparked a desire inside of him to one day follow in his footsteps. When the elder Sorrentino left Cagliari to sign with Bologna as his career was winding down, it was at the same time Stefano embarked on a footballing journey of his own in the Rossoblu academy.

There is an age-old adage that says “nobody chooses to become a goalkeeper”. It’s a thankless role reserved for the lonesome outsiders, banished into isolation in a land of their own and thrown to the wolves to fend for themselves. Courage and madness complimenting each other, the entry fees to take ownership of the position.

Unbeknownst to a young Stefano, it would be those traits which would later mould his infectious personality. Goalkeeping was in his DNA – he just didn’t know it yet. The starting point of his origin story was his early beginnings as an attacker, the dream of scoring goals instead of preventing them. It was not until a single invitation and opportunity would change the course of his future career. 

Needing to urgently fill a goalkeeping void for an upcoming tournament, youth coach at Bologna, Rino Rado, took a chance on Sorrentino and asked him to don the gloves for the team. Thrusting an outfield player in goal, regardless of the situation, is always a risk that could go south very quickly, but despite the uncertainty, this was a gamble with a life-changing payoff.

Sporting the captain’s armband as per his sole request to emulate his father, Sorrentino exceeded all expectations in his performance and, by the final game, was voted as the tournament’s best goalkeeper. A seed had been planted in his mind that day. Going forward, those gloves would stay firmly strapped on his wrists.

While the role switch was definitive, it was far from the future his own father Roberto had envisioned for him. In an interview with TuttoMercatoWeb, he admitted his reluctance towards the idea of his son becoming a goalkeeper: “When they asked me why I did not want my son playing in goal, I responded that there is already a goalkeeper in the family and it was best to leave it that way.”

It wouldn’t be too long before Sorrentino moved on from Bologna to his next destination in northern Italy. Aware of the talent brewing inside of him, Juventus snapped up the Campania native, initiating the lengthy road ahead towards the promised land of first-team football.

The percentage of youth footballers who break through every category to feature in the senior squad of their parent club is not significantly high. Many high-calibre players are either loaned out to gain experience under their belt or find themselves in limbo once they outgrow the primavera and opportunities dry up at home. Sorrentino holds no regrets on his time in Turin. Opening up on his experience to Soccer Magazine, he said: “I went through the whole course of the youth academy at Juventus. I went on loan for a year at Lazio and then returned to Juventus. I do not have any regrets. I was a young boy and I made the most of my opportunities.”

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Ironically, it was the Bianconeri’s rivals Torino who would pull the trigger to give Sorrentino his Serie A debut during the 2000/01 season. Coming off a remarkable loan spell at Varese in Serie C1 where he started 30 games and collected 14 clean sheets, time had finally arrived for him to join the first-team.

Although he had been second choice behind Luca Bucci, the spotlight came beaming down on the Cava de Tirreni native in December 2001 against Lecce. The childhood dream of emulating his father at the pinnacle of Italian football had come to life. When the relegation guillotine dropped down on Torino at the end of the 2002/03 campaign, Sorrentino kept a firm grip on the starting job for the Granata in Serie B.

Outperforming his peers on the pitch, he finished with a league-best 18 clean sheets to rocket Torino right through to the playoffs and towards a promotion-gaining victory over Perugia in the final. Unfortunately, the achievement was bittersweet as financial issues stripped them of their promotion, creating an exodus of players in the summer that included Sorrentino himself.

In his mid-20s and hungry for top-flight football, his leap of faith decision to depart the peninsula took him on a new adventure in Greece with AEK Athens. He could not have asked for a better debut season, spearheading the Kitrinomavri to a Champions League spot following a second-place finish in the league. Sorrentino was slowly opening the eyes of many, his performances speaking volumes every matchday. The best, however, was to come in the 2006/07 Champions League group stag, when the shot-stopper would forever be etched in the memory of the AEK faithful. 

Having walked from the San Siro mulling over a 3-0 loss to AC Milan, who went on to hoist their seventh title, AEK welcomed the Rossoneri inside the boiling cauldron of the Olympic Stadium in Athens for the return fixture. A boisterous yellow and black flag-bearing army awaited the Serie A powerhouse.

What could only be called a serata magica, Sorrentino delivered a phenomenal match-winning performance that stunned the eventual champions. No matter the threat on goal, there was no key capable of unlocking Sorrentino that night. It was to be a frustrating shift at the office for Filippo Inzaghi, having the door slammed shut on two one-on-one situations and a half-turn strike on the angle. If three close-range stops had not sucked the air out of the Rossoneri’s tyres, the fourth save was the piercing nail in the rubber. 

Delivered from the left flank, Marek Jankulovski floated a ball right into the box for Inzaghi to connect with, clipping it towards the far post. You’d be forgiven to expect nothing but an equaliser, yet Sorrentino had other ideas. Diving backwards and swinging his top hand towards the ball, the contact was not clean but was enough to send it spiralling back into play and immediately cleared from the area. A monumental victory and sensational evening for the Italian shot-stopper who became the catalyst in AEK’s qualification to the knockout rounds.

Following two terrific seasons in Greece, a short layover at LaLiga outfit Recreativo preceded a return to the homeland, joining Chievo in 2008. His move back to his stomping ground was inevitable. There were blank pages needed to be written in his story. Unfinished business with an old friend – Italy was the only destination on his radar.

Order  |  Calcio II

His experience abroad shaped him into the goalkeeper he would grow to be. In his five seasons as the last line of defence, Sorrentino personified consistency. A fearless approach to defending the goal, courageous and decisive when marauding off his line to shut down attackers in his sight. His positioning never compromised, staying true to the art form of Italian goalkeeping of technique over flash and acrobatics. A born-leader and a humble professional, he recorded double digits in clean sheets in four out of the five seasons. Sorrentino would steer the ship to safety year after year when many believed Chievo had overstayed their welcome in Serie A.

By 2013, Sorrentino moved to Palermo on a permanent deal following a six-month loan stint, only for his new adventure in Sicily to start back in Serie B. Their tenure in the second tier would be short-lived as Giuseppe Iachini’s Rosanero steamrolled through the campaign to reclaim their place in the top-flight. An impenetrable Sorrentino backstopped Palermo to a league-best 28 goals conceded, and while celebrations were in order for the promotion achievement, his hands needed to be gripped firmly onto the handlebars of a roller-coaster ready to make its ascent.

The 2014/15 season created a sense of hope for Palermo. With the youthful injection of Paulo Dybala, Andrea Belotti and Franco Vázquez, they exceeded expectations and finished in 11th, just outside the upper half of the table. Near the tail-end of the season, Sorrentino was gifted the captain’s armband, an honour of great responsibility which married perfectly with his character.

Optimism consumed the air for 2015/16, but it was more misery than fortune that followed. By November, Iachini was given his marching orders by trigger-happy owner Maurizio Zamparini, kick-starting a revolving door of coaches, each lasting just as long as the previous. Despite the ever-changing bench, Sorrentino exemplified the role of captain, pouring his heart in every performance to keep the Sicilians’ head above water throughout the course of the season.

The sacking of Iachini left the entire squad in limbo, paving the way for the arrival of Davide Ballardini. It wouldn’t be long before the volcano would erupt within the club, causing a major rift between manager and players. Rumours swirled of an unrest amidst the crisis plaguing the Rosanero and the boiling point would be reached on the eve of a crucial game against Verona.

A decision to bench Sorrentino sparked a heated confrontation between the captain and coach, rupturing any relationship Ballardini had with the squad. Words were shouted and, by matchday, Ballardini had refused to speak to the players before, throughout and even after the emotional victory at the Bentegodi. They were actions which did not sit well with Sorrentino, who was vocal on the row that monopolised the headlines: “The team played and won alone, preparing in the best possible way for a game that was worth six points. I am the captain. A few of my teammates are old enough to be my kids and I will not allow anyone to question the moral integrity and professionalism of this team. Whoever does will have to deal with me.”

The rift was deep enough for Ballardini to be sacked in January. Both men would later put their differences aside when he was rehired in April to fight for the common goal of saving Palermo from a one-way ticket back to Serie B. By the skin of their teeth, the Sicilians survived the drop by one point above Carpi. Ballardini and Sorrentino have since put their dispute behind them, making peace and closing the book on their past issues.

For any athlete deep into their 30s, thoughts of riding off into the sunset can start to brew in the mind. For Sorrentino, it meant his best was yet to come. Palermo was a turbulent period and, in the summer of 2016, an opportunity to rejoin Chievo presented itself. What could have easily been a last hoorah ended up being a rejuvenation for the veteran shot-stopper.

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At 37, he was as sharp and determined as ever, channelling the ‘Eye of the Tiger’. More than just a saying, it symbolises everything about the man he is and the values he represents: a never-say-die attitude, an unquestionable work ethic, an unshakeable focus. The face of the apex predator imprinted on his gloves, staring right back at him. In an interview with Italian publication Athleta, Sorrentino explained the origins and meaning behind the motto: “It all started with Rocky, a movie and myth deeply rooted inside of me. Never be satisfied, always strive for something more, searching to improve through sacrifice and sweat. The Eye of the Tiger is all of this.”

Underrated is an understatement. Never one to crave the spotlight, his heroics would fly under the radar every week, yet they deserved to capture everyone’s attention. In back-to-back seasons, Chievo rode to wave to safety with consecutive 14th-place finishes. For the 12th time in his career, Sorrentino reached the ten-plus clean sheet mark, however there would be one achievement to come that would stand tall above the rest.

On the opening matchday at Bentegodi, Chievo welcomed the defending champions Juventus who had just brokered a blockbuster transfer for Cristiano Ronaldo during the summer transfer window. There were high expectations for the Portuguese superstar to fire on all cylinders from kick-off but on that day, Sorrentino became his bête noire.

No matter the power or the angle of the strike, Ronaldo couldn’t crack Sorrentino and the frustration was in plain sight. When a penalty was awarded to Juventus, it was written in stars for Ronaldo to hammer it home. Unfortunately for him, Sorrentino tracked the strike’s flight to goal and parried away the effort. It was a special moment for the Chievo custodian who later received praised from Ronaldo on their walk to the changing rooms after the final whistle. No other goalkeeper in the Serie A has since had the fortune to stop Ronaldo from the spot, an honour reserved solely for Sorrentino himself.

It could be considered as the singular bright spot in an overall bleak and disappointing campaign. Bottom of the totem pole and relegated to Serie B, Chievo crashed out of the top tier. It would also signal the end of Sorrentino’s time in Verona, accepting to move on in hopes of finding one more ride with a Serie A club at 40 years young.

In over 630 professional games, 363 of which were in Serie A, Sorrentino gave 100 percent of his heart, soul and body to the game, a warrior guarding his castle with honour and pride regardless of the jersey he wore. Although there were no significant offers on the table for Sorrentino to continue playing on as a starter, he was not fully ready to depart the game just yet.

In January 2020, he signed to play as a striker under his father at Cervo in the Seconda Categoria, the eighth tier of Italian football. Sporting the number 11 kit on his debut, the former goalkeeper capped off the game in the most romantic of ways. Level at 1-1 against Riva Ligure, Sorrentino was searching for the best possible position inside the area as a throw-in was tossed in his direction. Fighting off his marker, he hopped up and headed the ball towards the far post, watching it sink into the back of the net. He could not have scripted it any better.

When interviewed after the victory by media outlet Riviera24Sport, Sorrentino summed up his experience with truth and humility: “The emotions are always the same. To be able to do this on the pitch and to do the most beautiful thing in the world, it does not have a price.” Like he had done his entire career, Stefano Sorrentino treated the game with the love and respect he believes it rightfully deserves.

By Roberto Grosso @RGrosso84

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