By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
"When I was told about it, I started to cry," said Riccardo Saponara, explaining his immediate response to the news he was being signed by AC Milan. "For me, Milan are football, and Kaka has always been my idol."
The 21-year-old attacker was snapped up by the Rossoneri this week off the back of a superb run of performances for Empoli in Serie B over the past year. He will stay at the Carlo Castellani until the summer before making his dream move to San Siro, where he hopes to emulate his Brazilian hero. And having made the switch from the wing to the central attacking midfield slot, he is already beginning to turn in form similar to Milan’s former No.22.
Having broken into both the Empoli first-team set-up and the Italy Under-21 squad as a wide man, Saponara struggled to make a significant impact on either flank, and there were fears among some that a formerly much talked-about young prospect may end up fizzling out into a journeyman for provincial outfits in Italy’s top two leagues.
But the decision to move Saponara infield has brought tremendous rewards. All of a sudden, a young man whose main threat was little more than trying to get beyond a full-back and get a cross in, has become one of the most attractive midfield talents in the second tier.
It is not only the switch to a freer role which has sparked the former Ravenna man into action. He also puts his upturn in form down to the employment of a mental coach, Roberto Civitarese, who also deals with clients including Liverpool’s Italy international Fabio Borini. Civitarese told Tuttomercatoweb recently that he believes Saponara’s current form and subsequent signing by Milan have been a long time in coming.
RICCARDO SAPONARA | CAREER STATS
"I have known him for three years and he immediately gave me the impression that he was destined to do important things," said Civitarese. "He always worked with great seriousness and dedication, and today he is bearing the fruits of his work over the years. He had many obstacles to overcome as he grew, but he took them on with strength and determination, and deserves the attention of a club like Milan."
With great poise, balance, superb timing of a run and a cool eye for a pass, Saponara has been the star man in 2012-13 for an Empoli side transformed from relegation candidates to play-off contenders, and has scored eight league goals on the way. His great skill on the ball has also helped him to catch the eye of the team he has dreamt of representing for so long.
Now he is one step closer to becoming the man he idolised for all those years in the red and black. Many keen followers of Italy’s second tier have labelled Saponara the ‘Kaka of Serie B’, which is a high accolade indeed given the strength of that division this term. If he can make the step up in time, then he may well soon stand alongside the likes of Stephan El Shaarawy, Mattia De Sciglio and M’Baye Niang as a regular in the ‘New Milan’ gradually being built in Lombardy.
As the Rossoneri set about trying to shape their side around the Pirlos, Shevchenkos, Maldinis and Gattusos of the future, they will be hoping they have just acquired their replacement for Kaka in bringing Saponara’s dream to life.