When Villarreal and Italy striker Giuseppe Rossi was asked recently about the possibility of moving back to Serie A, his response was as unequivocal as it was critical.
The former Parma and Manchester United forward accused Italian clubs of ignoring their young talent.
"Italian football is afraid of its young players," said Rossi.
"I had to leave Italy. I couldn't wait any longer."
A couple of months after Rossi made these comments, an unknown 17-year-old Italian called Federico Macheda came off the bench for Manchester United and scored what could prove to be the most important goal of the Premier League season. The English media went into raptures. The Italian media indulged in some more overly self-critical naval gazing.
“I doubt an Italian team would have made the move [Manchester United manager Sir Alex] Ferguson did,” commented respected sports writer Italo Cucci on Rai TV.
Does Serie A deserve its newly acquired reputation as a difficult place for kids to thrive? And, if this is the case, should this be seen as a flaw in the Italian game or just a realistic faith in the certainty of experience over the naivety of youth?
Firstly, we need to look at whether Italian clubs really are refusing to take a punt on teenage prodigies.
In Italy, unlike England, there is a policy of introducing youngsters slowly and carefully. It is unusual for any player to be given regular first team football until he is in his early 20s and throwing 16 or 17-year-olds into the lions den of Serie A is actually frowned upon, except in special circumstances.
Of course, in recent years, we have seen Antonio Cassano make his debut for Bari when he was just 17-years-old and Pato and Alberto Paloschi pull on the red and black shirt of Milan when they were a year older than that. Davide Santon was just about old enough to go into a bar and ask for a beer when Jose Mourinho sent him out to face Roma, whilst Mario Balotelli was still on the lemonade when he first burst onto the Serie A scene.
And, it’s not as if the Premier League witnesses a headline-grabbing arrival by a teenage wonder-kid on a weekly basis. Would Macheda have even been on the pitch if it weren’t for the injury to Dimitar Berbatov, the suspension of Wayne Rooney and the sheer desperation of the situation at the time? No, he would not.
Before the 2009 Champions League battles between English and Italian clubs, Goal.com compared the average ages of all six clubs involved and found that they were virtually the same, as was the number of teenagers used.
None of these statistics, however, can mask the feeling that Italian clubs are currently turning their backs on promising young talent.
It is not easy criticising the methods of the nation who are currently in possession of their fourth World Cup, but there are some things that just don't add up when it comes to youth development.
Why, for example, was Antonio Nocerino, the mightily impressive former Italy Under-21 captain, who led the Azzurrini to victory in the Toulon International Tournament in the summer of 2008, discarded like a broken piece of furniture by Juventus? Why was Alberto Paloschi, so promising in his first season for Milan, loaned out to Serie B side Parma as soon as Ronaldinho turned up at the San Siro? And why is there talk about Sebastian Giovinco being sold by Juventus before the start of next season?
When it comes to overlooking young talent, Milan are often identified as the worst culprits. They, undoubtedly, have an ageing first XI and have added more maturity in the last decade than the admissions office of an old people’s centre. Rivaldo, Cafu, Emerson, Giuseppe Favalli, Andriy Shevchenko, Ronaldinho and David Beckham have all arrived at the club since the 21st Century sprang into life.
The question that needs be asked is why, when so many of their top stars are coming to the end of their careers and the club knew they were going to have a season away from the Champions League, didn’t Milan begin a rebuilding programme that had youth at its core last summer?
Instead of persevering with creaky old lags like Kakhaber Kaladze, why didn’t Carlo Ancelotti’s puppet-masters focus on the near horizon and give some fresh-faced talent a chance? And, if they didn’t have enough faith in the likes of Matteo Darmian, Denis Fondrini or Nicola Pasini, why didn't they bring in the likes of Lorenzo De Silvestri or Fabiano Santacroce? They could have even have solved that longest running and most problematic of areas at the San Siro by making a move for Buffon-approved goalkeeping talents Vincenzo Fiorillo, Andrea Consigli or Federico Marchetti. Or indeed, to go back to where we started in this debate, why didn’t the Rossoneri spend some of the €18.5 million they shelled out for Ronaldinho on Giuseppe Rossi instead?
Their whole approach has been muddled, short-termist and over-cautious.
Is it time that hugely promising young players such as Domenico Criscito, Robert Acquafresca, Raffaele Palladino, Rey Volpato, Davide Lanzafame, Pablo Osvaldo, Nicola Pozzi, Marco Andreolli and Davide Di Gennaro stopped being loaned out to smaller clubs, many of whom play in the brutal environs of Serie B, and were given a chance to shine on the biggest stage instead?
Well, maybe. But Italy, remember, produce more talented youngsters than any other European nation and have the Under-21 record to prove it. The Azzurrini have won five of the last nine European Under-21 Championships.
Shouldn't this success translate into a stronger faith in youth?
Maybe the Italian Football Federation could make a start by immediately scrapping the ban on clubs from the peninsula signing players before their 18th birthday. At least then the next Giuseppe Rossi or Federico Macheda won't immediately head about for professional riches.
With even the wealthiest clubs in Italy suffering the effects of the recession and Adriano Galliani, Jose Mourinho and Alessio Secco all promising dynamic new transfer policies, built on youthful foundations, maybe the next generation won't find playing time so hard to come by in Serie A.
Just don't expect a wall-to-wall pimple parade.
Gil Gillespie, Goal.com