It’s May 31st, 1996 and Italy are playing Spain in the final of the European under 21 championships in Barcelona.
The weary players make their way to the centre circle. They stand and watch as one by one their teammates trudge that long lonely walk forward to take a dreaded penalty. Both sides match each other tit for tat, until future Real Madrid legend Raul sees his effort stopped and the Azzurri are presented with the chance to claim glory.
Out of the centre circle emerges 20-year-old Domenico Morfeo. The Boy from Pescina in Abruzzo calmly walks forward and picks up the ball. His teammates and coach, Cesare Maldini, can barely watch. Morfeo places the ball on the spot but he is not satisfied and he picks it up once more, stamping down on the small white circle with his studs before resetting the ball. Happy, he backs away and awaits the referees whistle. The sharp shrill rings out and Morfeo advances on the ball striking it ever so sweetly towards the bottom right corner. In the blink of an eye it ripples the back of the net, the Spanish keeper having gone the opposite direction. Italy are European champions thanks to one Domenico Morfeo.
It is a widely held belief that Atalanta has one of, if not the best youth system in Italy. Many have learned their craft there and gone on to bigger clubs. It is also in Bergamo where the journey of Morfeo begins. Although his name may not be as illustrious as others who have followed his path, he is arguably the most talented ever to have emerged from the system.
Domenico joined the Orobici as a 14-year-old and didn’t take long to impress. Only three years later as a 17-year-old, Morfeo made his first team debut on December 19th, 1993, in an Atalanta win over Genoa (2-1). He would play a total of eight more times that season, scoring three goals. A new talent was emerging on the Italian scene. Blessed with great technical ability, Morfeo was touted as one of the talents of his generation, a generation that included the likes of Francesco Totti, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Christian Panucci and Gigi Buffon. Indeed, his skill with the ball earned him the moniker of little Maradona. In addition to this, Morfeo also had a healthy ego and what some would deem a confrontational personality.
On the pitch however Domenico continued to impress for Atalanta and it was not to long before bigger clubs began to cast a wandering eye towards him. In the end he joined Fiorentina in 1997. It was something of a surprise move given that La Viola were quite well stacked in the attacking department, having the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Rui Costa and Luis Oliveria. Nonetheless Morfeo impressed, making 24 appearances and scoring five times in his debut season. However, that old adage of second season syndrome hit him and hit him hard.
The seeds of this difficult second season had been sown some months earlier however. During his debut campaign, Fiorentina signed renowned eccentric Edmundo from Vasco De Gama in Brazil, a move that eventually saw the Italian fall out of favour. All was not lost though and Morfeo soon found himself on the move again, this time to one of the biggest clubs in Italy, Milan. He joined on one of those uniquely complicated Italian loan, co-ownership, transfer deals that only people with degrees in Rocket science can understand.
Yet if the move to Fiorentina was deemed a risk that initially paid dividend, the move to the Rossoneri was equally risky. Game time was minimal and along with a number of injuries and questions surrounding his character, his time at the San Siro proved far from fruitful. No longer seeing the benefit in keeping Morfeo, Milan offloaded the attacking midfielder. But still surplus to requirements in Florence, another loan move was on the cards. Cagliari came calling, however after only playing five matches he was deemed too much hassle and the loan was cancelled. He was quickly shipped out once more, this time to Hellas Verona where he met up with former Atalanta coach, Cesare Prandelli. During a short spell he performed well, however expectations were growing. When was this capricious talent going to reach his potential?
For the 2000-01 season he returned to Fiorentina, where despite there now being a new strike force spearheaded by Enrico Chiesa, Morfeo remained out of favour. He was loaned out once more, this time back to the place it all began Atalanta. Morfeo performed well, supplying the goals for Nicola Ventola as Atalanta finished the season in the dizzying heights of seventh. Like clockwork at the end of the season, he returned to Fiorentina, but it is not the same club that he joined four years before. This was a Viola in financial disarray and on the verge of collapse. As such they were forced to sell their most valuable assets in a vain attempt to stay afloat. This also meant that Morfeo benefitted by getting some considerable game time. At the end of the season however, Fiorentina folded and Domenico was once again off to pastures new.
This time he turned up on the other side of the Milan divide, in the colours of the Nerazzurri. It was more than likely to be his last shot at a really big club, he had tried and failed twice in such circumstances and another failure at Inter would spell the end of his career as a top level prospect. Sadly, this is exactly what happened as familiar failings came to the fore. Game time was very limited and what he did get was not the most impressive, the high point of his spell with the club being a goal in the Champions League away to Newcastle. Unsurprisingly he spent just one season with Inter. Now 27-years-old and fast becoming a failed talent, Morfeo joined Parma.
It was at the Crociati however that Morfeo blossomed and fulfilled some of his potential. Maybe it was the fact that he was once again a big fish in a small pond but the five years he would spend with the Gialloblu would comfortably be the best of his career. His first year in Parma finished with him scoring four goals in 23 matches as the team ended up finishing in fifth spot. Then, just as Morfeo thought he had found the perfect home, the project began to come apart with the discovery of a huge black hole in the accounts of Parma’s parent company, Parmalat. The subsequent criminal investigations taken against those who had perpetrated this huge financial scandal plunged the club into crisis. Just like his previous experience at Fiorentina, Morfeo watched on as the Ducali were forced to sell off its most valuable assets. Naturally this had a disastrous effect on the pitch as Parma hurtled towards the relegation zone.
In the end Parma survived by the skin of their teeth after beating rivals Bologna over two legs in the relegation play-off. Parma’s survival was largely down to the displays of three men, Sebastian Frey in goal, Alberto Gilardino up front and Domenico Morfeo, the playmaker. Morfeo laid on the assists for Gilardino whilst also chipping in with eight of his own. With salvation achieved Domenico could have decided to pack his bags but he remained and became integral to the Ducali’s revival. It wouldn’t be Morfeo though if things didn’t end on a somewhat sour note. The 2007-08 season proved a disaster for the club as they slipped into Serie B, while Morfeo had a number of public quarrels with both general manager, Alessandro Melli, and coach Domenico Di Carlo.
On leaving Parma in the summer of 2008, the career of this great talent fizzled out and after short spells with Brescia and Cremonese, he retired in 2009. He would very briefly come out of retirement to play for Seconda Categoria side San Benedetto dei Marsi. Post-football Morfeo opened a restaurant in Parma and as recently as October 2015, he opened a shopping centre in Avezzano, not far from where he grew up.
Morfeo was a man blessed with unique abilities yet sadly he never fully delivered. In those fleeting moments when it did all come together, there were few who could match him. To look at his career, you can see strange parallels with a certain Mario Balotelli, all the talent in the world but his own worst enemy and battling against time to finally prove himself.
It is only when you research deeper into the career of Domenico Morfeo do you discover the high regard in which he was held. An article on Calciomercato summarises this sentiment perfectly:
“It is impossible for those who love football not to have loved Domenico Morfeo”.
(‘Morfeo the best’)