Apart from talent, dedication and force of will, the life of every football player is defined by the moments he lives. In the era of media intrusiveness, no moment in the life of a player can hide itself from cameras, whether on the pitch or outside of it.
For this reason, some players have their career fully summarized by a single image, one that tells everything about the years they spent kicking a ball. To find an example, just think about Fabio Cannavaro raising the World Cup to the Berlin sky in 2006, or take a look at the freeze-frame of Zinédine Zidane’s volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final. These are instants that can tell the story of a man from the beginning to the end, without the need for words or statistical data.Sometimes, though, a life can be told via two images instead of one. The uniqueness of being represented by a pair of shots is something reserved only to very singular characters. We wouldn’t use the adjective ‘lucky’ because those shots are likely to convey opposite emotions, resulting in the description of a life that inevitably unfolded through gloom and glory. So ‘singular’ is just fine.
There is no better example of this than the career of a special son of Rome. One who was born with an incredible gift but saw all his talent slowly drained by the vicissitudes of life. It seems the plot of a touching theatrical piece, but we’re actually talking of Alberto Aquilani.
Now, let’s start the two-scene movie of his life.
The proscenium is that of San Siro stadium, where Roma were playing Milan on 11 November 2006. The Rossoneri had just lost Andriy Shevchenko, who had joined Chelsea in the summer, and unhappily tried to replace him with Ricardo Oliveira from Real Betis.
The two teams were drawing after Cristian Brocchi replied to Francesco Totti’s opening goal. On 83 minutes, Milan were trying to get out of their box with Kaka offering a horizontal pass to Clarence Seedorf. The Dutchman tried to defend the ball with his powerful body, but a red-and-yellow midfielder suddenly challenged him, managing to touch the ball with enough impetus for it to reach Aquilani, who was stationed in the attacking third. Then, before even the commentator could realize it, the magic happened.
Aquilani sent the ball to Mancini with a mind-blowing rabona kick, and the Brazilian crossed the ball into the middle, where Totti promptly headed it home to gran Roma their first win away to Milan in 20 years. What happened that night made the audience rub their incredulous eyes. And it started with an unbelievable touch by Aquilani, a touch that reminded the city of Rome that, after Totti and De Rossi, another star was already shining bright in the red-and-yellow firmament.
This time the stage is the press conference of Aquilani, after his transfer to Sassuolo on 3 January 2017. The man in front of the camera looks quite different from the one who bewitched San Siro ten years before. A short haircut and a thin layer of beard are the frame for a face that now shows some trace of the time passed. The look in his eyes is not the same he had when he was a 22-year-old kid taking over the football world, and it gets even darker when asked about his career.
“Well, you know, it’s something subjective,” Aquilani said. “When I was at Roma, I didn’t think I would have gone away. But then…the first injury came, I received a very important offer from England that the club and me started to consider, and that’s the point when my whirlwind of changes began … At times I’ve been unlucky because I suffered injuries that didn’t allow me to reach 25 appearances. It’s obvious that every player has his story, every player makes his choices. I made mine. Some (choices) are good, some are bad. I take [responsibility] because sometimes I shared part of the fault, but there’s nothing I regret. I’ve had, and I wish I’ll keep having, an important career.”
Despite set phrases, it’s hard not to spot the melancholy in his black eyes, like it’s hard for his true feelings to hide themselves behind the mild satisfaction for the new signing, because Aquilani’s career is more about what it could have been than what it really was.
Who is Alberto il principino (the little prince) Aquilani? Most people would agree that he’s a midfielder with good feet, because in the end this is enough to describe him, isn’t it? Not at all.
We should remember when the 19-year-old proudly amassed 41 appearances and four goals on loan at Triestina in the Serie B, earning his return ticket to Rome in the process. We should also remember how he was hailed as one portion of that marvellous Roman trio composed by him, Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi, which scared every opponent coming to the Eternal City.
For every romanista, the name of Aquilani is also linked to another memory, in addition to that famous rabona. It was the 2007/08 Champions League last 16 match versus Real Madrid, when Roma were supposed to easily crumble. After a handful of minutes, Albertino fired a terrific rocket on the crossbar, shooting from a hard-to-believe distance.
The boy, probably unknown to most madridistas at the time, succeeded in silencing the Santiago Bernabeu for a while, impressing a quite scared expression on Iker Casillas’ imperturbable face. From that moment on, Real Madrid realized the team in front of them wasn’t one to joke with, something that was clear as day when referee Kyros Vassaras blowed the final whistle and die-hard Giallorossi ultras started cheering because Rodrigo Taddei and Mirko Vucinic had made it 1-2. Roma had conquered the Spanish capital, gaining access to the quarter-finals, and it all started with Aquilani’s surface-to-air missile.
In the summer of 2009 Roma, faced with serious financial problems, could do nothing but sell Aquilani to the highest bidder, namely Liverpool. He left Rome with sadness in his heart, while romanisti had chins pointed at the sky, staring at the metal belly of his plane, eyes full of tears. That moment marked the start of his wandering around the continent.
After one season at Anfield Road, Aquilani played for Juventus, Milan, Fiorentina, Sporting Lisbon, Pescara, Sassuolo, just to end up as a free agent. Often a loanee, his career has been sprinkled with injuries that prevented him from getting enough appearances for redemption. Only Florence represented some kind of rebirth for him, a city where he spent three good seasons.
The player himself shares some part of the blame for this state of affairs, failing to develop enough physical and spiritual strength to support his outstanding talent, but it’s a shame anyway. If only the fates were more lenient with him, we could have witnessed a huge contribution of Aquilani to Liverpool, to the national team and to who-knows-which other great team. Instead, we are here talking of just another midfielder who passed on important football fields without ever winning something significant.
Like him or not, no football fan is happy to see all this talent concentrated in the sad eyes of a 33-year-old free agent, instead of admiring it unfolding via rabonas and hard-to-imagine penetrative balls. But that’s it: we are the moments we live, we are the choices we make but, sometimes, we are the doom which has been assigned to us.