From hero to traitor: Following the career of Massimo Maccarone

In a usual sight, the striker wheels away from goal after steering the ball home. He rushes towards the dugout to celebrate with his teammates. But on this occasion, the forward does things differently.  

He reaches for a drink. It is not water or a sports drink, but a lukewarm beer. Quickly the bald headed forward emerges again, ready to play on. It is Massimo Maccarone. His old teammate at Siena, Thomas Locatelli, was sat by the dug-outs at Bologna’s Renato Dall’Ara and Maccarone had promised to go out for a drink with him like they used to at the Old Bridge pub. From Siena, the pair would make the near three hour car trip to Bologna to drink at their favourite pub. 

At the end of 2015, Maccarone and Empoli were on a roll. Empoli extended their Serie A winning streak to four matches thanks to the veteran forward’s winner, the longest run in the club’s top-flight history. Going into the Bologna game, Empoli had won three games without conceding a goal and ahead of the winter break, Marco Giampaolo’s side were in sixth place with 27 points from their first 17 matches.  

The squad which had been put together by Giampaolo was taking Serie A by storm. With coach Maurizio Sarri leaving to join Napoli in the summer, many expected the small Tuscan side to struggle. But youngsters like Lukasz Skorupski, Leandro Paredes and Riccardo Samponarahelped Empoli defy the odds. Yet it was Massimo Maccarone who was the toast of the Azzurri faithful. 

Similar to cult figure Francesco Tavano at the Stadio Carlo Castellani, Maccarone re-joined the club for a second spell in the twilight of his career. He came to embody the fighting spirit of the underdog Tuscan side. He understood the passion of the 48,000 people town near Florence. As captain he would organise a dinner for all the players every Thursday night. During his first spell though, things were very different for Maccarone. 

As a teenager, Maccarone was a confident, even brash forward but his love of the game shone through. When he was working part time as a fruit seller, he was so desperate to watch Italy in the World Cup final in 1994, that he deliberately got sacked by destroying a crate of melons. “I am not ashamed of it,” Maccarone recalls. “I got myself sacked so I could watch the game.” 

Maccarone, though, is less proud of his time at AC Milan. Coming through the Rossoneri system was tough in the 1990s given the competition at the club. Coaches like Sacchi and Cappello believed in the fiery forward, but the competition proved too much for Maccarone and for the best interests of his career, he moved on. He would eventually find a home at Empoli. 

The “little Vialli” as he was known (thanks to his lack of hair) was making a name for himself as one of the best young strikers on the peninsula. Thanks to his goals, Empoli returned to Serie A for the first time in a generation. Maccarone was also prolific for Claudio Gentile’s Azzurrini. On his debut for the senior side against England at Elland Road, he won the stoppage time penalty which was converted by Empoli hero Vincenzo Montella to seal a 2-1 win. Juventus and Chelsea were chasing Maccarone’s signature, but he would end up playing up the road from where he made his debut for Italy.  

Middlesbrough had a history of spending big under legendary chairman Steve Gibson during the Premiership era. When Maccarone arrived on Teesside, he came for a club record £8.15 million. Obvious links were made with Fabrizio Ravanelli, who had arrived with a big reputation from Italy in 1996. Yet when the Big Mac was presented at the Riverside, all eyes were on a different player.  

Boro’s favourite son, Juninho, had returned for a third spell at the club. During the first game of the season away at Southampton, Maccarone was through on goal early on. Usually so cool in front of goal, he fluffed his line. He looked off the pace and some were quick to declare he was not suited to the fast tempo of the Premier League.  

Yet just weeks later, Maccarone ripped Tottenham apart at White Hart Lane. He scored in three games in a row in the league. Papers now were saying he could be the next galactico at Real Madrid, such was the hyperbolic nature of the English press. Despite this early promise, the Italian struggled for the remainder of his debut season.  

In the following campaign, Maccarone had to largely settle for a place on the bench. This included Boro’s Capital Cup final win, the club’s first, and to this day, only major trophy in their history. Loan spells back in Italy at Parma and Siena followed, as the striker looked for game time and form. When he came back to the North East, he was still down the pecking order under manager Steve McClaren. Yet even with a limited role, Maccarone would go on to become a cult figure at the Riverside during their historic Uefa Cup run in 2006. 

Having already knocked out Italian giants Roma, Boro were up against it having lost the first leg of their quarter final against Basel. Back at the Riverside the Swiss side scored the first goal and it looked bleak. A Mark Viduka double and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink effort gave Boro hope and momentum. With seconds remaining, Maccarone slid in the winning goal from a tight angle to complete a remarkable comeback. What made it more remarkable was that history would repeat itself just 20 days later. 

Steaua Bucharest, who were a much better side than Basel, led 1-0 from the first leg of the semi-final and extended their lead early on at the Riverside through Nicolae Dica and DorinGoian. Once again Middlesbrough needed four goals to progress. This time, Maccarone got the ball rolling with another angled drive before Mark Viduka and Chris Riggott levelled the tie.  

Still needing a goal, Middlesbrough threw everything at Steaua and were rewarded whenMaccarone produced an iconic diving header to seal the most incredible turnaround. The Riverside exploded. Alistair Brownlee, the voice of football in Middlesbrough until his death last year, delivered the now famous line “The Boro are going to Eindhoven, everyone back to mine for a Parmo!”

Picture
Maccarone scoring a famous winner for Boro in the Uefa Cup semi-final

Yet in Eindhoven, Maccarone and co were soundly beaten by Sevilla 4-0. By the following January Maccarone had left the Riverside for a free to re-join Siena. His departure was bitter. “The ever-smiling Steve ‘The Magnificent’ McClaren is the most two-faced person I’ve had the misfortune to meet in football,” he told the BBC. “Only in England can someone with such evident falls could become coach of the national team.”

Maccarone had scored just 18 goals in 81 appearances during his time in England, failing to justify his big fee. Without those two iconic, last minute goals he would not be fondly remembered, if remembered at all on Teesside.

Fast forward to the start of last season and Maccarone was getting ready to embark on his seventh and what would be his final campaign at Empoli. Although Giampaolo had left the club to replace Montella as Sampdoria’s new coach, Empoli were expected to do well, especially after signing both Alberto Gilardino and Manuel Pasqual on free deals.

During the first part of the season, Empoli struggled for consistency but given the dire form of those below them, they looked safe for another year. Yet after the winter break things spiralled out of control.

Saponara and Gilardino both left the club and the team lost their way. Seven defeats in a row plummeted the side into relegation trouble. Maccarone himself was struggling to find the net, ending up with just six Serie A goals by the end of the campaign. This was at the same time that Davide Nicola’s Crotone, who had looked doomed, started to pick up results at an incredible rate.

Even then back-to-back 2-1 away wins at Fiorentina and AC Milan looked to have been enough for the Tuscan side. Another win against Bologna looked to seal another year in the top flight. But consecutive defeats against Cagliari and Atalanta took it to the last day.

Empoli faced a trip to Maccarone’s old side Palermo who were already relegated, while Crotone hosted Lazio. Palermo had not beaten Empoli in nearly a decade, although the Tuscans were without a host of stars including Marcel Buchel and Omar El Kaddouri.

Knowing a win would guarantee safety, Empoli came up Andrea Fulignati was in fine form in the Palermo goal. He was born in Empoli and had been a die-hard fan growing up. Yet his saves would cost Empoli their top-flight status. Palermo raced to a 2-0 lead as Empoli’scapitulation was complete. Despite a late Rade Krunic goal, Empoli were down as Crotone beat Lazio in Calabria.

Staight away the inquest began. How could a side who had down so well a year before, be so shambolic? Fans quickly looked for a scapegoat and Maccarone received much of their anger. His refusal to speak to the media after the match in Palermo was met by disgust in Tuscany.

In an open letter days later, Maccarone spoke from the heart.
The disappointment and sadness were so great that I couldn’t face the microphones. I know that many did not understand my silence. I am the captain and as a leader must do, I take the responsibility for this year that started badly and ended awfully. Empoli is my adopted home town, where I grew up as a player and a man, and where I started a family and laid the foundations for my future. I will carry Empoli

 in my heart and its fans everywhere I go.

Yet the damage had already been done. Maccarone left under a cloud as his contract expired, moving down under to the Brisbane.

It was hardly fitting for a man who had given so much to Empoli and produced so many great moments for the club. It did though fit his career. Maccarone has always failed to truly reach his potential and become a legend at a club despite his obvious talent and passion for the game. As he said himself following his departure from Empoli, “I went from a hero to a traitor.”

Words by Richard Hinman: @RichardHinman

Richard has been an avid follower of Italian football since the turn of the century and in particular Roma’s dramatic final day Scudetto triumph. A Yorkshire man with Calabrian roots, he is passionate about writing on all things calcio, from its historic players to current issues.