Robert Di Niro is the face of several iconic movie quotes. In relation to this article, one particular line from the film ‘A Bronx Tale’ stands out: “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices that you make will shape your life forever”
The line is delivered whilst the character of Di Niro is giving his son a pep talk about his dreams of playing baseball. One player who would have benefited from such a pep talk and perhaps offers a quintessential example of wasted talent is Italy’s Alessio Cerci.
The Velletri born footballer entered Roma’s Primavera in 2003 and it didn’t take long for the winger to make a name for himself at youth level. In his very first season, the 16-year-old scored 11 goals in the 2003-04 Campionato Primavera – Italy’s youth league. His form caught the attention of Roma coach Fabio Capello who gave him his debut for the first team in May 2004 at the end of the season. Cerci would go from strength to strength by playing a key part in Roma winning the 2004-05 Campionato Primavera. His reward was two substitute appearances for the first team but more importantly, he also signed his first professional contract.
However, the 2005-06 season yielded just one first team appearance, which led to a loan move to Brescia in the summer of 2006. The next three years led to three loan deals – Brescia, Pisa and Atalanta. It was at Pisa in Serie B where Cerci would come of age under coach Gian Piero Ventura. His pace on the wing bamboozled full backs and his goals provided variation in Pisa’s attack during the 2007-08 season.
Despite suffering an injury hit second-half of the season, Cerci played a defining part in Pisa reaching the playoffs, where they would lose to Lecce. Nevertheless, Cerci’s return of 10 goals and seven assists in 26 appearances was impressive enough to persuade Roma to loan him to a team in Serie A. However, his spell at Atalanta was blighted by injury and Cerci made just 11 appearances.
Come the 2009-10 season, the Giallorossi finally decided to give Cerci a chance, with coach Claudio Raineri deciding to keep him in the first team squad. The season would start promisingly, as he started Roma’s first few league games, but he would soon fall out of favour, with Ranieri benching the winger and starting him either in the Europa League or Coppa Italia. Thus, with a lack of first team opportunities, Cerci made the permanent move north to Fiorentina in August 2010.
The move represented a chance for the winger to finally realise the immense potential shown at youth level and at Pisa, a opportunity for the then 23-year-old to revitalise his career. However, Cerci’s two years at i Viola again proved inconsistent. When fully focused, Cerci was effective, scoring six goals in the last five games of his debut season at Fiorentina. However, Cerci was prone to making bad decisions off the pitch.
He became enamoured with the nightlife of Florence, keen to flaunt his Maserati sports car, unwise during a time of severe economic hardship in Italy. One particularly infamous incident saw the winger park his car in a spot reserved for police. When asked by police officers to move the car Cerci said he would – once he had finished eating his dinner.
It was this type of behaviour that led to Cerci becoming a convenient scapegoat for fans when Fiorentina finished 13th in the 2011-12 season. However, there were mitigating circumstances. Fiorentina’s top-scorer, Alberto Gilardino, had been sold the summer previous, as well as their star goalkeeper Sebastian Frey. Selling their best players and not adequately replacing them ultimately led to a drop off in performance. Despite this, Cerci’s relationship with the fans was close to irreconcilable and the Italian winger moved to Torino in August 2012 on a co-ownership deal for just €2.5 million.
Torino were under the stewardship of Cerci’s old mentor Gian Piero Ventura and had just been promoted to Serie A. The Turin based club had a capable defence with young talents such as Matteo Darmian and Angelo Ogbonna. Yet to survive in the top flight, Ventura knew he would need attacking creativity, with Cerci identified as a perfect option after his time with the talented youngster at Pisa. Back then, Ventura had managed to inspire the best out of Cerci and he would do so again in Serie A.
His first season at the Granata was a roaring success, as Torino secured their Serie A status by finishing 16th. Cerci was at times electric. His trademark was simple yet devastatingly effective, cutting in from the right wing and unleashing strikes with his cultured left foot, or finding a teammate with a perfectly weighted pass or whipped cross. His eight goals and eight assists soon endeared Cerci to the fans. He also struck up a fruitful partnership with former Manchester City forward Rolando Bianchi, whose 11 league goals safeguarded Torino’s Serie A status. A crucial factor to Cerci’s form was the calming influence of Ventura, which helped suppress his worst indulgences that caused such negative headlines at Fiorentina.
His outstanding form would deservedly earn him a call up to the Azzurri in March where he made his international debut. Cerci’s move to Torino would be made permanent that summer. The key dilemma Ventura had for the 2013-14 season would be how to consolidate Torino’s place in Serie A. The answer came with a slight tactical tweak.
The goal-scoring prowess of Bianchi earned the foward a move to Bologna, which prompted the Granata to bring in Ciro Immobile from Genoa. Bianchi was a tall player at 6’2 so understandably Cerci’s crosses were a godsend for the striker at Torino. But Immobile was just 5’10 so this approach was shelved. Immobile’s pace however was a new found asset and Ventura decided to take advantage of this by moving Cerci centrally to play behind Immobile. The results were simply devastating.
Cerci would use his technical prowess to provide 11 assists, but by playing higher up the pitch in a more attacking formation, he also scored 13 league goals. Meanwhile, Immobile scored 22 goals in 33 league games, enough to become capocannoniere – the first Torino player since Francesco Graziani in 1976-77. Both of these players were pivotal to Torino finishing 7th, their best league finish since 1991-92, with Europa League football secured when 6th placed Parma were denied a UEFA licence.
Cerci’s excellent form earned him a spot in Italy’s 2014 World Cup squad but also led to several teams casting their eye over the in-demand winger. High profile clubs such as Arsenal and Manchester United were linked with the Italian international, but Cerci opted to leave Toro for Atletico Madrid in late August for €16 million. First impressions are always important when a player arrives at a new club, especially one managed by Diego Simeone, but Cerci would make a grave mistake.
He arrived in Spain nearly four kilos overweight and found it difficult to settle into Atletico Madrid’s robust training methods. While Ventura nurtured him as one of his stars, the collective was all that mattered for Diego Simeone. He would make just six league appearances off the bench by December and would start just one game for Atletico Madrid in the Copa Del Rey. To make things worse, Cerci became a target of ridicule, with his unfortunate training mishaps going viral.
Banished from the squad in all but name, the winger was loaned to AC Milan in January 2015 in an 18 month deal, which saw Atletico Madrid get Fernando Torres in return. Cerci’s confidence was shot to pieces and he failed to make an impression at the San Siro. Such was the drop off in his career, the Rossoneri would end his loan spell in January 2016.
His burnishing talent became but a dim flicker when loaned to Genoa for the rest of the 2015-2016 season. Cerci would return to Atletico Madrid and make just two appearances in the 2016-17 season. Like a wounded animal, his suffering was ended when his contract was rescinded in June 2017. In an interview with Gazzetta Dello Sport he later expressed his regret at moving to Spain:
“If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have joined Atletico. It was a choice that cost me a lot. I lost so much on a human level… the affection of so many Torino fans, who loved me and told me that my choice of going to Spain was a mistake. I wanted to play in the Champions League. I wanted to step up in my career. I want to get back what I’ve lost in the last few years. I want to start playing again.”
He would try to revitalise his stunted career at Hellas Verona but all he achieved was relegation at the end of the 2017-18 season. Cerci would decide to move to Turkish side Ankaragucu this summer but once again has become accustomed to the bench.
A player in the form of his life may be tempted to taste the fruit of the big time in the Champions League. But Alessio Cerci showed what happens when the fruit turns poisonous. As Di Niro said, there’s no sadder thing than wasted talent, but Cerci’s abject fall from grace was perhaps even more dramatic.
Words by Yousef Teclab: @yousef_teclab