I've been thinking lately about Giuseppe Rossi, and about the twists and turns that a sports career can take, even for the most promising athletes. If you're a U.S. soccer fan, you know plenty about Rossi, the Italian-American New Jersey native who chose to play for Italy over the U.S. and became a budding star for the Azzurri and Spain's Villarreal (where he scored 32 goals in all competitions in 2010-11).
Now 25, Rossi should be readying to lead Italy at Euro 2012 starting next month. Instead he's in the middle of a catastrophic injury run. Rossi tore his right ACL last October and, just as he was preparing to return, tore it again in training last month. By the time Rossi is scheduled to play again in early 2013, he will have been out for at least 14 months from competitive soccer.
Things don't always turn out as you plan them in sports. I wrote a Sports Illustrated magazine story about Rossi three years ago, in the days after his two goals sank (of all teams) the United States in a Confederations Cup game in South Africa. I spoke at length to Rossi and his father, Fernando, a legendary high school soccer coach, and SI's Adam Duerson made the rounds in New Jersey interviewing people who were close to the Rossis.
In my experience with Giuseppe, he came across as a humble Jersey guy who had set extremely high goals for himself -- let's be honest, it's harder to make Italy's national team than it is the U.S.'s -- and had attained them.
But Rossi's SI mag story never ran. It was all ready to go, but the only thing that could have prevented publication was the most unlikely of results: The U.S. would have to advance from the Confed Cup group stage, which required beating Egypt 3-0 in the final group game while Brazil would have to beat Rossi's Italy 3-0 at the same time. What were the odds of that happening? 100 to 1? 10,000 to 1?
Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. So I pulled an all-nighter in South Africa, wrote an entirely new magazine story and figured I'd write an updated Rossi story soon enough. But the timing never worked out. Rossi was on the bubble to make Italy's 2010 World Cup roster, so we couldn't risk devoting significant magazine space to a player who might not be in South Africa. (He ended up being one of Italy's final cuts, a decision coach Marcello Lippi no doubt regrets now after the team's dismal first-round exit.)
These days I'm getting a bit more magazine space for soccer, but now Rossi is injured. It's part of the sports media business, I guess. But I also felt badly that Rossi, his father and the others had taken the time to speak to me, and they were probably looking forward to his first significant story in SI -- which for some athletes and their families is an important moment.
Not long ago, I went back and tracked down the Rossi story I had written, the one that wasn't published:
In Italy, the home of the four-time World Cup champions, they call Giuseppe Rossi's remarkable sports journey "the American dream." And who could argue? How's this for a storyline: A 12-year-old kid from Clifton, N.J., moves to Italy, becomes a top soccer prospect, spends three years on the books at Manchester United (where he scores on his debut), lights up Spain's La Liga for Villarreal and blasts two goals for his national team at his first major tournament, the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. After years of searching, the world may finally have discovered the first U.S.-born soccer superstar, a dynamic 22-year-old whose transfer price tag (for potential suitors like Italian giant Juventus) is an estimated $25 million.
The only trouble with Rossi's American dream is that it's also an American nightmare. Those two goals at the Confederations Cup came *against* the United States on June 15, when Rossi was wearing the famous blue jersey of Italy, the nation of his parents' birth. Rossi's pair of second-half strikes gave the Azzurri a 3-1 come-from-behind victory, sending the U.S. into a tailspin that included an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Brazil last Thursday and a tk-tk koming on Sunday against Egypt.
In magazine parlance, we use "TK" and "koming" as place-holders for information that we don't know yet. In this case, those TKs spiked my Rossi story. But several aspects of the article are still pertinent today, from Rossi's personal story to the question SI was asking: When will the U.S. produce its first genuine global soccer superstar? To wit:
Perhaps the lesson of Giuseppe Rossi's rise to torment the Americans for Italy isn't so much that U.S. Soccer whiffed by failing to land Rossi for the Stars & Stripes -- "my dream was always to play for the Italian national team," Rossi says -- but something else entirely. Soccer superstars are more readily forged in a mature soccer culture, from the earliest age possible.
If you ask Rossi whether he could have developed into the player he has become by staying in the United States as a teenager, his response makes complete sense. "It would have been very difficult," he says in a sharp New Jersey accent, "because people know that the best soccer is played in Europe, and if a player wants to be the best and to learn from the best, then going to Europe is the best way to go." It's better, moreover, to go early. Several American players have moved overseas in their late teens, but soccer's superstars joined their clubs even sooner: Argentina's Lionel Messi with Barcelona at age 12, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo with Sporting Lisbon at 11 and England's Wayne Rooney with Everton at 10.
In New Jersey, where delis and pizzerias invariably have pictures of the Italian national team on the walls, Rossi grew up in the closest thing the U.S. has to an established soccer environment. On Sundays as a child, he'd watch Serie A games pulled in on the family's satellite dish and discuss them endlessly in Italian with his father, Fernando, a teacher and longtime soccer coach at Clifton High. Rossi's bedroom in Clifton still has the posters he put up on the walls of AC Milan stars Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, players he would imitate on the playground at Clifton School 3 in long hours of solitary training as an eight year old. "I would drive by and see Giuseppe there blasting the ball off the wall," recalls Bob D'Arco, a former board member of Rossi's Clifton Stallions club team. "Just him, alone. Not Fernando. He put lines on the wall and would kick at targets. At eight years old. What kid does that? He had the heart and the passion."
Whenever he traveled to club tournaments with the Stallions, Rossi provoked slack-jawed reactions from opposing teams, fans and even referees. "He stood out immediately, not only to me but to anyone who had any understanding of soccer," says Rich Gentile, who coached Rossi from age seven to 12. Rossi's childhood friend and teammate, Raffaele Lauretta, recalls Rossi's uncanny ball skills, his deadly left-footed shot and his ability to protect the ball with his feet as easily as though he were clutching it with his hands. "From the beginning these things were all clear," Lauretta says. "Honestly. These were things you would have said if you had seen him at age six, too."
By the time Giuseppe was 12, however, he and his family faced a momentous decision. Every summer Fernando and his wife, Cleonilde, took Giuseppe and his sister, Tina, on vacation to Italy, where they would visit a different region of the country each year. Giuseppe took part in a soccer camp and impressed a scout for Parma, who invited him to move to Italy and join the club's renowned development academy. "It was a really tough decision," says Fernando, who relocated to Italy as well in 2000 and spent the next nine years living in Europe with his son. (Cleonilde and Tina stayed in New Jersey.)
Fernando coached for 30 years in New Jersey, and he knew firsthand the limitations of youth development in American soccer. "Giuseppe grew up at Parma breathing soccer 24 hours a day," says Fernando. "The environment, the structure is totally different. Any professional organization, they start with kids that are seven years old and start molding them into professional players. Every year you might start with 100 kids and end up the year with five. Over here [in the U.S.] it's more on the recreational side. It's two different structures. I think we're lacking a little bit here."
At 17 Giuseppe moved to Manchester United, where he scored 70 goals in 72 games for the reserves but failed to gain a regular spot on the first team and went out on loan to Newcastle United and Parma. "I didn't feel Manchester United gave him a fair chance to play first-team ball," says Fernando, who asked Ferguson to sell Giuseppe to another club when United wouldn't commit to keeping him with the first team. Rossi joined Villarreal and scored on his debut, becoming perhaps the only player ever to do so for three different clubs (Manchester United, Parma and Villarreal). Rossi poured in 23 goals over the past two Spanish seasons, was the leading scorer at the 2008 Olympics with Italy and may now have made his breakthrough for the Azzurri's senior team, as fate would have it, against the United States.
Rossi turned down the chance to play for the U.S. in 2005, causing some American fans to label him a turncoat, but he maintains that he never seriously considered playing for his birth country. "Not really," he says. "It was a great honor that the U.S. said they wanted me to play for them, but deep down my dream was always to play for the Azzurri. The people of U.S. Soccer were very nice to me, and I think U.S. soccer has a great future."
There's another reason Giuseppe Rossi has been on my mind lately. Whenever I post anything about him on Twitter, a number of U.S. fans act like they're in a competition to see who can come up with the most outrageously negative responses about Rossi. Many of them are unprintable here, but they include celebrating his ACL injuries and calling Rossi everything from "Judas" to "turncoat" to "Benedict Arnold," all for deciding to play soccer for Italy instead of the United States.
Those people should be embarrassed.
Fans have every right to boo. I get that. But much of the over-the-top Rossi bashing crosses the line. It ignores the fact that the same U.S. fans celebrate the decision of, say, José Torres to play for the U.S. over Mexico. It ignores the fact that a current U.S. player like Jozy Altidore is a close friend of Rossi (his former teammate at Villarreal) and has been extremely supportive of his recovery. And it ignores the basic elements of classy fan behavior.
You may argue that fans are inherently irrational, but the worst of the Rossi behavior has no place in that discussion. "I think some people respect my decision," Rossi told me in 2009. "Of course there are people who don't, but that's not a problem. That's how life is. When a person makes a certain decision there's the positive and the negative side."
"People have to understand that it was a natural thing for Giuseppe to say he wanted to play for Italy," Rossi's father, Fernando, said three years ago. "Why? Because he grew up soccer-wise when he moved there at 12 years old. He went to school with the kids and went through every level in the [Italian] national team. So it's natural to say I want to play in Italy, with no disrespect for where he was born."
"For me, New Jersey is the best place in the world," Giuseppe said. "You have your friends, your family, your house. It's home for me."
The last two years have been tough for Giuseppe Rossi. He missed out on the World Cup. He has dealt with career-threatening injuries. And toughest of all, when Fernando died in February 2010 at age 60, Rossi lost the man who had been the most influential figure in his life and career.
There's a big TK on Giuseppe Rossi's future right now. But if you've spent any time around him, you hope he makes it all the way back in 2013. I'll be looking forward to writing an all-new story about his comeback in SI magazine when that happens.