Everyone knows relationships can be complicated, but Italy seems to be a special case. It’s a place where it can take hours to explain the connections between soccer clubs, players, owners, sporting directors, agents and suitors. The tale of Domenico Berardi weaves a similarly tangled web, and we still don’t know where it ends.
It’s hard to believe Berardi is just 22 years old, as we’ve been hearing about the forward’s skills for a decade. He got his first senior start in August 2012 with Sassuolo, a small-town club that spent the majority of its existence outside Italy’s professional divisions. The Neroverdi were still in Serie B when he debuted, and while highlights were shared and stories traded, few watched full 90 minute second-division matches. But by the end of the season, Berardi had scored 11 goals, Sassuolo had won the Serie B title and Italian football had a new star with an uncertain path ahead of him.
So, as they always do, Juventus came calling. Juventus and Sassuolo agreed to an arrangement known as co-ownership, unfamiliar to many outside Italy and confusing to those who do pay attention to calcio. It’s also a practice that’s now banned by the Italian FA. Juve owned 50 percent of Berardi’s rights, but he remained at Sassuolo for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. In June 2015, Sassuolo paid €7.3 million to take full ownership of Berardi but, this being Italy, Juventus still have the first option to buy him, an agreement formed out of the close relationship between Sassuolo and the Bianconeri.
Now, we’re only a few weeks into 2017 and the talented young Italian is still with the little club where he began his professional career. But there is increasing pressure on the player from teams who believe themselves more worthy of his talent.
There are rumors of interest from clubs like Liverpool, but the real fight for Berardi is between Juventus and Inter. The latter are battling for a Champions League place, and Berardi, despite scoring just seven goals last season, would make an excellent addition. He scored 15 the year before that, and 16 during Sassuolo’s first season in Serie A. Berardi was likely interested, if only because he’s an Inter supporter. Nevertheless Beppe Marotta, sporting director at Juventus, told the press that Berardi would not be going to the Milan club. He did so despite Juventus retaining no official ownership interest in the player. Amid all this, Giorgio Squinzi, president of Sassuolo, insisted his club want Berardi to lead them for years to come.
Sassuolo fans have more immediate concerns. This weekend Juve come to town, and it’s not certain whether Berardi will play. Not officially uncertain, of course. The Old Lady’s “control” over the player doesn’t extend that far. But Berardi has coincidentally missed four of seven games against Juventus, whether through injury, suspension or illness.
His reason for skipping the last Juve match, a 3-1 Sassuolo loss, was certainly legitimate. At the end of August, Berardi hurt his knee, and remained out until the beginning of January. The Neroverdi felt Berardi’s absence: after qualifying for the Europa League last season, they finished the first half of this campaign in 16th, having lost their final four games of 2016. Berardi returned for the goalless draw against Torino, then added two assists in a 4-1 victory over Palermo. But that was Palermo, the second worst team in the league. The 3-1 win over the worst team, Pescara, also meant little. It will be against Juventus that Berardi’s return will truly be judged.
If he does well, capitalizing on Juventus’s defensive fragility, Sassuolo will try even harder to keep their hero. It won’t make his other suitors give up, of course, but the Neroverdi would be able to play a stronger hand.
But if he’s struck by a sudden bout of “flu,” this will be game over, and he will leave in the summer or even before the end of January. It also may end up being the biggest mistake of Berardi’s career. Yes, players should take risks. They should challenge themselves to find out just how far their talent can take them. What these players often don’t consider (what, unfortunately, most around them aren’t reminding them to consider) is the timing of those risks.
Juventus, obviously, are not a bad club. But, due to their strength, they have the power to make decisions that are bad for players. Right now there is little need for Berardi at Juve, no space for him in the squad. However, buying him would prevent any other club from doing so, thereby becoming a more credible challenger for the title. It’s smart business from Juventus, but not so smart for Berardi. After such a long injury layoff, he needs consistent playing time, preferably in a familiar environment without the added distraction of having to learn the culture of his new team.
One-club wonders are a rarity these days. Sassuolo fans are not foolish enough to believe they’ll be wearing Berardi’s name across their backs ten years from today. But for now, the club remains an ideal fit; one willing to build a team around the forward’s strengths and skills. They may not be Italy’s most successful club, but they’ll be in Serie A again next year, and by continuing to make intelligent decisions, can likely challenge for Europe again. Eusebio Di Francesco has been at the helm of the club for the past four seasons, and he knows how to get the best from Berardi. He’s also aware of how to deal with Berardi’s rather tempestuous moods, theorizing that giving him more responsibility will help him grow.
Give it a couple more years, Domenico. Then feel free to get food poisoning right before a Juventus game. At that point, you two just might find yourselves ready to create an enviable relationship.