What's With the Net(o)?

Dino Panato

Is Neto too big a gamble for Fiorentina to push for European contention?

With the possible exception of continued drama swirling around the future of apparently "not serene" Adem Ljajic, nothing is more worth a good grumble or argument in the Viola fan community these days than Fiorentina's goalkeeper. In my first piece for Viola Nation, I noted that "if there is one position where Fiorentina fans expect the highest level of play, it's from their goalkeeper," and I stand by that sentiment today. Debatably, it is Florence's greatest calcio tradition, with players like Giuliano Sarti, Enrico Albertosi, and Franco Superchi in the club's storied past, while Giovanni Galli and Francesco Toldo are more recent outstanding Italian goalkeepers who served long and successful tenures in the Fiorentina goal. Emiliano Viviano was supposed to carry on this line of outstanding (and almost impeccably loyal) club stewards, but his performances under Montella fell short of the glittering standard.

So what is next for the Fiorentina net? Young Brazilian starlet Norberto Murara Neto is set to take the starting place between the sticks. Signed for an undisclosed fee in the winter window of 2011 after injury to Sebastien Frey, at the time he had just been called up to the Seleção after a fantastic season in goal for Atletico Paranaense, and was still at the tender age of 21.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013, and despite his success in Brazil, undisputed capacity for the spectacular (no one who saw his save against Cremonese can deny his athletic prowess), and ringing endorsements from Fiorentina management and coaching, question marks still surround Neto's future in Florence. The endorsements from Montella & Co are seen by many as a negotiating tactic in order to give the club more freedom in buying an experienced starter; meanwhile, the same market rumors and fan whispering is unlikely to give Neto the "confidence" that Montella continues to emphasize is necessary for the number 89.

At the same time, the whispering (loud whispering) is rather justified. Whatever his athletic gifts, Neto is unproven, and an unproven goalkeeper - who already has a pretty atrocious Serie A mistake to his name - is enough to make any fan nervous, especially with competitive European matches on the horizon. To add to the ultra's unease is the fact that there wouldn't be an Italian in Florence's goal, and although Frey had several seasons of brilliance, the Boruc experiment rattled the nerves considerably. As a fellow fan on Twitter commented to me: "He's not from Fiesole [referring to Viviano], so he can't even make half a mistake." It would be foolish to pretend that this unique pressure from the piazza didn't exist.

In that same first piece for Viola Nation that I referenced above, I had a couple less-than-kind words for Neto's season, giving his performances a "D" and noting that while "I had high hopes for this kid" I had concluded that "he appears to lack both the physical and the mental characteristics required to be a goalkeeper at the highest level." I don't self-quote only to vainly repeat myself, but to interrogate my words. I have, quite clearly, somewhat revised my stance. Neto is not a physical "specimen" like a Neuer, and he will never dominate the box on corners like a Buffon, but Neto is a reactive, fast, and strong goalkeeper, who plays well with his feet and is incredibly quick off his line. He definitely fits the type of keeper that this Fiorentina side would like.

The situation is very delicate, and the risks are great. Giving confidence to this talented kid could pay off enormously, as Neto arguably has the skills to become a far better keeper than the mediocre options on the market. And, after all, keepers are just like other players in that they all make mistakes; goalkeeper's mistakes are merely much less forgivable and much more public than a misplaced pass or skewed shot. But what is the margin for error in this case, and is it worth the risk?

Here's an extensive montage of Neto's goalkeeping highlights, including his days in Brazil. Some truly great saves to be found (but ignore the music):

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