With the Primavera poised to win the Viareggio Cup for the first time since 1992, it got me wondering: How good would Fiorentina be if the squad was composed entirely of players who’d come through the youth ranks?
Since there are easy ways to research this, I went ahead and put together this XI. My only rules were that the player had to have actually played for the Primavera for parts of at least one season—which excludes guys like Adem Ljajić and Marko Bakić, who made an appearance with the youth side while rehabilitating from injury, but were never regulars—and that they are playing first- or second-tier, senior football—so count out any of the current Primavera squad.
Goalkeeper: Andrea Seculin
Currently the number 2 at Chievo Verona behind ageless marvel Stefano Sorrentino, the 27-year-old from the Slovenian border has just one appearance for the Donkeys this year, and that in the Coppa Italia. However, he’s the heir apparent to to Sorrentino, who’s 38 years old and surely doesn’t have more than a couple of years in the tank at most. Frankly, Fiorentina’s current goalkeeper depth is better, with Marco Sportiello and Bartłomiej Drągowski ahead of current Primavera star Michele Cerofolini, but Seculin is a solid player who’s perfectly at home in Serie A.
Rightback: Cristiano Piccini
Oh, what could have been. Everything seemed to be working perfectly with Piccini, who joined Fiorentina as a 10-year-old: he made his senior debut in 2010 as a 17-year-old in relief of Manuel Pasqual, then excelled on loan at Spezia and Livorno the next two years. However, the Daniele Pradè regime sold him to Real Betis in 2015 for €1.5 million (plus a buyback clause), and after an injury-marred start to his career with los Verderones, he firmly established himself as a rock-solid defender, earning a move to Portugal’s Sporting CP last year. Now 25 years old, he’s got the look of a very solid player who probably deserves at least a look for Roberto di Biagio. While he’s not the fastest player out there, his stamina, instincts, intelligence, and crossing make him one of the better fullbacks around. I still can’t believe Fiorentina let him go.
Centerback: Gianluca Mancini
This is the first one on this list that really stings. Still just 21 years old and a native Tuscan to boot, the U21 international moved to Perugia in 2016 for an undisclosed (read: way too low) fee, and then joined Atalanta for just €800,000 six months later. He’s established himself as a rotational player for la Dea this year, making 8 appearances and even getting himself a goal. With Mattia Caldara due to return to Juventus at season’s end, Mancini will get a chance to establish himself as a full-time starter for Gian Piero Gasperini next season. He’s the sort of bargain-bin find that has turned Atalanta into a serious contender for the Europa places every year, and the Viola must be kicking themselves over losing out.
Centerback: Michele Camporese
This isn’t just nostalgia (although there’s certainly a bit of that, too), because Camporese has had a very solid year in Serie B with Foggia. He’s there on loan with an obligation to buy from Benevento, who snapped him up on a free last year from Empoli. After fighting his way into a starting spot with the Stregoni last year during their surprising promotion run, he left in search of more first-team football; given his extensive injury history, it’s no surprise that he felt he had something to prove. He’s now in the midst of his second consecutive year without major injuries (a first since he was a teenager) and has been one of the only bright spots for the Satanelli this year. While he may never become the player we hoped he’d be when he kept Zlatan Ibrahimović in his pocket for 90 minutes as an 18-year-old, he’s finally established himself as a steady professional.
Leftback: Danilo D’Ambrosio
The 29-year-old spent 2 years in Florence as a teenager before the club let him leave for Potenza on a co-ownership deal in 2008, then for Juve Stabia for €30,000 the next year. After spending a couple years toiling in the lower reaches of calcio, he earned a move to Torino, where he developed a reputation for his non-stop motor, surprising nose for goal, and versatility to play either side. Although he’s come in for some criticism from fans over the years, he’s a very, very good defender and would step into Stefano Pioli’s XI without a second thought.
Midfield: Leonardo Capezzi
Here’s another excellent player the Viola lost under Pradè, who failed to extend the youngster’s contract after a revelatory campaign on loan at Crotone in 2015. Pantaleo Corvino was unable to get a deal done in time, and the Pitagorici somehow ended up getting him for a bargain fee of €800,000. They immediately sold him to Sampdoria for €1 million plus another year on loan. This year, the former U21 star has mostly been on the bench, but that’s hardly an indictment in a really talented Samp midfield. He’s the type who can boss the center of the pitch, quickly cycling the ball around the pitch and dictating play from a deep position. Long seen as a replacement for David Pizarro, and then for Milan Badelj, losing him for a pittance is a damning piece of evidence for those who think that Fiorentina is a poorly-run club.
Midfield: Lorenzo Lollo
You don’t have to go too far to find another midfielder that the Viola missed out on. Empoli have the 27-year-old on loan from Carpi, with an obligatory €800,000 to be paid at the end of the year to make the move permanent. It’s a good bit of business for the Tuscans, who’ve found a part-time starter in the Carrara-born man. His best quality is his energy: he’s up and down the pitch for 90 minutes every match and can wear down an opponent with his athleticism. While he’s certainly a functional player rather than a creative one, he’s helped lead Empoli to the best record in Serie B and should feature in the top flight next season. He’d be a perfect foil to the more elegant Capezzi.
Right wing: Federico Chiesa
The only Primavera graduate who’s still with Fiorentina, Fede’s got the potential to be the best player on this list as well. He’s certainly the most dangerous attacker in the side right now, using his intelligent movement and excellent dribbling to run at opponents. While he still hasn’t figured out the final ball (although given the dreary nature of his fellow attackers, it’s not his fault), he’s widely viewed as one of the brightest young wingers in the world and just earned his first senior cap for Italy. Whether he stays in Florence or follows the big money elsewhere, he’s Exhibit A as to why young players should stick in one place as long as they’re getting regular minutes, as the stability and continuity have helped him immensely.
Left wing: Federico Bernardeschi
I don’t like it any more than you do, but Berna’s a dang good player. Energetic, tricky on the ball, opportunistic with his shooting, and possessing an eye for the killer pass, it’s easy to see why Juventus snapped him up. While the nature of his exit (“next Antognoni” indeed) still rankles, he was the greatest triumph of the Viola academy in years. At least until Chiesa burst onto the scene.
Striker: Kenneth Zohore
The hulking 24-year-old Dane of Ivorian extraction (he’s Didier Drogba’s cousin) never really found his footing in Florence, which is a shame. An uneven couple of campaigns with the Primavera ended with his return to Denmark on a free transfer. An impressive 2015, however, was enough to convince Cardiff to give him a shot, and he repaid the Welsh outfit’s trust with 12 goals and 5 assists last season. This year, he’s at 7 and 4, but he’s firmly established himself as a starter for the Bluebirds, in large part because he is a massive human: at 6’4 and 212 lbs (190 cm and 96 kg), his sheer physicality occupies opposing defenses and opens space for teammates, as evidenced by the balanced scoring output (4 players with 7 or 8 goals). He’s buoyed his club to 2nd in the Championship and looks like he’ll be playing in the Premier League next season. Not a bad career trajectory for a player who looked lost and technique-deficient while he wore purple, but I don’t think any of us predicted he’d come good like this.
Striker: Khouma Babacar
It’s hard to believe that El Khouma is gone. It’s even harder to believe that he just turned 25 two weeks ago; after all, he debuted at 16 and scored his first Viola goal at 17, both under Cesare Prandelli, and that feels like a lifetime ago. Although he never earned a spot as a regular starter in Florence—although I’d argue that his failure to do so was more based on club politics than talent—he’s always boasted a gaudy goals-per-minute ratio that puts him in the company of Serie A’s finest. His ignominious exit to Sassuolo has already paid dividends for the Neroverdi, as he’s already notched 2 goals in 6 appearances, as well as earning a very belated call-up for Senegal. Given Giovanni Simeone’s struggles to find the back of the net, it’s absurd that Corvino ran Babacar out of town, even with a high salary, as the striker was also famously attached to to the city of Florence and the fans.
GK Luca Lezzerini (Avellino), CB Ondrej Mazuch (Hull City), RB Luca Bittante (Carpi on loan from Empoli), CM Jacopo Petriccione (Bari), AM Filippo Bandinelli (Perugia on loan from Sassuolo), ST Matos Ryder (Hellas Verona on loan from Udinese), ST Pietro Iemmello (Benevento)