The saga of Riccardo Saponara at Fiorentina has finally concluded with the player leaving on loan to Sampdoria, per the Genovese club’s announcement today. The fee for the loan is a hefty €2 million, which seems a sound indication that Samp will pay the remaining €7 million at season’s end that Gianluca di Marzio reports the Viola will require to sell him permanently.
It’s yet another underwhelming step in a career that’s been full of them. The Forli-born 26-year-old came up with Ravenna before Empoli bought his rights in January 2009. The Azzuri turned around and sold him to AC Milan in 2013 for a below-market €4.8 million after he’d established himself as a rising creative star in Tuscany. However, Ricky never took to life in Milan, and the Rossoneri sent him back to Empoli on loan after just a year and 8 appearances. Back on the Arno, he recovered his form and was poised to make Milan look dumb for offloading him at a loss when injury hit. That’s when Fiorentina swooped in and grabbed him from their local rivals for €9 million, setting off Empoli fan protests that resulted in typically sardonic Tuscan responses from the Viola faithful and led to Saponara being dubbed “the Cheese” around these parts.
It took Ricky awhile to find his feet in Florence; he dealt with various niggling injuries and then seemed a round peg for a square hole in Stefano Pioli’s blood-and-thunder midfield. However, as the Viola slumped into the double-digit places in Serie A around the middle of last year, the mister rolled the dice with Saponara and the Cheese helped inspire the team to a historic winning run, a charge up the standings which culminated with a pair of heartbreaking losses to cap the season and miss out on the Europa League. It’s worth mentioning that he started from the bench in the dispiriting defeat against Cagliari, but captained the side against Milan in the infamous shellacking.
Those two matches, perhaps more than any of his best ones, capture his essence perfectly: he’s a wonderful player cursed by luck to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. His silky play in attack is a throwback to the era of fantasistas in Italy. He loves that free role in the middle of the pitch, drifting between the lines and working the ball forward with clever passing and movement. He’s a joy to watch, but he’s also an anachronism, a throwback to the days when the likes of Rui Costa or Juan Roman Riquelme were afforded the time and space to work their magic.
Lacking the pace to operate as a winger and the grinta to drop in as a midfielder, the Cheese is the sort of player who needs a team to be built around him if he’s to fulfill his potential. In other words, we all knew he was on the outs when Pioli told the press this summer that Fiorentina were going to play a 4-3-3. Despite experimenting with Ricky in midfield during the preseason, everyone knew that he’d have to move on.
Marco Giampaolo must have been delighted to land him, as Saponara perfectly fits his plans. Saponara will fight with Gastón Ramírez (another enganche born too late) for playmaking duties in Giampaolo’s 4-3-1-2. With a midfield behind that’s packed with passing quality as much as with energy and a group of strikers who thrive working the channels, we wouldn’t be shocked to see Riccardo finish the year as one of Serie A’s standout performers, assuming (always a big if) that he can stay healthy. The move also adds another layer of complexity to the season-opening fixture against the Blucerchiati.
For the romantics among us, losing the Cheese is another nail in the coffin of the free-flowing, entertaining Fiorentina of Cesare Prandelli and Vincenzo Montella. The Pioli pragmatism, while possibly useful for a mid-tier club trying to find its way in a football world that prioritizes athleticism and transitions over magic, has no use for a luxury player like Saponara. While he may seem a solid Plan B off the bench, his €1.1 million salary is against it, as is the fact that he’s the sort of player who needs to start a match to control it. It’s probably best for everyone that the Cheese is now free to soar in Genoa, and we wish him the best.