If a scriptwriter had come up with a screenplay encompassing the major upheavals in Fabio Liverani’s recent life, hewould probably have had it sent back to him with comments such as “far-fetched” and “unrealistic” attached.
The point about the 25-year-old playmaker is that he is the living embodiment of that daft notion that, just sometimes, dreams come true.
Liverani is a player who in the space of 10 months has moved from being a Serie C regular to a senior international debut, via an outstanding first Serie A season, with Perugia.
That achievement, in itself, would have been enough to earn him an important mention in the season’s chronicles. Yet, he has written himself into Italian football history for another, much more important reason – the colour of his skin.
Liverani is a black player, Rome-born of a Somalian mother and Italian father. When he lined up for Italy during their 1-0 friendly win against South Africa on April 25, he became the first black player selected by a senior Italian international side.
As befitted an important occasion, all the omens on the day were right. For a start, fate and Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni decreed that he make his international debut in his current base, Perugia, in front of those fans for whom he has become an idol.
Secondly, the debut came against South Africa, a country for so long in the vanguard of the struggle against racial prejudice.
On top of that, the debut was facilitated by Trapattoni, who first ‘discovered’ him six years earlier. Finally, need one add that he gave an impeccable display, immediately suggesting that he will be on Trapattoni’s shortlist when it comes to announcing his 2002 World Cup squad.
When the coach named Liverani in his squad for the South Africa game, the news was greeted with unqualified acclaim, not so much because Liverani is the first black footballer to don the famous ‘azzurro’ (blue) shirt, but more because of his unquestioned talent.
Even so, it seemed that Liverani would bestarting the match on the bench, perhaps being brought on as a replacement for the number one choice in the playmaker position, Roma captain Francesco Totti. Yet here again the sporting gods intervened, with Totti being ruled out of the match following an injury picked up during a practice match tussle withLiverani.
So the Perugia man made the starting line-up, and with his first touch of the night sent Francesco Coco away down the right wing with a delicious through ball. It was the first of many, most of them directed at forwards Filippo Inzaghi and Vincenzo Mo
ntella, during an international debut that simply oozed class. “It wasn’t easy for Liverani because it’s hard for anyone to step into such a key midfield role in an international side on your debut,” said Trapattoni after the game. “Yet he played with natural ease as if hehad been playing behind Montella and Inzaghi all his life long.”
It was when Trapattoni was coach of then Serie A side Cagliari back in 1995 that he discovered Liverani, 19 years old and in his first professional season. Trapattoni was impressed by the teenager and suggested that, rather than train and travel with the reserves, Liverani be added to the first-team contingent.
In the end, he never actually got to play in Serie A but the experience of his first-team training was to prove useful for both player and coach. Trapattoni noted the boy as one with a future; Liverani used Trapattoni as a reference when he went looking for employment in less demanding environs.
After a brief spell at Serie C1 team Nocerina, he played for four Serie C2 seasons with Viterbese, the side from Viterbo, just north of Rome.
Had it not been for the fact that 12 months ago Viterbese wereowned by tycoon Luciano Gaucci, the man who also owned Perugia, then perhaps little more would have been heard of Liverani. Last summer, however, when Gaucci decided to sell Viterbese, he offered Liverani a move to Perugia (for the modest annual salary of œ43,000, since doubled).
This season, plucky Perugia have shown themselves to be one of the toughest relegation battlers of all, as witnessed by their current Serie A mid-table position. Prominent in that campaign has been Liverani, as well as coach Serse Cosmi and central defender Marco Materazzi, who also made an impressive Italy debut against South Africa.
Liverani’s arrival in the national team, however, clearly has resonances that go way beyond football. In a season when the international image of Italian soccer has been besmirched by the racist chants of fans (especially during Italy’s friendly against England and a Lazio-Arsenal Champions League game last autumn), it is important that the increasingly multi-ethnic face of Italian society finally begins to be reflected in the nation’s best-loved game.
The midfielder is all too aware of his historic role, saying: “This was the most wonderful night of my life and I shall remember it always. Of course, I am proud to be the first coloured player to play for Italy. I am proud of the colour of my skin, even if it means nothing in the international team.Whether you’re red, yellow, green or white, you only get a call-up if the coach thinks you can play a bit.”
Those of us who have watched Liverani in Italy know all too well that he can do that. With any luck, fans worldwide may also get to know about him next summer at the World Cup finals. Balanced, able to play off either foot, blessed with vision and football intelligence, deadly accurate with corner and free-kicks, his only obvious defect is a lack of pace.
However, in an Italian season tortured by passport, doping and match-fixing scandals, the Liverani story is a welcome respite, a dream story that may yet run and run.
Born April 29, 1976, in Rome
Previous clubs Cagliari, Nocerina, Viterbese
International debut April 2001, v South Africa
International caps 1 (0 goals)