Pitchside Europe

Mauro Icardi: Sampdoria’s lucky charm


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It was drizzling as the pallbearers carried the coffin into the Chiesa della Gesù e dei Santi Ambrogio e Andrea on Wednesday. Those in attendance looked to the sky and said to each other: 'Genova is crying'.

The city had lost a great man. Earlier in the week, Sampdoria president Riccardo Garrone had passed away after a long illness. Players and coaches both past and present, and dignitaries from other clubs came from far and wide to pay their respects. He meant a lot to so many.

One of the last Padre-Patron or father-like owners, Garrone, after many years of sponsoring the club, had come to its aid in an hour of need. Relegation in 1999, the withdrawal of the Mantovani family who had overseen the greatest period in the history of Sampdoria and the collapse of a takeover following the bluff of an Arab prince or 'fake sheikh' meant that the team were more likely to be in Serie C rather than in Serie A until he intervened and rescued the club in 2002.

"Samp was a very beautiful and very good ballerina, who then fell gravely ill and needed an urgent cure," Garrone told in Il Corriere della Sera. "We managed to heal her. Now we count on making the ballerina very beautiful and very good again like she was some time ago. Step by step. We're trying."

Sampdoria were promoted in his first season at the helm. The supporters, for the most part, were forever grateful. Even when the club found themselves in Serie B again in 2011 and traumatically so just a year after finishing fourth and qualifying for the preliminary rounds of the Champions League, Garrone helped ensure they bounced straight back.

As the Sampdoria players walked out onto the pitch for Sunday's game against Pescara, they saw a banner unfurled in the Gradinata Sud. "Simply thank you Presidente," it read. The players had been told in the dressing room beforehand by coach Delio Rossi to honor Garrone's memory. And they all did. Sampdoria won 6-0 thanks in no small measure to Mauro Icardi.

He became only the third player in the club's history and the first since Sergio Brighenti over half a century ago to score four goals in a single game for them. Still just a teenager with little under a month to go until he celebrates his 20th birthday, Icardi ranks fifth on Serie A's all-time list of youngest scorers of a poker. That it came on the same day that Lionel Messi also scored four in Barcelona's 5-1 hammering of Osasuna was also remarkable. They're friends, you know? Old acquaintances. But more about that later.

"It is a day I will remember for all my life," he said. "Scoring four goals in Serie A doesn't happen often. I dedicate them to the President." It was some homage. While Icardi acknowledges that it's a rare thing indeed to hit a quadruple, he has done it before and not so long ago too in a match for Sampdoria's Primavera against Grosseto.

His finishing on Sunday was devastating. Icardi, who grew up idolising Gabriel Batistuta for his "power and agility", turned a defender and did him for pace to score his first, went around the highly-regarded Pescara goalkeeper Mattia Perin for his second, got in the box for a tap-in for his third and then pounced on a defensive mistake for his fourth.

Ice appears to run through this kid's veins. His debut for Samp last season came in a Serie B match against Juve Stabia that they absolutely had to win if they were to make the play-offs and have any chance of promotion to Serie A. Thrown on as a substitute with quarter-of-an-hour to go, what does he do? He scores the winner.

His next act of heroism arrived in mid-November. Samp headed into the Derby della Lanterna against Genoa on a run of seven straight defeats. The coach at the time, Ciro Ferrara, handed Icardi his first start in Serie A. His faith was repaid. With two minutes to go, Icardi scored the goal that sealed a 3-1 victory.

Then what happened? Ferrara got sacked and was replaced by Rossi, whose second game in charge turned out to be away to champions Juventus. Only Inter had won in Turin since the Juventus Stadium's inauguration and things started badly there for Sampdoria. They fell 1-0 down, conceding a penalty which Sebastian Giovinco converted and after half an hour saw one of their defenders Gaetano Berardi sent off.

No one gave Sampdoria a prayer. Icardi, however, still believed. He capitalised on a mistake by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to level the score at 1-1 and then found an improbable winner.

The question many asked at the time was simple: Where did Sampdoria discover this guy? Because it looks like they have struck gold.

Icardi was born in Rosario, Argentina, the city of Che Guevara and of course Lionel Messi. Even by the age of five, his talent as a footballer was there for all to see. His first coach at the local boys club, Jose Cordoba looked on from the sidelines as Icardi made the net bulge over and over again. He scored 58 goals in his first season for Club Infantil Sarratea and 108 in the next, a Messi-like strike-rate.

Those boys from Rosario don't half know where the goal is.

Icardi would in time follow Messi to La Masia. His parents moved to Tenerife in 2002 on account of the financial crisis in Argentina. It was like Icardi packed up all his goals in a suitcase and brought them with him. He scored 128 goals in a single campaign for Vecindario, his youth team in the Canary Islands. After a youth tournament played against Espanyol and Porto, Icardi's father received a phone call. It was from Barcelona. He was to be enrolled at La Masia.

This was in 2007. Rodolfo Borrell, one of Barcelona's academy coaches at the time, who'd later go onto work for Liverpool, recalled in La Repubblica: "[Icardi] is one of those [players] who you see as a young lad and think to yourself: Heck! What skills. How far can this kid go?"

Messi took him under his wing. "As soon I arrived at Barça he came to get to know me," Icardi told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "Did he offer any advice? Only one thing: 'Always work hard'." And that's what Icardi did. He won the Juvenil championship and the Copa Catalunya, scoring 38 goals in two seasons.

Barcelona had found and produced another top prospect. They form so many of them. And yet, the standard of the first team is so high, perhaps the highest it has ever been in the history of football, that not all can find space to play for the club beyond youth level.

That was certainly how Cesc Fabregas felt and why he decided to leave Barcelona for Arsenal a decade ago. He wasn't about to dislodge Xavi and felt he needed to play regularly if he were to develop further. Icardi no doubt came to the same conclusion. While observing his mate Messi he presumably thought: 'No matter how good I am, there's no chance I'm gonna get a look-in when one of the best players of all-time is playing in my position'."

Sampdoria were Icardi's Arsenal. Their former director of sport Sergio Gasparin and ex-chief scout Riccardo Pecini [who's now at Monaco] had seen him play for Barcelona's Juvenil side at a tournament in Italy in 2010. Playing a Milan XI comprising players two or three years older than them, they won 5-1. Icardi scored an extraordinary free-kick. Samp had been monitoring him closely but by then they'd seen enough.

He was signed for €400k a year ago. It's the best piece of business the club has done in years, for Icardi's rise has been irresistible. After scoring 19 goals for Samp's Primavera, the club couldn't hold him back any longer. Unleashed on Serie A, he has chalked up seven in this, his first full season at the club.

Icardi should have been at the Sub-20 tournament in South America representing Argentina this month. He was deemed too important to Sampdoria, however, and the club asked that he stay in Genova. Which country Icardi elects to play for is the subject of great speculation in Italy. His family have Italian origins and Italy coach Cesare Prandelli would dearly like him to be a part of the Azzurri rather than the Albiceleste set-up.

As with Messi, though, the experience of living away from Argentina for much of his life has not diminished the connection he has or seeks to retain with his roots. Icardi has often said that, as someone born and raised in Argentina, he cares greatly about one day wearing the colours of his country. But there have been mixed signals.

"For now, I'm Argentine," Icardi claimed, "but you never know."

His preference for Argentina was also disputed by Prandelli. "He wants Argentina," La Gazzetta dello Sport's Luigi Garlando said after the Italy coach had revealed he was monitoring Icardi. "He told us otherwise," Prandelli insisted. "We've talked to him about it. There was an agreement. Then something happened."

That something was a call up to Italy's Under-19s for a match with Hungary in April 2012, which Icardi apparently rejected. "We're still hopeful," Prandelli added. In the meantime, no pressure will be put on the player to make a decision. Samp wish to offer him a new contract, mindful that the terms of his existing deal worth €60k a year, is unlikely to keep him sweet. Inter are already said to be preparing a bid for next summer.

For now, Icardi is Samp's. The club arguably haven't had a striker so good so young since Roberto Mancini. On Sunday evening, Icardi tweeted a picture of the match-ball signed by his teammates. The hashtag was: #LUCKY, a reference to the puppy in shot, but it could apply to Samp. For they're very lucky to have him.

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