Forza Italian Football’s ‘Next Generation’ series takes an in-depth look at some of the most exciting players on the peninsula who are yet to make their breakthrough. To qualify, the youngsters must be under 21 and have made a maximum of five Serie A appearances.
For a recently-turned 18-year-old, Roma’s Riccardo Calafiori has had a remarkably eventful career.
The name might ring a distant bell. If so, it’s likely because in October 2018, Edin Dzeko dedicated his Champions League hat-trick against Viktoria Plzen to the teenager by holding up a shirt with his name on it.
The reason for the Bosnian’s gesture was simple. Earlier that day, Calafiori had suffered a horrific, career-threatening knee injury in a UEFA Youth League match against the Czech side.
It was devastating blow to a player who was showing enormous promise and regarded as one of the most exciting prospects coming through the Giallorossi youth ranks.
Calafiori joined his hometown club aged just nine and showed his talent from the start as he rose through the age grades, frequently playing in the category above his own.
For example, when the left-back helped Roma Under-17s win the Scudetto and Supercoppa double in 2018, he had only just turned 16.
This was a player on the ascendancy, and he soon attracted the admiring gaze of super-agent Mino Raiola, who signed Calafiori up as a client long before he reached first-team level.
In 2018/19, the youngster was promoted to the Primavera side. But in just his second appearance, disaster struck.
A rash, studs-up challenge from a Plzen player left Calafiori stricken on the turf. His left knee was shattered, the replays almost unwatchable.
The extent of the damage later emerged: all the ligaments in the meniscus and capsule of his knee had been ruptured. There were genuine fears that he wouldn’t play again.
The teenager was rushed to Roma’s Villa Stuart facility, where he was visited by first-team captain Daniele De Rossi, before being whisked off to the USA for an operation on the advice of Raiola.
“The journey was definitely the hardest thing I faced, I had a knee that was three times the size of the other one, I had a fever and I felt insecure,” he later told Roma TV.
But Calafiori’s brave reaction to the episode only heightened excitement over his future in the game further.
Staff and teammates were amazed by his fighting spirit and positive attitude to recovery, and the defender was remarkably back in training – and even a match day squad – before the end of the season, well ahead of schedule.
This season, after penning a new contract until 2022 in the summer, Calafiori has quickly gone about reminding everyone why there was such hype around him before the setback.
His first goal at Primavera level came against Napoli in October, almost exactly a year after his injury, and sparked passionate celebrations.
Fears resurfaced when he suffered a new knee injury in a Primavera Rome Derby match against Lazio in November, but the defender again bounced back quickly and he has gone on to rack up impressive numbers this season.
Calafiori has scored five goals and produced two assists in 16 games for Roma Primavera this season – from left-back. Any fears that he wouldn’t be the same player on his return from injury have been quelled.
His form, and the apparent ease with which he confronts any challenge thrown at him, saw Paulo Fonseca call him up to the senior squad on four occasions during October and November – three times in Serie A and once in the Europa League.
The then 17-year-old didn’t make it onto the pitch, but a senior debut for Roma is now a question of when rather than if.
He was called up to the Italy Under-19 side by Alberto Bollini in January, marking his debut with an assist in a draw against Spain and yet again showing his ability to perform above his age category.
Calafiori just turned 18 on May 19, but he is already physically developed, possessing the speed and strength necessary to thrive as a modern full-back.
His contribution to the attacking phase this season, be it by scoring goals or setting them up, is evidence of his impressive technical ability – good dribbling, accurate crossing and a powerful shot.
Off the ball, he has the power, stamina and intelligence required in defence, while he has shown great personality and character in his recovery process, as well as on the pitch.
With Aleksandar Kolarov turning 35 later this year and Leonardo Spinazzola often being deployed on the right side of defence under Fonseca, Calafiori may not have to wait too much longer for his moment.
His talent is no secret, and has resulted in recent reports of interest from Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.
But the Romanisti will be hoping that with Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi gone and Alessandro Florenzi shipped off to Valencia, Calafiori could become their next homegrown hero.