In the Netflix film Hustle, the Philadelphia 76ers scout played by Adam Sandler likes to say, “I hate soccer”, even though the prospect he spotted at a pick-up game in Spain owes his footwork to the sport. Maybe Bo Cruz could have made it as a footballer. He walks around with a Real Madrid duffle bag over his shoulder, although that could just as easily be down to Luka Doncic as Luka Modric. His passion is for hoops. For Gianluca Scamacca, the opposite was true. The Sassuolo striker has always loomed large over his team-mates and, looking around Serie A today, only Zlatan Ibrahimovic is as tall.
In some alternate reality, it’s not hard to imagine Scamacca going first in the NBA draft like Paolo Banchero last week or Andrea Bargnani in 2006. Bargnani, after all, comes from Olgiata, a short 20-minute ride up the via Cassia from where Scamacca grew up in Borgata Fidene on Rome’s northern periphery. Italy’s national football team were about to fly to Germany when the Toronto Raptors selected his fellow Roman but Scamacca, then seven years old, was part of the last generation to see his country win a World Cup and that sound you hear is a basketball bouncing and bouncing and bouncing until it comes to a standstill on the asphalt.
“I didn’t find it fun,” Scamacca said. “I used to spend a lot of time in the street, the ball at my feet, with my mates. I liked watching Roma on TV with my dad and my uncles. Then I’d run downstairs, go outside and try and do the things I’d seen on the box.”
Unlike Cruz, who is a complete unknown at 22 in the movie, Scamacca has been talked about for years. Being on the front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport — as he was last week when the pink paper implored Serie A’s top clubs to not “let him get away” — is nothing new. It could have been a reprint of an edition from 2015 when another acronymised team, PSV rather than PSG, were daring to offer the soon-to-be 16-year-old Scamacca a place in their finishing school, with Ruud van Nistelrooy waiting to act as his mentor. “If I came out of the penalty area, he’d get angry,” Scamacca said. “He used to tell me to run in behind and stay in the box. He made me watch clips of him and Radamel Falcao.”
As a scout, you had to have been living under a rock not to have heard the name Scamacca in those days. He was playing in the older age groups for club and country. He scored directly from a kick-off, embarrassing the goalkeeper from the centre circle. His team-mates would bounce off him and comically fall over when celebrating his goals. Roma did not want to lose him. They were probably counting on the fact he supported them. “My first jersey was the one with Barilla across the front, then the one from the scudetto with (Gabriel) Batistuta’s name on the back.” Scamacca told La Repubblica. “I dreamt of being like him.”
It’s why he left Lazio, where he was a ball boy at the Olimpico, following his childhood friend Davide Frattesi to the red and yellow side of town. The two go way back, meeting when they were “five or six” at the Delle Vittorie football club and have been reunited at Sassuolo not only as team-mates but as housemates too. “He only ever makes pasta al pesto,” Scammaca jokingly complained. “It’s gotten to the stage where I don’t even have to ask for it. It’s all he makes.” Lazio anoraks like to remember the duo combining to upset Roma in the final of the Torneo Catena rather than the tardiness of their academy to tie them down that afforded Bruno Conti the opportunity to get them across the Tiber to Trigoria.
Watching the YouTube footage of Scamacca from that time, it does not seem like a fair contest. You could cross to him and he barely had to jump to get above his marker. The power he generated with his right foot made him a threat wherever he was on the pitch. Free kicks zoomed past goalkeepers.
When Roma won the national title at the Giovanissimi (under-14s) age group, Scamacca scored 34 goals in 30 games. Losing him to PSV understandably provoked a strong reaction. Scamacca was the first Italian in the Dutch club’s history but he wasn’t the first Italian player to move abroad at an early age. Go back through the Panini sticker albums and you’ll find Samuele Dalla Bona ditching Milan for Chelsea at 17, Pep Guardiola’s reported new assistant Enzo Maresca moving to West Bromwich Albion at 18 and Gennaro Gattuso heading to Rangers at 19. Arsenal fans will remember Arturo Lupoli and how can anyone forget Federico Macheda’s pivotal role in Manchester United’s 2009 title-winning season? Even today, Italy coach Roberto Mancini is calling up Zurich’s Wilfried Gnonto while Sebastiano Esposito, long regarded as one of the next big things in Italian football, is set to move to Anderlecht.
Still, the pearl-clutching that Scamacca’s transfer elicited was on a different level. While Maresca would go on to win the Europa League twice and Gattuso the Champions League and World Cup, neither was hyped as a superstar, neither was a striker with a reputation for the spectacular. As a Roma player, everything about Scamacca was amplified on the seven radio stations and four local newspapers that obsess over the club. But the story transcended the capital and made national headlines, sparking debate about what Scamacca’s decision said about the state of Italian football.
The Azzurri had recently been eliminated at the group stage in back-to-back World Cups. Even at 23, the age Scamacca is now, Mario Balotelli’s international career was considered over in the fallout of the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay in Natal. Italy desperately needed a new striker but Scamacca’s departure was interpreted in some quarters as a repudiation of the local youth system and its ability to prepare players for the men’s game. The Netherlands, on the other hand, had a far better record of bringing players through to the first team quicker and granting kids opportunities to test themselves against seasoned pros.
It was a logical enough pitch for Marcel Brands, the PSV sporting director, to make. Still, Scamacca was compelled to justify the decision. “To me, it seemed like a very normal move,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport. It got him out of a tough neighbourhood in Rome. He could focus on football 24/7. Scamacca no longer had to take the long bus ride from Fidene to Trigoria, one end of the city to another. PSV found jobs for his family and laid on a company car. “The Allievi age category (under-17s) in Italy is far too easy,” he said. “The tempo is slow whereas in Holland, it’s the same intensity I experience when I play for my country. In Italy, you do two or three days at a high intensity then you go back to your club and it slows down.
“That isn’t a criticism of Roma. I’ve got nothing but thanks for what they did for me. If I’m playing for the national team and I’m at PSV, it’s down to them… the training sessions aren’t longer than they are in Italy. But the intensity is higher. The ball is at the heart of everything and it’s fun. No one obsesses over the result like they do in Italy. I was offered a pathway, a specific programme customised for me with lots of ex-players as instructors. The assistant coach of the B team is Mark van Bommel. I often train with him also because he’s the only guy who speaks Italian.” Scamacca attended an international school. “I learned languages, picking up some decent English, not much Dutch, a bit of Spanish. My room-mate was a Peruvian player, Beto, and he always spoke Spanish.”
The choice to join PSV needn’t have aroused so much scepticism. Italy’s starting centre-forward at the time was Graziano Pelle, the ballroom dancing enthusiast from Lecce, who got his move to the Premier League after finding his feet under Louis van Gaal at AZ and then Ronald Koeman at Feyenoord. However, Scamacca never broke into PSV’s first team. Sassuolo brought him back to Italy to supersize their under-19s and he won the prestigious Viareggio tournament before going out on loan to Cremonese and PEC Zwolle.
Neither team got to see what Scamacca was showing at international level. He gave Italy hope in the final of the Under-19 European Championship in 2018 by equalising against Portugal in extra time. Then, in stoppage time of the Under-20 World Cup a year later, it appeared as though Scamacca had sent the Azzurrini through to the final with an outrageous goal — so quintessentially him, a kneed-up, back-to-goal, top-corner scissor kick — only for it to be harshly disallowed against eventual winners Ukraine.
Only now are we getting moments like that in Serie A. Jose Mourinho’s 1,000th game was very nearly ruined last September by another Scamacca trademark — the double move, touch and shot combo — that seemed to level the score in added time at the Olimpico. Fortunately for Mourinho, the VAR stepped in and called it offside.
This season represented a breakthrough for Scamacca. Odd as it sounds, given it’s nearly a decade since he first went mainstream, his progress has been gradual. Pietro Pellegri, for instance, scored in Serie A as a 15-year-old in Francesco Totti’s final game. Moise Kean got fast-tracked to the Italy team quicker by Mancini and has already played Champions League football with Juventus and PSG. It’s worth remembering that, just as Kean was moving to Everton, Scamacca was joining second-division Ascoli on loan.
His rise in the men’s game began there at the Del Duca under Paolo Zanetti, who would later get Venezia promoted to the top flight for the first time in 19 years. “A week was all it took for me to understand Scamacca is a champion in the making,” he said. “It was his first proper season as a starter. He scored big goals for us. I’ve always said it. He’s the future of our national team.”
The time had come for him to make the step up. Sassuolo sent Scamacca to Genoa, who decided to give the Roman his long-overdue Serie A debut in the Derby della Lanterna. As well as creating chances for Goran Pandev with volleyed backheels, Scamacca got the Genoani a precious equaliser and would knock Samp out of the Coppa Italia a few weeks later, underlining his burgeoning reputation as a man for the big occasion.
By winter 2020, Juventus and Parma were prepared to pay Sassuolo €25 million to cut short his loan arrangement at Marassi and sell him to them. Talk about making a quick buck. Up until that point, Scamacca had never appeared in green and black at senior level. Why not take the money? Atalanta probably would have done so after cashing in on Alessandro Bastoni and Dejan Kulusevski after successful loans at Parma. Sassuolo instead cleared a pathway for him to play for them. Veteran striker Ciccio Caputo was sold to Sampdoria on the understanding that Scamacca would get more game time in Reggio Emilia.
The coach he encountered at the Mapei Stadium showed great courage, too. Alessio Dionisi had a tough act to follow in Roberto De Zerbi and while he wouldn’t finish as high in the table, he won plaudits for trusting players like Scamacca and Giacomo Raspadori when the easy thing to do would have been to go with the experience of Gregoire Defrel and explosive dribbling of Jeremie Boga next to Domenico Berardi up front. Mancini was particularly grateful as Sassuolo’s all-Italian attacking trident flourished.
Scamacca, in particular, blew up.
After getting into double figures with Ascoli and Genoa and finishing top scorer in back-to-back years in the Coppa Italia, he had a career-best season with 16 league goals. Only Dusan Vlahovic, in whom Juventus invested €70 million in January, was more prolific among players aged 23 or under in Serie A. “Scamacca has everything it takes to become a complete centre-forward,” Mancini said. “He scores all kinds of goals: headers, goals from distance, close-range finishes. He’s powerful and skilful. I had a long chat with him at our recent camp and told him how far he can go.”
When Sassuolo became the first team to win away at Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan since Fulvio Bernardini’s Fiorentina in the mid-1950s, Scamacca left his mark in both games at San Siro with a header against Inter and a top-corner screamer from outside the box against Milan.
“I know Ibrahimovic is his idol,” the former Italy Under-16 coach Bruno Tedino said. Scamacca’s Instagram handle is @iamscamacca in homage to the title of the Swede’s autobiography. “But they’re totally different players. Gianluca has got a bit of the Robert Lewandowski about him.” Some have pointed out that Empoli’s Andrea Pinamonti has had almost as good a season as Scamacca without generating the same hype. But it’s easier to fall in love with Scamacca’s skill set and what he can become. It’s hard to remember an Italian player striking the ball this well since Balotelli and Fabio Quagliarella. His balance and coordination are, at times, reminiscent of Antonio Di Natale, just at twice the size.
Sassuolo manager Dionisi has been critical on occasion, notably after a 1-0 defeat to Serie B-bound Cagliari in April, but there’s no getting away from Scamacca’s talent. “He’s got a great shot on him, he’s fast, he’s got technique. He’s 6ft 5in and he’s quick,” Dionisi said, puffing out his cheeks. “He’s definitely still got room for improvement. I hope to get the chance to carry on coaching him.”
The profile Dionisi describes is hard to find. It’s the four S’s — size, speed, shooting and skill — and after Liverpool signed Darwin Nunez, Manchester City won the Erling Haaland sweepstakes and Juventus got Vlahovic done early, the pursuit of players such as Hugo Ekitike and Scamacca is hotting up. Scamacca has interest from the Premier League, particularly Newcastle United, West Ham United and Arsenal. He is willing to have another experience abroad and can take a risk since Italy aren’t going to the World Cup in Qatar this winter.
Going to PSG would be a gamble given Gianluigi Donnarumma’s experience of often playing second fiddle to Keylor Navas. The competition Scamacca would face for a place up front would be even fiercer with Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. But Kean got regular minutes at the Parc des Princes a couple of years ago and it speaks volumes that a talent spotter as esteemed as sporting director Luis Campos is considering Scamacca for the cultural reset at PSG. For all the dramatic headlines caused by the behaviour of his grandfather and father in the past, Scamacca has never been as focused on his football and has the right support network around him, including the same sports psychologist as Olympic 100-metre gold medallist Marcell Jacobs.
It’s a big summer for Scamacca and the future of Italy. This country used to produce great strikers by the dozen. It’s enough to think back to the 2006 World Cup and Christian Vieri missing out on the Italy squad or, for readers of an older vintage, Roberto Pruzzo in 1982. While coaching the team through the recent Nations League games, Mancini was following the NBA finals. “People in Italy are quick to forget,” he said. “But I’m convinced this new young team with a mix of experienced pros can become even better than the one that won the Euros.” They just need a Steph Curry. “It’s like saying we’ll uncover another Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero or Francesco Totti. I hope it happens fast because a player like that can help us win the next World Cup (in 2026). We’ll have time to build and with a player like Curry, who makes the difference in every game, anything’s possible.”
Whether Scamacca can be that player remains to be seen. His step-back shots from distance continue to make a splash. Along with Donnarumma, Bastoni, Sandro Tonali, Nicolo Zaniolo and Federico Chiesa, he is the big blue hope.
(Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)
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Gianluca Scamacca, Italy’s 6ft 5in scissor-kicking striker coming to a club near you
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