Why would someone take a cat out for a walk on a leash? The question was the topic of lively discussion in Florence for a few of days in 2011 after Alessio Cerci was spotted with his pet in the city centre -- but eventually, the then-Fiorentina star explained that the rumours were wrong and the animal in question was in fact his beloved Chihuahua. By then he was well used to dealing with difficult questions -- while his natural talent was never questioned, his attitude left a lot to be desired and Cerci was more famous for illegal parking, quarrelling with policemen and endless partying than for his football. In fact, he really only came of age after joining Torino two years ago.
When Arsenal seemed close to signing the energetic Italian midfielder last month, fans dreamed of having a player who was once dubbed "The Thierry Henry of Valmontone," in reference to area of Rome in which he grew up, as his style was supposedly similar to that of the great Frenchman.
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However, that is only one of many nicknames Cerci was given during his career -- all of them promising in the extreme. He was "Garrincha di Valmontone" for his trickery on the right wing; he was expected to become the new Francesco Totti at Roma; then there were times, albeit rather rare, when some Fiorentina fans called him their own Lionel Messi. He was even, somewhat bizarrely, named "Winston Cerci," and that would also have been attractive to football lovers in London with a knowledge of former prime ministers. But should the Gunners be disappointed now that the winger has surprisingly joined Atletico Madrid? That is very much open to debate.
Cerci's potential was noticed early on when he starred above everyone else at the Roma academy. Even Fabio Capello, who coached the Giallorossi back in 2003, summoned the 15-year-old for a first-team training session -- an invitation Alessio hilariously ignored because he thought it was a joke. By the age of 17 he was an integral part of Roma's squad, but he couldn't break into the first XI. His off-field behaviour had always been problematic, and the club were already busy enough trying to tame Antonio Cassano to deal with another "enfant terrible."
Eventually, they chose to loan him out to some Serie B clubs, first Brescia and then Pisa. At the second of those destinations, during the 2007-08 season, Cerci met the coach who was about to change his life. Giampiero Ventura found the way to the youngster's heart, gave him total freedom in the tactical lineup, and the result was outstanding. He flourished, while Pisa surprised the league with their attacking approach and fought for promotion -- indeed, they only failed because Cerci missed the end of the season through injury.
His brilliance at Pisa didn't help him later, though. After a bad spell at Atalanta ruined by injury and another season on the Roma bench, Cerci was no longer considered Totti's heir and was sold to Fiorentina for just 4 million euros, a laughable fee considering his potential. But at that time, it was not unreasonable, given that he had proved to be extremely inconsistent during his time in Florence.
He still had his admirers, and Roberto Mancini tried to sign him for Manchester City in the summer of 2011, claiming Cerci was the best Italian winger around. The deal fell through, however, and staying at Fiorentina proved to be very difficult for a man who easily suited the role of a scapegoat for all the team's troubles. (He didn't endear himself to the fans or the club either, by flying off to Spain to purchase a holiday home without telling anyone.)
Cerci's career seemed to be going nowhere when Vincenzo Montella signed up as Fiorentina coach two years ago, but new Torino coach Ventura came to his rescue once again. He signed his protege and immediately, almost miraculously, put him back on track. Cerci's first season at the Stadio Olimpico was impressive enough, with eight goals and eight assists, earning him an unexpected call-up to Cesare Prandelli's Italy squad; his second season proved to be nothing short of phenomenal.
At the age of 26, Cerci finally started to show his full potential. Under Ventura's watchful eye, he was nearly unstoppable with his mazy dribbles, but also became a team player, forming an excellent partnership with burly striker Ciro Immobile. Their mutual understanding was brilliant -- their styles complementing each other -- and Torino became one of the most exciting teams to watch in Serie A.
Cerci's most satisfying moment came at the beginning of November, when his beloved Roma visited Torino, proud of their remarkable record of 10 wins in 10 games. The Giallorossi took the lead in the first half, but Cerci was the star of the show, and revenge was especially sweet for him when he equalised after 63 minutes and put an end to Roma's winning run.
The season also ended on a high note, with Torino finishing seventh and qualifying for Europa League. Cerci had missed a stoppage-time penalty in the final game against his old side Fiorentina that saw Parma edge one point clear, but the club were punished for non-payment of taxes and Torino were handed their place instead.
Cerci finished his best personal year with 13 goals, in addition to 10 assists -- the best record in the league alongside Totti -- while Immobile was crowned the top scorer with 22 goals, largely thanks to his colleague's fabulous contribution.
Both were naturally called up into the Italy squad by Prandelli but quite bizarrely didn't get a chance to play together. Immobile was used as a substitute against England and started in the crucial loss to Uruguay, while Cerci only entered the field for the last 21 minutes in the fiasco that ended in a 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica. While it wasn't the only reason behind Italy's early exit, Prandelli would certainly have been wise to let them play at the same time given their history together.
So, with Immobile sold to Borussia Dortmund, Cerci also felt it was time for him to make the next big step in his career. Having dreamed of playing in the Champions League, the links with clubs like Arsenal and Atletico Madrid were always going to be attractive. But Atletico's interest in the winger came as something of a surprise, as Cerci is hardly a fighter in the mould of Diego Simeone, but rather a flair player. Unlike stars like Arda Turan, who combines brilliant technique with impressive stamina and defensive nous, the Italian is really only good going forward.
In addition, Cerci only managed to play to his abilities at small teams like Pisa and Torino, where he was an undisputed star -- a big fish in a small pond who didn't have to fight for his place in the starting lineup. The only coach who managed to make him tick was Ventura, while all the rest failed miserably. Simeone, therefore, is facing a tough task.
The Italian wizard would be wise to recall the fate of the likes of Stefano Fiore and Bernardo Corradi, whose moves from the Serie A to the Spanish Primera Division -- in their case with Valencia -- completely ruined their careers just when they were on the way up. If Cerci doesn't make it at Atletico, the winger could quickly re-establish a reputation as an inconsistent diva and might not get another chance. The time to prove that those Henry and Garrincha nicknames have some basis in fact is now.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced European football writer who contributes to ESPN, Blizzard, Champions and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin