Parked beside Toto Di Natale’s Bentley at the Stadio Friuli is one of those mini-cars with a moped engine that tend to get bumped and dented like the cans of drink you find littering the street. Kids are usually behind the wheel of them in Italy. You can get a drivers’ license earlier for these little contraptions than for a normal vehicle. They’re less powerful.
This one in particular belongs to Simone Scuffet. He’s still at school, attending the Deganutti institute in Udine, but hasn’t been in class much of late. “Mountains of days have been missed for training sessions, call ups to national team training camps and, for some time now, away trips with the first team,” his doting mother Donatella told Il Messaggero Veneto. And it was on one of those away trips that Scuffet, Udinese’s third-choice goalkeeper, got his chance.
It came on February 1 in Bologna. During the warm up at the Renato Dall’Ara, Zeljko Brkic, Udinese’s No.1, signalled to Lorenzo di Iorio, their goalkeeping coach, that he had a problem. He’d tweaked a muscle and wouldn’t be able to play. The expectation was that Ivan Kelava would pull on the gloves in his place, but so error prone had he been when called upon this season that Di Iorio and coach Francesco Guidolin thought twice about it. And so, following a brief discussion they approached Scuffet and said: “You’re playing.”
It wasn’t a decision Guidolin took at all lightly, “because introducing a young player in a moment of difficulty is a risk.” Udinese had lost to Parma the week before. It was their fourth in a row in Serie A. Without a win in 2014, they were 15th. Should Udinese lose to relegation threatened Bologna, then they would be pulled into the mire themselves. It was a lot of responsibility to put on a young man’s shoulders.
Back in Remanzacco’s via Santo Stefano, his father Fabrizio, a school janitor and former keeper for the village’s local club Aurora, couldn’t believe it when the team news began to filter through. “I got to know that he’d be playing from the TV five minutes before kick-off,” he said. “We were watching the Udinese Channel at home.” With that, Fabrizio and Donatella grabbed their coats and went to see their son make his first team debut at da Edy’s, a local bar, where they were showing the game.
Every time Alessandro Diamanti, the Bologna playmaker, now at Guangzhou Evergrande, stood over a free-kick there was a sharp intake of breath. Just as there was whenever Scuffet came off his line. “I know that he’s good between the posts,” Fabrizio explained, “but coming off your line is always a risk.” Early on, Scuffet came to claim a high ball. His parents’ hearts were in their mouths. They needn’t have worried. Scuffet collected it with confidence. “We understood then that perhaps…” things were going to go well. They did.
Udinese ended their losing streak. Di Natale and Nico Lopez scored and Scuffet kept a clean sheet in a 2-0 win. A delighted Simone called his parents from the bus. “We went to bed, but couldn’t sleep until we heard his car [pull up outside].” Only then must it have dawned on Scuffet what he’d done. If it hadn’t it will have in the morning when he flicked through the pink pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport. “At 17 he makes his debut in Serie A without fear and without conceding a goal. Like a certain [Gigi] Buffon,” read his player rating.
Except by making his debut a full month and 21 days younger than Buffon had on that unforgettable day against Milan on November 19, 1995, Scuffet had shown even greater precociousness than Superman. It filled Udinese with pride, not least because he has come through their youth sector and is from Friuli. In fact, Scuffet is the first Friulano to play for them since Fabio Rossitto a decade ago. To find the last goalkeeper from the region to play for Udinese you have to go back even further to more than half a century ago: April 15, 1962 to be precise. Between the posts that day was a young Dino Zoff.
The omens aren’t lacking then. Much has been made of the 'due effe' or two Fs in his surname. Like Buffon. Like Zoff. As though that’s all you need to become a great goalkeeper in Italy, a World Cup winner.
Though still very early to make a judgement on Scuffet, it’s clear he has talent. Voted the best goalkeeper in the country’s youth championship, he was a member of the Italy Under-17 team that reached the final of the European Championship in Zilina last summer and was unlucky to be on the losing side after saving two penalties in a shoot-out against Russia. That led many scouts to include his name alongside those of River Plate’s Augusto Batalla and Bayern Munich’s Raif Husic as goalkeepers to keep tabs on in the years to come.
So you can understand why Guidolin had invited him to train with the first team this season. Since his performance in Bologna, Scuffet has started every game. He has done relatively little wrong. When Udinese drew 3-3 at Genoa in the middle of last month, La Gazzetta concluded it would have been five had it not been for Scuffet. A mistake against Atalanta then a bad day at the office in a 3-0 defeat away to Cagliari indicate what you’d expect from a player of his age: he’s still learning. But the way he bounced back at home to Milan on Saturday, making decisive interventions on Giampaolo Pazzini, Robinho and Michael Essien to make certain of a 1-0 win showed, for one paper, the personality of a veteran.
“From the class of '96. Launched almost by chance. He’s another of our golden boys putting themselves forward as a candidate in the complicated succession of Buffon,” wrote Luca Calamai in La Gazzetta. Selected in a 31-man B squad for a training camp to be held by Italy coach Cesare Prandelli between March 10 and 12 when he’ll assess and try to get to know some of the kids who could be part of his Euro 2016 team [that is, if he signs on for another four years after the World Cup] Scuffet isn’t about to let the call up go to his head.
He’s a humble, grounded kid. Less spectacular and not as eccentric as, say, Genoa’s Mattia Perin, another keeper considered an heir to Buffon. Asked what the fundamentals of goalkeeping are, Scuffett told La Gazzetta: “Serenity, tranquility and courage. Doing the simple things and running as few risks as possible … I learned that from Samir Handanovic [the former Udinese keeper now at Inter]. I have an old shirt of his.” Scuffet has since made is his own.
Udinese, you feel, is the perfect club for him. He can develop there like Handanovic did: out of the spotlight. “It’ll definitely help,” Luca Marchegiani said on Sky Italia. “There’s less pressure at Friuli. But when you go to San Siro you’re alone between the sticks.”
Milan, incidentally, have already been linked with him even though it seems Michael Agazzi will replace Christian Abbiati next season. Proud of having an academy graduate and a fan of theirs in goal, Udinese want to hold onto him and Scuffet wants to stay. Big things are expected of the baby fenomeno.
“The road is long,” Scuffet says. “I have to remain calm. I haven’t achieved anything yet.” You feel he will, though.
“The boy’s got the making of a [top keeper],” Zoff told Il Messaggero Veneto. That’s some endorsement.
James Horncastle - @JamesHorncastle
- Sports & Recreation
- Simone Scuffet
- Francesco Guidolin