Ranking the 15 weirdest Italian signings in Premier League history

Quick Reads

Italy is a deadly serious footballing nation. They’ve produced the most elegant defenders ever to have graced the game, some wonderful creative talents and several of history’s most lethal attackers.

The country has won four World Cups for crying out loud – only Brazil has more.

A few of the country’s finest have served English top-flight clubs magnificently over the past three decades. Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli at Chelsea, Paulo Di Canio and Angelo Ogbonna at West Ham.

But there have been more than few Premier League clubs who have taken a punt on an Italian player that turns out to be a true head-scratcher, or that you look back on and think: surely that didn’t really happen.

We’ve rounded up some of the weirdest and wildest.

15. Roberto Mancini

After a long, glittering career full of international caps and domestic trophies in his homeland, Mancini pitched up at Filbert Street in 2001 to eat crisps play for Leicester.

He was coming in from Lazio, where he had been player/assistant manager to Sven Goran Eriksson and left on loan as Sven moved on to take the England job.

Mancini had started well, playing four games in a month, when Leicester boss Peter Taylor let him go back to Italy for a few days. While there, Mancini called Taylor, told him he’d been offered the Fiorentina manager job and never returned.

“It’s obviously a big blow because we were expecting him to be playing on Saturday,” Taylor said at the time. “It’s an important match. But sometimes these things happen when you bring someone in from abroad.”

READ: Roberto Mancini wasn’t at Leicester long, but he left an indelible mark

14. Alessandro Diamanti

Diamanti only played one season for West Ham, and he was really quite good. He’s not here for the spell at West Ham, though. He’s here for the time he signed for Watford on loan from Guangzhou Evergrande, played three times as a sub in five months and then left for Atalanta.

Upon his return to Italy, he said, “Watford? I lived through six months of a nightmare, I trained well but never had the chance to show what I can do on the pitch. I don’t know why I didn’t play.” Us neither, Alessandro.

13. Simone Zaza

West Ham have brought in a lot of strikers in the last few years. Most of them haven’t been great. Zaza definitely falls into that bracket.

Eight games, no goals and a dreadful shot against Manchester United summed up his loan spell in east London, for which the Hammers forked out £5.5million.

12. Andrea Silenzi

Silenzi was the first Italian to play in the Premier League, taking his magnificent mane of hair to the City Ground in 1995 for £1.8million.

Unfortunately for Nottingham Forest, the striker’s football wasn’t as good as his barnet.

In 2020, his former Forest team-mate Paul McGregor told The Athletic his abiding memory of Silenzi: “It was somewhere dreadful, a Holiday Inn in Rotherham, or something like that — a proper Alan Partridge hotel. He was on the end of his bed, I was on the end of my bed. The TV was on. And he was just staring into the middle distance. He looked broken. ‘Are you all right, mate?’ I asked.

“He turned to me. ‘Macca, here I am in Rotherham, sat on this bed — no disrespect — with you. I played with Maradona! I played in Italy! I was top scorer!’ He rattled off all these names, Maradona and everybody else. Then he looked round the room again. ‘And now I am here! I am shit!’”

11. Rolando Bianchi

Bianchi turned up a Manchester City in the summer of 2007 for £8.8million after nodding in a fair few goals for Reggina the season prior. He stayed for six months, decided England was weird – and let’s face it, who can blame him – and packed his bags.

“I am learning the language but I have raised the white flag with English food. I don’t like it,” he told the Express. “I think I am the only teetotaller in the whole Premier League. My team-mates were surprised when I refused a mouthful of beer. They looked at me as if I was an extra-terrestrial. Tastes are tastes, and I have chosen for some time – no beer, no wine, no alcopops.

“I have had to get used to the referees. In Italy, if a defender touches you the referee blows. In the Premier League you don’t get a free-kick even if the defender runs you over. But I am getting used to this new refereeing rhythm.

“I will be back [in Italy] soon for a simple reason. My dream is to wear the national team jersey, but playing abroad won’t help.”

10. Gabriele Ambrosetti

When Chelsea paid £3.5million for Ambrosetti in August 1999, he was 26 and his CV read: Varesi, Brescia, Venezia, Vincenza. Hardly glittering.

So, when manager Gianluca Vialli referred to him as “the Italian answer to Ryan Giggs” in his introductory press conference, Ambrosetti was probably as surprised as anyone.

He wasn’t the Italian Ryan Giggs, he barely played for Chelsea, and after a few loan spells, he returned home, seeing out his career with Piacenza and Pro Patria.

9. Dino Baggio

Dino bloody Baggio. He’d played in a World Cup final. He’d lifted the UEFA Cup three times. He’d played for Juventus and Parma and Lazio. He was one of the finest defensive midfielders of a golden era of Serie A.

Then he turned up at Blackburn on loan in 2004 and, for some reason, Graeme Souness decided he was a support striker. Perhaps Souness had signed Baggio thinking he was getting the other Baggio.

Anyway, Dino didn’t stay long. After four months and nine games, Lazio recalled him and sent him out to Ancona instead.

8. Ivano Bonetti

Bonetti probably won’t be too well remembered by Crystal Palace fans. He turned up in south London in 1997, played two games as a sub, then bogged off to Genoa.

It is not for his short stint at Palace that Bonetti deserves mention here, though. Before moving to Selhurst Park, he had played for Grimsby in 1995-96, where he part-funded his own transfer, became a cult hero to the fans and earned a sub-section on his Wikipedia page with the title: The “plate of chicken” incident.

After a 3-2 loss to Luton in the League in February 1996, a row erupted between him and Grimsby boss Brian Laws, who threw a plate of chicken wings at Bonetti, fracturing his cheekbone. Bonetti walked out on Grimsby immediately and pitched up at Tranmere before moving to Palace the following summer.

7. Massimo Taibi

Former Milan ‘keeper Taibi signed for Manchester United in 1999, played four games and will always be remembered for one thing and one thing only.

6. Marco Materazzi

Yeah, that Marco Materazzi. Inter legend. The fella Zidane nutted in the 2006 World Cup final. You know who we’re talking about.

Well, he spent the 1998-99 at Everton. Played 27 times, scored twice, got sent off thrice. After one of those red cards, he was pictured sat against the advertising hoardings crying his eyes out and being patted on the head by a floppy-haired Scouse fella.

“That red card, in my opinion, was completely wrong,” Materazzi told FourFourTwo in 2020. “But you know how it works in England – when it’s a red, it’s a red. There is no excuse. It taught me something.”

5. Massimo Maccarone

Odd one Maccarone, really odd. Everyone thought he was going to be mustard when he signed for Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough for £8.15million in 2002. He’d banged them in for Empoli, he’d scored for Italy’s Under-21s, and he’d even made his senior Azzurri debut.

He wasn’t mustard. Two really disappointing seasons were followed by loans at Parma and Siena.

He did return to Boro though, and, in his final months at the Riverside, he did what he could to repair the previous damage to his reputation on Teesside, scoring vital late goals in the UEFA Cup quarter-final and semi-final as Middlesbrough advanced to the final.

Still, his memories of the North-East weren’t fond. After he left, he called Steve McClaren “the most two-faced and false person I have ever had the misfortune to meet in football.”

Boro chairman Steve Gibson responded by saying: “Massimo’s a fool. He came to this football club with a tremendous opportunity, he wasted that opportunity.”

No love lost there, then.

4. Fabrizio Ravanelli

In May 1996, Ravanelli scored Juventus’ only goal in the Champions League final. In July 1996, Fabrizio Ravanelli signed for Middlesbrough.

He scored loads of goals playing upfront with Juninho Paulista, somehow failed to stop Boro getting relegated, went to Marseille and Lazio, played in the Champions League a bit more, won the league and cup double in Italy, then came back to England with Derby in 2001 and got relegated again. Proper mental stuff, that.

3. Attilio Lombardo

Lombardo had won the Champions League alongside Ravanelli in 1996 and followed that up by winning Serie A with the Bianconeri in 1997. Then he signed for newly-promoted Crystal Palace.

Unsurprisingly, he was great. So great that seven months after he arrived, Palace decided to make him their player-manager, with Tomas Brolin in the player-translator role as Lombardo couldn’t speak English. Unsurprisingly, ‘the bald eagle’ was not so great at that. You can read how it panned out here.

READ: Remembering Attilio Lombardo’s bizarre 18 months at Crystal Palace

2. Mario Balotelli

Balotelli is great because Balotelli is one of football’s great eccentrics.

He moved to Manchester City from Inter Milan in 2010, won an FA Cup and a league title, got in training-ground fights with Micah Richards and Jerome Boateng, whipped out his ‘Why always me?’ t-shirt after scoring at Old Trafford and set his house on fire by letting off fireworks indoors.

In April 2021, Richards told the BBC: “He came to do it at my house and chased me around my house with fireworks which were lit. I couldn’t believe it – it sounds ridiculous. He was crazy in a good way – he was only 18 when he came to Man City, he was just messing around.

“He was brilliant to have around the squad – a cult hero not just for the nonsense he did off the field but on it as well. The only assist he got was that one for Sergio Aguero in the Queens Park Rangers title-winning game, he scored two goals in the 6-1 against Man United and the fans now love him.

“The best thing about him is he’s a lovely guy, he’s not arrogant or how the papers try to perceive him, he’s just a bit mad.”

1. Dani Osvaldo

Osvaldo is the football’s truest wild child.

He was born in Argentina, but gained Italian citizenship through his family and represented the Azzurri at international level, which plenty Italian for this list.

Osvaldo was pure talent and after brilliant but controversial seasons with Espanyol and Roma, he signed for Southampton in 2013. In England, he scored some absolute screamers, got banned for scrapping with the entire Newcastle subs bench, punched his team-mate Jose Fonte in the face and eventually had his contract terminated.

In 2016, he retired, said he preferred barbecues and beer to football, formed a rock band and went on the Italian version of Strictly Come Dancing. In 2020, he returned to football with Banfield back in Argentina and nearly scored a 30-yard chip on his debut.

Dani Osvaldo clearly deserves top spot.

READ: A celebration of Dani Osvaldo, the rock ‘n’ roll star football didn’t deserve


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