The rise, fall and re-birth of Davide Santon

The night of February 15, 2009 seemed like a watershed moment in Italian football.

Milan and Inter were lining up in the tunnel at San Siro awaiting kick off and the cameras focused on the old man and the young boy stood across from each other. Paolo Maldini, now 40, was reflecting on his last ever Derby della Madonnina while Davide Santon, still only 18, was contemplating his first.

To those in the press box, it was destiny that they should meet, a passing of the torch from one great full-back to another.

Barely a month earlier, Santon had made his first team debut in a Coppa Italia tie against Roma and convinced José Mourinho that he deserved to keep his place in the starting XI the following weekend when Inter hosted Sampdoria. He successfully ousted Maxwell, a player deemed of a high enough calibre to earn a move to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and soon afterwards was almost unanimously tipped for greatness.

Lest we forget, it was Santon who was given the responsibility of marking the reigning Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo when Inter met Manchester United in the last 16 of the Champions League that year. “The fact that José decided to play him is a sign of the confidence he has in the lad,” noted Sir Alex Ferguson. “He is a fantastic footballer,” added Ronaldo.

Previously not known for nurturing young talent because of the short-termism that has always appeared to underline his ‘win-now’ coaching philosophy, Mourinho developed a real soft spot for Santon. To him, he was simply known as the Bambino, a fresh faced kid with a willingness to learn who offered a stark contrast to Mario Balotelli, the club’s other star academy graduate already renowned for his bad behaviour.

“I’m willing to bet on one thing,” Santon told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I will keep my feet on the ground. I will keep looking forward to getting home and eating the lasagna that my mother and grandmother make, I will keep listening to my father, who repeats to me every day: ‘Davide, you've done nothing yet’.”

Not meaning to pour cold water on his son’s achievements, Santon senior had a point. A former amateur footballer himself, he used to bang in the goals as a striker for Mazzocco. He knew first hand how fickle the game could be and preached caution.

Up until the previous summer, his son had not been a defender but a midfielder. The change of position had been thrust upon Santon during a Primavera match when Marco Filippini, the team’s right-back, was sent off and a replacement was needed.

Far from looking out of his depth, he thrived and never went back. Gianluca Zambrotta had evolved in exactly the same way tactically at Juventus under Marcello Lippi, but once established in Inter’s first team Santon’s assured performances began to draw comparisons with other, more revered names from the annals of Italian football history.

“Davide is a great player and in 10 or 15 years time when he has made 400 or 500 appearances for Inter like Giacinto Facchetti and Javier Zanetti, who knows, he might remember me,” Mourinho smiled.

Suitably pleased with himself, the former Porto and Chelsea manager looked on like a proud dad as his young charge made his Italy debut in a friendly against Northern Ireland on June 6, 2009. It was then that Lippi caught the Santon bug too. “I always thought he was a person destined for great things and now that I’ve seen him up close I can confirm that this is absolutely the case,” he declared.

With the ink not yet dry on his school exam papers, Santon was on his way with Italy to the Confederations Cup in South Africa. Meanwhile, his teammates back at Inter’s training ground were also getting carried away. “If you don’t go to the 2010 World Cup you should go over to the balcony and throw yourself off,” Marco Materazzi joked.

Lo and behold, when Lippi named his 23-man squad in the alpine resort of Sestriere a year later, Santon’s name wasn’t on the list. There was no misprint, no oversight. He had disappeared.

If, as Mourinho had frequently suggested, “we must no longer talk about Santon as a great talent because he is already a great footballer”, then what had happened to the player he called the “White Maicon” or “the Next Maldini”? When and how did his fall from grace occur?

The turning point came in late October 2009 when Inter played host to Palermo in Serie A. Samuel Eto’o and Mario Balotelli had put the home side 4-0 to the good at half-time and with his team cruising, Mourinho decided to throw on Santon after the interval.

It was then that he received a lesson, as the marauding Palermo full-back Mattia Cassani proceeded to run rings around him. By the 67th minute the score was 4-3 and Mourinho was furious.  A late Diego Milito goal put the match beyond the visitors, but it wasn’t enough to save Santon who felt the full force of his manager’s anger in the dressing room. He was seen leaving San Siro that night in tears, a broken young man.

Out of favour, Santon lost confidence in himself. He had fallen in with the wrong crowd too, dating Balotelli’s ex-girlfriend, Sofia. Matters only got worse when he tore the meniscus in his right knee while playing for the Italy Under-21s against Luxembourg in November. The injury was much graver than Inter’s doctors first thought and there were complications. Two operations later, Santon was brought back to reality.

It seemed the curse of the left-back at Inter had struck again. With the exception of Facchetti, Andy Brehme and Roberto Carlos, the position has always been a poison chalice. Santon was now no longer considered worthy of their company. He was unfairly lumped with the flops like Fabio Macellari, the defender Lippi played when Inter were knocked out of the Champions League preliminary stages by Helsingborg in 2000. Then there was Vratislav Gresko, the hapless Slovak, at whose door the blame for losing the title on the final day of the season in 2002 had been laid. 

“It’s been really tough psychologically,” Santon revealed. “It was hard having all those eyes on me, giving me for a phenomenon. Then it was even tougher to get back after the injury knowing that I had to show everything I was worth straight away. But the worst has past. Now I am thinking with optimism.”

Although Santon got back on the straight and narrow, dumping the showgirl for the girl next door, and swapping nights out in Milan’s clubs for fishing trips with his dad, he still struggled to rediscover his form and recapture the imagination of Mourinho’s successors. In January, he begrudgingly accepted a loan to Cesena as part of the deal that saw Yuto Nagatomo join Inter.

While it would be wrong to suggest Santon saw the move as below him, the new recruit’s initial sulky attitude frustrated the local supporters who rather cynically thought he was more preoccupied with picking the No 46 shirt in honour of Moto GP legend and Inter fan Valentino Rossi than actually sweating for it.

Belatedly, Santon’s talent flickered again. Buoyed by Ciro Ferrara’s decision to give him the captain’s armband when the Italy Under-21s played England in February, he began to turn a corner at Cesena with a series of steady rather than sensational performances.

“I have learned to suffer,” Santon admitted once his loan ended.

Asked about his future, he added: “Like everyone, I don’t like being on the bench. I’d prefer to play a season as a regular in the first team somewhere and then perhaps return as a protagonist at Inter.”

Santon won’t get that chance now. On Tuesday, he left the club for Newcastle in a surprise deal said to be worth £5 million. “It’s never easy to leave any country, never mind Italy,” he told nufcTV. “It was a difficult decision but I’ve only been here for a short while and I feel very comfortable. There are some good people here, it’s a beautiful place, therefore, I am very, very happy.”

Photographed on the pitch at St. James’ Park, he held the No 3 shirt aloft - the number Santon could never wear at Inter because it had been retired in honour of Facchetti. The question for Newcastle fans this morning is have their club signed the next Paolo Maldini or the new Alessandro Pistone?

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