Forza Italian Football’s ‘Next Generation’ series takes an in-depth look at some of the most exciting players on the peninsula who are yet to make their breakthrough. To qualify, the youngsters must be under 21 and have made a maximum of five Serie A appearances.
“I couldn’t have received a better gift for my 18th birthday”.
Christian Dalle Mura wasn’t talking about an Xbox or a new set of trainers. For his 18th, he was given his first Serie A call-up by Fiorentina coach Beppe Iachini.
“I hardly slept,” he recalled. It’s little surprise, given that his first experience of travelling with the first team was for a trip to Turin to face reigning Scudetto holders and fierce rivals Juventus on February 2.
In the end, Dalle Mura didn’t make it off the bench as La Viola succumbed to a 3-0 defeat. But it was an experience he had earned after excelling at youth level in recent years, and one that became commonplace thereafter as he warmed the bench for the next four Serie A matches, before the league was abruptly brought to a stop.
The 18-year-old was within touching distance of a first-team debut before COVID-19 forced a nationwide suspension of sport. It is something that has been nine years in the making.
He started off with youth side Juventus Club in the Tuscan seaside town of Viareggio, famous for its annual tournament showcasing the best young talent on the peninsula.
Dalle Mura was originally keen on basketball, but when the coach failed to turn up one day his mother Neide asked him if he wanted to try football instead. Mothers know what’s best.
Three years later it was Alberto Bernardeschi, father of Juventus and former Fiorentina winger Federico, who first spotted the youngster’s talent and organised a successful trial for him in Florence.
Since then, he’s steadily followed in the footsteps of Bernardeschi by working his way through the youth ranks towards the first team.
Dalle Mura started out playing in midfield before being moved further back, and his comfort on the ball and passing range has helped him develop into the archetypal modern ball-playing centre-back.
He worked his way up from Italy’s Under-15 side to the Under-17s, who he helped to the final of the European Championship and the quarter-finals of the World Cup last year. By January 2020, he was making his Under-19 debut in a friendly against Spain.
What stands out with Dalle Mura is the seeming ease with which he has climbed through the youth ranks. The 2019/20 campaign was his first playing at Primavera (U19) level, but he quickly became a cornerstone of the side despite only turning 18 in February.
It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that Fiorentina Primavera have lost just four of the 16 games Dalle Mura has featured in this season, while registering one win, four defeats and three draws (conceding 17 goals) in the eight he missed.
It was this form that encouraged Iachini to hand him a first-team call-up for the trip to Turin in February, forcing the youngster to cancel the reservation he had made at a restaurant in Viareggio for his birthday celebrations.
Nikola Milenkovic and Martin Caceres were ruled out for the fixture, but that didn’t lessen the surprise when the call came through.
“While I was going back home on the train, I didn’t know anything,” he told Viola News.
“I was so excited that I called my parents and was talking to them so much that I forgot to get off at Pisa station to get the connection to Viareggio, so I arrived half an hour late at home”.
Things moved quickly. Dalle Mura was handed the No.32 shirt, had photographs taken for the TV broadcasters, and a few hours later he was in Turin sitting round a table with captain German Pezzella and club president Rocco Commisso.
It wasn’t to be a one-off, as the defender remained with the first team squad for five consecutive matches, befriending goalkeeper Bartlomiej Dragowski and sharing a room with Alfred Duncan.
He even picked the Dragowski in his fantasy football team after being promised by the Pole that he would save every penalty he faced.
Dalle Mura’s blend of natural ball skills and strong defensive ability has drawn comparisons with Alessio Romagnoli at AC Milan, no doubt helped by his left-footedness.
He can dominate in the air with his 6ft 2in frame, has demonstrated leadership for club and country, and has featured in various roles across the defence, with his favoured being on the left side of a centre-back partnership or in the middle of a back three.
“Since I was young, I’ve always dreamed of playing for Fiorentina,” he said.
“I went along to the Franchi so many times hoping to be able to play there one day. My dream is definitely to stay for a long time with the Viola.”
The good news for Dalle Mura is that he is in one of the best possible places for aspiring young players.
Fiorentina have one of the youngest squads in Serie A and players like Federico Chiesa, Gaetano Castrovilli and Riccardo Sottil have blazed a trail from Primavera to first team in recent years.
Dalle Mura’s dream is agonisingly close to becoming a reality – and there is little reason to believe he won’t make the step into senior football look like a breeze.