The Two Ciro Immobile

Ciro Immobile

The raw facts are, on the surface, overwhelming. In the last five seasons, Ciro Immobile has scored 26 goals, then 41 goals, followed by 19, 39 and 25. Over the course of that run, he has won the Golden Boot — the prize given annually to Europe’s most prolific goal-scorer — once, and tied the record for the most goals scored in a single season in Italy’s top league, Serie A.

The context of those facts only serves to embellish them. Ciro Immobile does not play for an all-conquering superpower, the sort of team that carves out a dozen chances a game and regularly dispatches overmatched opponents by four- and five-goal margins. He plays, instead, for Lazio, a side constructed — by superclub standards — on a shoestring.

And he operates in Serie A, a league which no less an authority than Cristiano Ronaldo regards as the most difficult in the world in which to score goals. A league in which Ashley Cole, among the greatest defenders of his era, was regarded as being surprisingly naïve, tactically.

The conclusion, then, should be obvious. Immobile, 31, belongs in the front rank of contemporary forwards, perhaps not quite an equal to the only four players in Europe’s major leagues to have scored more than him in the last five years — Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane — but not out of his depth in their company.

That, certainly, is how he looks up close. Simone Inzaghi, Immobile’s coach at Lazio for the last five years, regards him as “one of the three or five best attackers” in Italy in the last two decades. On his goal totals alone, he should have been in contention for a Ballon D’Or.

From a distance, though, everything changes. Immobile’s name is rarely mentioned when lists of the finest attackers of his era are compiled. On the eve of Euro 2020, the most pressing question asked of Italy’s coach was whether his team could hope to fare well in the tournament when it was lacking a top-class forward. And no, Immobile, the striker who had scored 123 goals in 177 games, did not count.

A few weeks ago, as the Italian season drew to a close, Immobile had a brief and vaguely unbecoming spat with Urbano Cairo, the president of Torino. Cairo had, at one time, regarded the forward as “a protégé.” It was a prolific season in Turin, in fact, that had first made Immobile one of Italy’s hottest properties.

But Cairo was annoyed to see Ciro Immobile, in his view, diving to win a penalty in a game between Torino and Lazio, so he waited for him by the locker room to make his feelings known. That night, Immobile posted a message to his Instagram account denying Cairo’s accusation. “Everybody knows who Ciro Immobile is,” he wrote.

He was almost right. Everybody thinks they know who Ciro Immobile is. It is just that not everybody thinks the same thing.

The Real Ciro

The conversation, as Monchi remembers it, was “very open, very honest, very mature.” Five months earlier, in July 2015, he had brokered the deal to bring Immobile to Sevilla from Borussia Dortmund. As Sevilla’s sporting director, Monchi had been looking for a third striker, one “with a different profile” from the two the club currently employed: the rangy Fernando Llorente and the explosive, hard-running Kevin Gameiro.

Immobile — who describes his own gifts as “strength, tenacity and cunning” — fit the bill. Monchi, renowned as among the shrewdest pilots of the transfer market, spotted the potential for a deal. Immobile’s service were no longer needed at Dortmund; Sevilla could obtain him on an initial loan, and later, and permanently, at a bargain price if he met certain performance clauses.

Instead, the striker would go down as one of Monchi’s rare missteps. He did not score his first goal for the club until November. He made only a handful of appearances. And then, early in January, he requested a meeting with Monchi and Unai Emery, the club’s coach at the time, to discuss his future.

Immobile explained that he felt he needed a change of scenery; he admitted that he was not performing as he should. “He was worried about the European Championship,” Monchi said of the 2016 tournament then looming just over the horizon. “He wanted to be in the Italy squad, and he knew that to do that he had to be playing. And he was not playing enough here.” Sevilla acquiesced, and allowed him to join Torino on loan.

“There are two reason transfers go wrong,” Monchi said. “One is that the player does not find the confidence they need at their new club, or in a new league. That is especially important for strikers. And the second is that the style of play of the team does not suit them. I think both applied to Ciro.” To him, it was just one of those things. He knows that, sometimes, deals just do not work out. He and Sevilla moved on.

For Immobile, the consequences lasted a bit longer. He had spent 18 months abroad, and they had been an unmitigated failure. At Dortmund, he would later say, he felt “unsupported” by the club. In eight months, he told Gazzetta dello Sport’s SportWeek magazine, not one of his teammates had invited him out for dinner.

Dortmund was “cold,” there was “nothing to do,” and while the coach who signed him, Jürgen Klopp, had insisted on providing him with a German translator, his replacement, Thomas Tuchel, removed that privilege, insisting on holding even one-on-one meetings in German, a language that Immobile found “impossible” to learn.

More pertinent, he found himself unable to cope with the weight of expectations. He had been pinpointed as a replacement for the Bayern Munich-bound Lewandowski and he sensed his predecessor’s gold-fringed shadow at every turn. “The error I made at Dortmund was that Lewandowski left and I felt the responsibility,” he said.

Immobile looks back on his time in Germany with regret. He and Klopp encountered each other at “the wrong time in their careers,” he has said. Had the timing been different, been right, then he feels that Klopp’s percussive style would have suited him perfectly. As it was, Klopp never had chance — in Immobile’s words — to work with “the real Ciro.”

And yet, for many, that was precisely what Klopp, and later Monchi, had seen. Those unhappy 18 months came to define Immobile’s career, to set his reputation. No matter what he did afterward, no matter how many goals he scored in Italy, no matter what the context, the fact that he had failed in Dortmund and in Seville meant his fate was sealed. Everybody thought they knew who Ciro Immobile was.

Revenge

Until almost the last moment, the one part of Italy’s team that remained a mystery — to Roberto Mancini, its coach, as much as anyone — was the attack.

Over the course of his three years in charge of the national side, Mancini has experimented with various systems, and various options: the young Moise Kean and the experienced Fabio Quagliarella, the traditional Andrea Belotti and the unorthodox Federico Bernadeschi. From the outside, Mancini has looked, at times, like a man searching for a way not to play Immobile upfront.

That is not because Mancini doubts whether Immobile is right for international soccer — he has no doubts as to his ability — but if international soccer is right for him. “If we played 38 games over the season, Ciro would score 25 goals,” Mancini said a few weeks before naming his squad for Euro 2020. “It is tougher when you only join up two or three times a year.”

That is as close to a consensus as there is on Immobile: He can be devastating, but he needs everything to feel just right, on the field and off it. At Lazio, he has found it. Inzaghi designed the team to suit Immobile’s strengths, deploying Luis Alberto and Joaquin Correa as foils for his darting runs, his elusive movement, his hunter’s instinct.

Just as important, his family is settled in Rome. He feels valued by the club — Lazio’s president, Claudio Lotito, organized a private audience with the Pope a few months ago — and he has a grander animating force.

In 2020, when Immobile won the Golden Boot, the first player not based in Spain to win the prize since 2014, he admitted that it was “a kind of revenge.” Quite who he was taking it on was not clear — it was “not against anyone personally,” he said — but it seemed fair to read it as a riposte to all who doubted him, who took the disappointments of Dortmund and Seville as shorthand for his career, who did not see the player that Immobile saw in himself.

That award, perhaps, started to shift the debate in his favor just a little. Five goals in five games in the Champions League last season will have helped, too; that is the stage, after all, on which soccer now ordains greatness, and it has been to Immobile’s detriment that he has graced it only rarely.

Euro 2020, then, offers him a precious chance to prove his point, to demonstrate that Italy does have a forward fit for a place among the elite, that all of those goals cannot just be written off as circumstantial evidence. He may, yet, be allowed a little autumnal afterglow to bathe his career.

The group stage brought two goals in two starts on home soil. The knockout rounds, starting with Austria on Saturday, are an opportunity to build his case. All he needs to do is what he has been doing, with a relentless consistency, for the last five years: scoring goals, making the raw facts of the matter overwhelming.

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