Marksmen reject home comforts

Once the destination of choice for talented footballers the world over, Italy has seen some of its own brightest stars pack their bags and head out over the past two seasons. Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta set the tone last year, and this summer Serie A has suffered the loss of a further seven players, including three of that much sought-after commodity on the transfer market - the striker.

What is most perplexing about the current exodus is that it comes at a time when Italian football has risen brilliantly from the depths of the calciopoli scandal to see off all-comers in both the FIFA World Cup™ and the UEFA Champions League, with the national side and AC Milan triumphing in global football's two most prestigious tournaments.

Those successes have gone much of the way to restoring Italy's pride and reputation, but frontmen Luca Toni, Cristiano Lucarelli and Rolando Bianchi have nonetheless chosen to pursue their careers far from home, preferring moves to Germany, Ukraine and England respectively.

At 30 years of age, first-choice Azzurri forward Luca Toni was seduced by the vision of the future mapped out by Bayern Munich. The German giants may be taking a rare year away from Europe's elite competition, but they have taken major strides on the transfer front to ensure they reclaim their place as soon as possible. "Bayern are a team that were built to win things and I think I can express myself to the full in this side," explained Toni to his shocked fans. "It's just going to take me a little time to get adjusted."

A giant himself at 1.93m, the Modena-born attacker spent six years paying his dues in the lower leagues before making his Serie A debut for Vicenza as they lost 2-0 to AC Milan on 1 October 1999. His nine goals in 31 encounters were insufficient to save the club from relegation and he next secured a move to Brescia, where his 15 strikes in 44 outings tell only part of the story. Despite the presence of Roberto Baggio at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti, Toni's career was stalling and it took a courageous decision to get himself back on track by dropping a division to join Palermo.

Thankfully, the gamble paid off and two campaigns later he had registered 50 goals in 80 matches, made his name in the top tier and powered the Sicilians to a place in the UEFA Cup. Previously "embarrassed" about his height, Toni has at last mastered the art of timing his leaps to become a deadly header of the ball, as well as a cool finisher with both feet.

Outstriking legends
Florence was his next port of call and Toni made an immediate impact by bursting past the goals-per-season record held by Fiorentina legends Kurt Hamrin of Sweden and Gabriel Batistuta of Argentina. They both managed 26, but the newcomer amassed a daunting total of 31 strikes in 38 games to secure the European Golden Boot for the 2005/06 season.

Since 18 August 2004, he has also been a pillar of the Italian national team, scoring 15 times in 27 appearances and pulling defenders out of position left and right. Indeed, his physical style and imposing presence in the area ought to stand him in excellent stead once his adventure in the Bundesliga begins.

Less well-known is 24-year-old Rolando Bianchi, who recently inspired Sven-Goran Eriksson to splash out 13 million euros to take him to Manchester City. The former U-21 international opened his Serie A scoring account in February 2005 and enjoyed a fantastic season with Reggina last term, passing the ten-goal mark for the first time before eventually ending with a tally of 18. His partnership with Nicola Amuroso was particularly effective and the duo shared no fewer than 35 goals between them.

"Eriksson called and told me he wanted me at any price," said Bianchi. "He advised me to come to City because there are always at least 50,000 fans and their ambition is to play in Europe. It's a superb opportunity and I didn't have to think twice before accepting." The challenge facing him now will be to prove he is worth the price tag.

As for 31-year-old Cristiano Lucarelli, he is set to become the first Italian to ply his trade in the Ukrainian Championship after signing for Shakhtar Donetsk. The powerful and athletic marksman was a popular figure in Serie A, never shying away from sharing his left-wing political views, and in 2003 he rejected a number of substantial offers to fulfil a lifelong dream by joining his local side Livorno.

Although he has never led the line for a major team, Lucarelli is a formidable goalscorer and was crowned capocannoniere in 2005 after hitting 24 goals. Last year he finished second behind Francesco Totti and he leaves Livorno having struck 101 times in 144 games for the Tuscany outfit. Only his record with the Azzurri leaves something to be desired, with just one effort to show for his four caps.

The Campionato has clearly lost three of its finest attacking talents, but the reservoir is far from empty. Several emerging stars are sure to take over where their predecessors left off, with youngster Giampaolo Pazzini perhaps the most exciting prospect among them. The U-21 international has been attracting admiring glances ever since he hit a spectacular hat-trick against England at Wembley on 24 March 2007, in a performance that earned him a standing ovation as he left the pitch.

And as they gear up for the new season, Toni, Bianchi and Lucarelli must all be hoping they can provoke similar reactions on foreign soil.