El Shaarawy, Milan's latest jewel
Still only 19, Stephan El Shaarawy remains something of a rough diamond, one AC Milan are hoping to polish and make the figurehead of a bright new generation at the San Siro. The young forward seems to have the pedigree, earning the nod as Serie B’s Player of the Year for 2011 following a string of impressive displays on loan at Padova.
Born in Savona to an Egyptian father and Italian mother, El Shaarawy started playing with the youth team at local amateurs Legino, and was only 11 when Michele Sbravati, the head of Genoa’s youth programme, persuaded his parents to let him join the club’s training academy. Excelling on the left flank and in a withdrawn attacking position, he quickly showed his worth, helping Genoa to Italian youth league and cup titles.
The precocious talent’s Serie A debut came in a 1-0 win at Chievo on 21 December 2008. Aged only 16 years and 55 days, he took his place among the league’s ten youngest-ever debutants, though finding a regular slot in Giampiero Gasperini’s well-staffed squad was no easy task. After impressing for Italy at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, he was loaned out to Padova to gain experience.
The first goal of his professional career, which came in a 4-0 defeat of Reggina in September 2010, was followed by a knee injury and spell on the sidelines. Returning after the mid-winter break, he then played an inspirational part in Padova’s successful push for a place in the Serie A play-offs, where Novara would deny them promotion. Consolation quickly came with the news that AC Milan had come in for his signature.
“I’ve always loved the club,” said El Shaarawy. “Kaka was my role model when I was young, and my aim now is to go down in Milan history."
After putting pen to paper, the teenager made his debut for I Rossoneri away to Napoli on 18 September last year, scoring his first Serie A goal for the club three days later against Udinese.
Though anxious not to burn him out, coach Massimiliano Allegri is barely able to conceal his admiration for the youngest player in his squad: “He’s just a youngster but he’s got all the makings of a star.
“He’s the type of player the club needs to invest in to lay the foundations for a new era and nurture a new generation,” added an appreciative Allegri. “Stephan has a lot of years ahead of him, and he has to absorb as much as he can from his surroundings and keep progressing at a steady pace. I’m sure he’s not going to burn himself out, though. Milan look at more things than technical ability when choosing young players.”
Though a little starry-eyed about it all, El Shaarawy is settling into life in the Milan dressing room and making the most of his opportunity to learn from some of the game’s household names.
“I’ve been surprised by how down-to-earth and approachable some of the team’s great players are, like Clarence Seedorf and Massimo Ambrosini,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed by that and it’s shown me that I shouldn’t push too hard to play more often. Even though I’m not getting a starting place, training with all these champions is giving me the chance to progress.”
Balotelli or Del Piero? Italy or Egypt?
Comparisons with Mario Balotelli, Italian football’s other rising star, brought this response: “I’m very shy and he’s a real extrovert.” As El Shaarawy then explained, his distinctive Mohican hairstyle is more of a tribute to Napoli’s Slovakian midfielder Marek Hamsik than to the Manchester City firebrand.
For his part, former Italy and Juventus midfielder Alessio Tacchinardi, now a youth coach with Italian third-tier side Pergocrema, believes El Shaarawy is worthy of comparison with one of the all-time legends of calcio: “He reminds me of [Alessandro] del Piero when he started out. He’s very quick and a born goalscorer, and I don’t think it should be too long before he gets a game for the national team. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough, and you need to have courage and put your faith in young players.”
The starlet in question is content to bide his time, however, as he maps out what he hopes will be a brilliant career at club level and for the country of his birth.
“The Egyptian FA have tried to persuade me to play for them but all I’m dreaming about is the blue jersey,” he said. “I’m very attached to my roots, but I feel Italian more than anything else.”