Cagliari Calcio are the first side from the top-flight Italian Serie A to feature at the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens this year as the Primavera look to make an impression at Hong Kong Football Club.
Cagliari Calcio are the first Italian side to compete in the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens, and they will be hoping their youngsters can follow the success of others who have gone on to carve out great careers following an induction at the tournament.
The Sardinians are not one of the traditionally ‘giant’ clubs in Italian football, with just one Serie A title to their name.
While not boasting the success of Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan or even Roma and Lazio, they are certainly not short of history.
Their sole Scudetto was won way back in 1970, and having finished as runners-up the season earlier, this was a real Golden Era. They provided the bedrock for the Italy team which would reach the FIFA World Cup final in their title-winning year.
Cagliari provided six members of that squad which conquered all but the great Brazil at that World Cup with goalkeeper, Enrico Albertosi, defender, Pierluigi Cera, midfielder, Comanduro Niccolai as well as forwards, Luigi Riva, Angelo Domenghini and Sergio Gori all past of the cast that travelled to Mexico; while there was also the great Roberto Boninsegna, who had left to join Inter Milan 12 months earlier.
Albertosi and Riva were also part of Italy’s 1968 UEFA European Championship-winning squad, but only the latter was with the Sardinian side at the time.
Since that moment of glory in 1970, Cagliari have been somewhat of an up-and-down team, having dropped as far as Italy’s third tier, and later winning the division back in 1989.
Their last trophy of any kind came with victory in Italy’s Serie B in the 2015-16 campaign; and they have kicked on from that by comfortably securing their top-flight survival this season.
The youth team - or Primavera - have failed to deliver a trophy in recent years and have never won the Youth League.
However, they finished fifth last season and will be hoping to use experiences such as the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens to progress and develop.
Throughout the 1990s, the Cagliari kids were challengers in their league and frequently qualified for the second phase. Their best run was in the 1995-96 season when they reached the final stages, only to lose out to Fiorentina.
Hearing Stefano Picchiri talk, tells you just how seriously they will be taking this event.
The club’s youth director admits he wants the youth team to form the core of the first team going forward and is happy with the amount of academy graduates currently flourishing for Cagliari in Serie A.
And Picchiri believes the chance to experience new settings and come up against teams who play different styles of football will help the players moving forward.
“I believe this is a fantastic opportunity to develop our young players,” he said. “From early April onwards, we will be focusing on this tournament and preparing for it.
“This is undoubtedly a fantastic chance to prepare the players for next season. It’s an important opportunity for this club and to give some of the players the chance to prove themselves.
“It’s great to take them abroad and to face teams from other countries. This tournament is a big part of a player’s learning and development. Last year, we went to a tournament in the Italian city of Viareggio and that was great and we keep on progressing and helping these players to grow.
“We want players to gain experience from this. We are looking for events which are motivating and which can help improve the players’ technical ability; and we believe this is ideal.”
Taking young players across the world is something which can help them develop in various areas of their lives.
Coming up against teams from around the planet, which employ various tactics, can help them progress not only on the field, but also off the field.
The responsibility of representing their club and country abroad is huge and will show which players are ready for first team football, and this fact is not lost on Picchiri.
“But not only that,” he added. “We believe these types of events can help our boys grow as men and not just as footballers, which is another important aim.
“So taking our players abroad, to play in a competitive tournament against teams from other countries is undoubtedly very important for their growth; from both a football and human aspect.”
Picchiri is encouraged by how the first team gives the academy stars the chance in the senior squad and wants the players to use this tournament as a springboard for a bright future in the game.
“Recently, players such as Marco Sau, Nicola Murro and Nicolo Barella have graduated from our academy and are playing with the first team,” he said. “So the players are aware there is the opportunity to progress.
“All the players are keen to go and the opportunities to make our squad will surely spur the players on for the rest of this season. We will take the players who we believe are most likely to be with the youth team next season.
“It is important to treat these sorts of tournaments seriously if we want our players to progress to the first team. We treat our present as the club’s future.”
Picchiri is keen to stress how important the team takes every match and every avenue as they look to progress as a group.
Once again, Cagliari’s Primavera side did not challenge for the title, but the league was their sole focus until April, with every single game carrying a weight of significance.
However, given how much they value the future of their young players, Picchiri made sure the players were not distracted for the rest of the season.
In recent times, there haven’t been any of their academy graduates that have gone on to have shining careers in any of Europe’s top leagues.
However, like many Italian teams since the money of the 1980s and 1990s dried up, Cagliari have developed a penchant for finding players at a young age and then selling them on for a profit.
Among their most recent finds are Jonathan Zebina and Radja Nainggolan, who were both sold to Roma and David Suazo who moved to Inter Milan.
There was a time when no one could compete with Serie A sides in the transfer market, but now the strategy is to find players at a young age and sell them on for profit.
Cagliari, known in Italy as the Rossoblu, were formed in 1920 and spent the majority of their early years languishing in Italy’s lower tiers.
They eventually earned promotion to Serie A in 1964 and five seasons later finished as runners up, before winning the title a year later.
The mastermind behind that success was Manlio Scopigno, who managed the club from 1966 until 1972, which also included a brief spell in the USA with the Chicago Mustangs.
However, this does not mean he left the club.
Incredibly Cagliari opted to play a season in the fledgling United Soccer Association league in the USA during the summer of 1967 and selected the name Chicago Mustangs. They finished the season as runners up to the Los Angeles Wolves, with Boninsegna the league’s top goal scorer.
Their achievement of winning the Serie A title in 1970 made them the first champions south of Rome.
Their hero that season was Italy’s highest-ever marksman, Luigi Riva, who is considered Cagliari’s greatest-ever player.
The legendary striker joined Cagliari from Legnano in 1963 at the age of 19 and spent rest of his career with the club and they even retired his number 11 shirt after he hung up his boots.
Riva scored 164 goals in 315 appearances and is in the top 20 goal scorers in Serie A history. He stayed with the club for the rest of his career until he retired from football in 1976.
Cagliari’s time at the top was brief and they were relegated the same summer as their star man quit playing.
The 1980s were a difficult time for the club, as they went all the way down to the Italian third tier and, in 1987, were almost relegated to Serie C2 in their first campaign in C1. But Claudio Ranieri helped the team to successive promotions after being appointed manager and led Cagliari back to Serie A.
After returning to the flight in 1990, they signed Uruguayan attacking midfielder, Enzo Francescoli, who was the childhood hero of none other than Zinedine Zidane following his exploits in France with Marseille.
After one season in Serie A, Ranieri moved onto Napoli and was replaced by Carlo Mazzone, who led them on their greatest-ever European journey, when they reached the semi-finals of the 1993-94 UEFA Cup.
Cagliari knocked out holders Juventus en route to the last four, but were eventually beaten by Inter Milan.
This was the start of a mini-Golden Era, which saw them compete for a European place on annual basis. However, it didn’t last long as they were eventually relegated in 1997.
More recently, Cagliari-born, Gianfranco Zola is regarded as the club’s icon.
Having never played for his hometown club, he returned to Cagliari in 2003 to finish his playing days back home.
A Premier League icon with Chelsea, he chose to end his career in Sardinia despite Roman Abramovich having taken over the West London club that same summer.
He immediately led the side back to Serie A and then extended his contract, and helped Cagliari finish comfortably mid-table.
The hometown hero then retired from playing and was named assistant at Italy’s Under-21s before eventually returning to Cagliari as manager on Christmas Eve in 2014.
However, his comeback soon turned into a disaster as his first match in charge brought about a 5-0 defeat and he was sacked after just three months.
Current Juventus manager, Massimiliano Allegri, who has won the Serie A title for the last three seasons, is another big personality who made his name at Cagliari.
Despite starting his two-year tenure with five defeats, he led the club to a ninth-place finish was named Manager of the Year, ahead of Inter Milan’s Jose Mourinho in 2008-09.
Current first-team coach Massimo Rastelli has been at the club since 2015 and led them to the Serie B title in his first season.
Despite their relative inexperience of competing against sides at this level, Cagliari have not just come to Hong Kong to make up the numbers. Picchiri insists demands are high and has urged his players to take the opportunity with both hands as this will show they can handle, not just the Primavera, but also football at the highest level.
The Italian side know the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens provides them with a fantastic opportunity to progress as players, and they will be coming to do themselves proud.