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The curious case of Dalla Bona or how Chelsea were killing football even before Abramovich and Mourinho

A Josh McEachran ghost story. Party like it's nineteen ninety eight!

Julian Finney

Back before the Lucas Piazons and Nathan Akés and Isaiah Browns and Islam Feruzes of the world, there was Samuele Dalla Bona. Evil Chelsea plucked him out of the warm womb of Italian football at the impressionable age of 17, thumbing their noses at the hapless Italians whose silly regulations - amended soon after - allowed the "prodigy" to leave the country for no fee whatsoever.

And make no mistake, Dalla Bona was (considered) a prodigy. He was coveted by most of Europe, but thanks to Chelsea's upwardly mobile ambitions, he joined his compatriots Vialli, Zola, Di Matteo, and Casiraghi instead. After a successful season in the youth team and reserves, the young midfielder was promoted to the first team the following year, though he'd have to wait until the 2000-01 season to make any impact. And impact is what he made, standing his own alongside Lampard, Jokanovic, and Petit, fully partaking in famous Ranieri nights like the 3-0 away win over defending champions Manchester United.

By the time Dalla Bona was 21 in the summer 2002, he had racked up 61 professional appearances, including almost 50 starts for Chelsea. Over the next decade, he'd manage barely twice that as his career petered out in a series of failed moves and loans in Italy. He has been unemployed for over a year and a half now and at 33, his playing career is effectively over. So what went wrong? How did Chelsea manage to kill yet another youth prospect, depriving the football world of joy and mirth?

"If only I could turn back time, I would have stayed [at Chelsea] forever. In Italy, football's repulsive, particularly everything which goes on around it. The pressure, the mentality -- I'm not made out for the Italian culture, and I also paid for this."

-Samuele Dalla Bona; source: ESPN

Hold the phones! What was that again?

In a nutshell, Sam's story is the reverse of what we often see with Chelsea now. Serie A was still the holy grail of football at the time, and despite getting his chances at Chelsea (and their back-to-back 6th place Premier League finishes), Dalla Bona had stars in his eyes and wanted more. Disagreement over a contract extension led to rumors of £6m* moves back to Italy in 2001 already. When those fell through, he was even exiled to the reserves for a bit. Eventually, with just a year left on his contract in the summer of 2002, Chelsea took the offers that were available and Dalla Bona moved to world famous AC Milan.

* It would've been the third highest transfer fee ever received by Chelsea at the time.

Here was a 22-year-old suddenly facing competition from Seedorf, Pirlo, Gattuso, Amborisini, Rui Costa, and even Rivaldo. This was not his level. Carlo Ancelotti basically gave him the Josh McEachran treatment that first year (four starts, eleven total appearances). After that, Dalla Bona never played for Milan again. Napoli took a chance on him a few years later, but by then it was too late. In all, since he left Chelsea, he's played for nine different teams in about eleven seasons, the last being Mantova in Italy's fourth tier.

"I was very attached to my father and he fell ill in 2011, when I was on loan at Atalanta. I still had a year on my contract with Napoli, but I terminated it because I wanted to be closer [to him], so I joined Mantova. My father died that October and I couldn't cope any more. I became depressed and I practically stopped playing."

-Samuele Dalla Bona; source: ESPN

It's certainly a sad story. A boy with seemingly endless potential, unfulfilled. Blame could be placed everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Just goes to show that even before Chelsea decided to kill football by hoarding youth and paying them outrageous sums (right, Neil Ashton?), the path to the top wasn't easy, straightforward, or at all guaranteed.

"There are players who have been banned for life, then their sentences got shortened and they are playing now, while there are honest players who are unemployed. [Simone] Farina, who reported an approach to fix a game, had to quit playing and he had to go to England to find work. It makes you ask yourself 'what's the point in being honest if it's the sly ones who get on in their careers?'"

"I remember once playing for Chelsea and we went to play Manchester City, who had already been relegated, and the stadium was full and the atmosphere was amazing, and City really made us sweat."

"Another time, Robbie Fowler dived in the penalty area and he was booed and whistled at by his own fans. I don't know if English football has changed in the past ten years, but if it's still the way it was, then somebody like [convicted match-fixer Salvatore] Masiello wouldn't have a chance of finding a club. In Italy, though, those who mess up get a second chance while those who never did a thing wrong, and are without a job, are made out to be the idiots."

-Samuele Dalla Bona; source: ESPN

Stay strong, Samwise! The original Italian source mentions that Dalla Bona is working on his UEFA coaching badges. Hopefully he will be able to make a difference that way.

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