Francesco Camarda, 15, becomes Italy’s new boy wonder as Milan find some respite

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Germano Lanzoni is the voice of San Siro. For more than two decades, ‘Gegio’ has picked up the microphone and read out the names of the AC Milan players lucky enough to tread the boards of the Scala del Calcio that day. Champions League winners, Ballon d’Or recipients and World Cup heroes have all heard him shout their names as they’ve trotted out under the red girders and the unique acoustics of this near century-old concrete bowl.

On Saturday evening, Lanzoni was passed a new name to call out. When he saw it, a chill must have run down his spine.

It’s not every day he gets to announce a substitution that makes history.

Down on the sideline, having his boots checked by the fourth official, was Luka Jovic’s replacement. The deadline-day freebie had done something good for once, sending Milan’s marauding full-back Theo Hernandez through to force and then score a match-winning penalty earlier in the game. Typically, Jovic then missed a one-v-one against his former club Fiorentina; a reminder of why, at the end of last summer, they had released the player for whom Real Madrid once paid €63million (£54.7m; $69m).

Jovic might have felt aggrieved. Instead, he smiled and encouraged the fellow striker who would come on for him in the 83rd minute. Lanzoni read out the name with typical bombast. “FRAN-CES-CO” and let the Curva Sud do the rest. “CA-MAR-DA”.  The replacement puffed out his cheeks, looked over at those ultras and broke into a disbelieving grin. It was really happening.

Francesco Camarda was 15 and 260 days old.

With an embrace from Jovic, Camarda makes his entrance (Loris Roselli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Looking on from the stands, his mother placed a hand over her face and wept. His father laughed, incredulous. Their boy had just become the youngest player ever to appear in Serie A. What is it they say about life coming at you fast? Well, it seems to come at Camarda even faster still.

Stood next to him, Milan head coach Stefano Pioli could have been mistaken for his grandad. Tommaso Pobega, the preppy midfielder who looks like a student finishing his MBA at Bocconi, said: “Now I seem old.” Pobega, for the record, is 24.

The shirt number Camarda wore, 73, matched the average age felt by almost everyone else tuning in to watch the final stages of Milan’s first win for over a month.

It wasn’t the first time the kid had come up against Fiorentina.

Camarda had already headed in the winner against them to decide the championship final at under-15s level. It was one of 483 goals he has scored in 87 games for Milan’s youth teams, a ratio that makes Erling Haaland take on the guise of blond tumbleweed.

As football’s fascination with the next big thing gets disquietingly younger — wait until you learn that Camarda plays with Clarence Seedorf’s son, Denzel — so has the frenzy from social media accounts pushing clips of his skills like corner boys slinging drugs in The Wire; dopamine, if not for the soul, then from endless scrolling of goals.

This probably peaked after Camarda’s scissor kick in a win over Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Youth League three weeks ago. Immediately afterwards, there were calls for him to be fast-tracked to the first team, as if a 15-year-old playing in that under-19s competition wasn’t already making progress at warp speed.

Opportunity knocked when whatever was left of Milan Lab stopped working.

Milan have had 27 injuries this season, and while ‘too much football’ is undoubtedly to blame, it’s still a lot. The attack, in particular, has been largely confined to A&E. Rafael Leao came off in the 2-2 draw against Lecce, the final game before this month’s international break, with a muscle complaint. Noah Okafor returned from international duty with Switzerland carrying a thigh issue. Making matters worse was Olivier Giroud’s avoidable suspension, which kept him out of this weekend’s game, too.

Rather than dream up some wonky workaround — which can never be totally ruled out with Pioli — the club applied for the dispensation needed to register Camarda for the Fiorentina match and the coach who looks like a doting ‘nonno’ called him up. “If he’s in the squad, it means he’s available to play,” Pioli said as Camardamania broke out. “It’ll depend on how the game goes. He’s worked well over the last few days. Being a part of this experience, even if he doesn’t play, will be very formative for him. And he’s definitely got a big future ahead of him.”

How big remains to be seen.

“It’s crazy watching him,” Milan’s England defender Fikayo Tomori said. “He’s 15. I don’t even know where I was when I was that age. He moves well in the penalty area. If he comes on, the team will definitely help him.”

Camarda prepares ahead of the Fiorentina fixture (Loris Roselli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Camarda’s history-making debut distracted from an otherwise disappointing performance.

Contrary to Tomori’s promise, the chances of Camarda continuing his 5.5 goals per game ratio at first-team level were not helped by the team’s failure to escape their penalty area for his brief cameo. Milan did not muster a shot in Camarda’s time on the pitch and, as a whole, were out-shot 18-to-one in the second half.

Luckily, Mike Maignan’s face got in the way of a stoppage-time equaliser from Rolando Mandragora, so everyone could focus instead on a first win in four in Serie A and the boy wonder who broke the Serie A record set by Bologna centre-back Wisdom Amey in 2021 — not to mention the club record established by one Paolo Maldini, whose time as Milan technical director came to an end in the summer amid reports he wanted to make a substitution of his own and replace Pioli with his old team-mate, Andrea Pirlo.

For now, Camarda will return to train with Milan’s under-19s. He will not figure in the squad for Tuesday’s game against Borussia Dortmund because nobody thought to put him on the Champions League list back in August, and who can blame them for that? But with Giroud still banned for Frosinone’s visit to San Siro next weekend, expect to see the youngster again soon.

Patience and a duty of care are needed particularly within the context of Italy’s deification of footballers and desperate search for a striker.

It’s enough to recall the hype around Pietro Pellegri, who still might come good six years on from upstaging Francesco Totti in his final game for Roma by scoring, aged 16, for Genoa, and then moving to Monaco as the ‘Italian Kylian Mbappe’ for €20million. Pellegri, who is now back in Italy with Torino and shares the same agent as Camarda, should provide pause for thought before anyone gets ahead of themselves and declares Camarda the heir to Gigi Riva.

Just let him and his family enjoy the moment.

Camarda confronts Fiorentina’s Fabiano Parisi as Milan cling on (Isabella Bonotto / AFP via Getty Images)

In Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth, Harvey Keitel’s character, an ageing movie director, is looking at the Swiss Alps through a telescope and says: “Everything seems very close when you’re young. That’s the future.” Nevertheless, it sometimes pays to take a step back, detach yourself from the unreality of social media and this absurd industry called football and let Camarda’s career take its course.

Whatever will be, will be. And however it goes, he will always have Saturday night and the deafening noise of the Curva Sud calling out CA-MAR-DA.

That’s something that’ll never get old.

(Top photo: Loris Roselli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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