GianlucaDiMarzio.com (Francesco Pietrella) It’s impossible to tell the difference between them. “I’ve always struggled with it!” It’s a real challenge. “Who are we talking about, Matteo or Federico?” On the pitch they’re both elegant players: the former is a midfielder, the latter is a fantasista. “Technically they were exceptional even when they were 12 years old.” In a word, “twins”. They were so similar that he needed to take remedial action to tell them apart. “I coached 2 teams at Roma, both with players born in ’94. You know how I told them apart? I coached 1 of them on a Saturday, the other played on a Sunday. Sometimes it was the other way round, but that was the only way.” Former Roma youth coach Tovalieri smiles, thinking back. Those Ricci brothers who he used to coach are now both playing professionally: Matteo at Perugia, Federico at Sassuolo
Against Sampdoria on Sunday, the latter scored his first goal in Serie A. “I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled. I must have done something right…” Tovalieri sits up in his seat, proud of his ‘Fede’ who he coached all that time ago. “He was a kid then, now he’s scoring in Serie A.” His is another career that Sandro has launched – his track record is impressive. “I’ve coached many players who have gone on to make it.” It’s a long list. “Romagnoli, Verre, Mazzitelli, Pellegrini, Verde, Capradossi…” And now the Ricci twins, the identical pair from the capital. “I had them for 2 years with the Esordienti side, they had great technical ability even when they were 12 or 13.” The predictable question – “Who was the better of the 2?” Tovalieri answers: “I had more belief in Matteo at first, he did some incredible things with the ball. Federico was good, but a bit timid. Now he’s doing really well though, just as he did last season with Crotone.”
It’s a deserved step up. “He’s a dependable person, a professional who wants to reach the top. Good things are coming to him now, it’s up to him to make sure they last.” Ambitious, but he’s keeping his feet on the ground. “With me he never complained, never disapproved. He always smiled even when he wasn’t playing, and he never missed a training session. Whether it was cold, raining, snowing, windy – he was always there, enjoying himself and listening to everything we said.” Pearls of wisdom and bits of advice, instructions and suggestions. “I played him as an attacking midfielder or a winger. He had pace, good control, he could dribble, build the play, he scored a lot and assisted a lot as well. He had it all. He still does.” Just like Matteo, who knew “how to make the ball sing. He was phenomenal, seriously.”
Tovalieri thought the world of him, so much so that sometimes Federico suffered as a result. “One day he came up to me on the pitch and asked me if I thought his brother was better than he was, so I was completely honest with him and said yes.” He’s direct, Tovalieri. But it works. “I advised him to keep working hard because he would also make it as a professional, I was sure of it.” Tovalieri recalls one other particular incident. “He scored a fine goal against Lazio once and he ran up to embrace me, and jokingly he told me ‘You see that? This time I’m the better one!'” And, in fact, ‘Fede’ the fantasista was the first one to score in Serie A. But there’s a lingering possibility – are we sure it wasn’t actually Matteo?