Socceroos urged to pick Totti’s Aussie protege after Serie A Debut

By Vince Rugari

Cristian Volpato was once told by both Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers that he wasn’t good enough. On Saturday night (AEDT), he made his professional debut for Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma – against Inter Milan, no less, in one of the biggest fixtures on the Serie A calendar.

Now the Socceroos are being urged to select the Sydney teenager for January’s must-win World Cup qualifiers against Vietnam and Oman, or risk seeing him slip through the cracks once again.

Volpato, 18, came off the bench in added time for Roma as they fell 3-0 to Inter at the Stadio Olimpico. His agent, Giallorossi legend Francesco Totti, watched on from the stands, making his long-awaited return to the venue two years after he fell out with the club’s ownership over his post-retirement role as a director.

“I knew he was going to play because Totti was there. He was coming back to see Cristian play,” Volpato’s former coach and advisor Tony Basha told the Herald and The Age.

It might have been the most fleeting of cameos but it was the first time an Aussie has played in Italy’s top flight since Trent Sainsbury’s single appearance for Inter almost five years ago. Volpato also became just the third Australian to feature in one of Europe’s top five leagues this season, following Socceroos regulars Mat Ryan (Real Sociedad) and Ajdin Hrustic (Eintracht Frankfurt).

Roma fans have long been calling for Volpato to play senior football after a series of eye-catching performances for the club’s youth team, with four goals in 10 appearances as an attacking midfielder – and as Roma struggles in fifth spot on the Serie A table, many supporters are eager to see him given an extended run in the team.

His Serie A breakthrough continues a remarkable journey of resilience. Almost two years ago, Volpato’s mother made a cold call to Basha, who runs the privately operated Australasian Soccer Academy, for advice after he was cut from the youth programs of Sydney and the Wanderers.

After just one training session, Basha recommended the player to one of his contacts at Roma – and while Totti, the man who scored the penalty that knocked Australia out of the 2006 World Cup, is now Volpato’s official representative, Basha remains a close mentor to the Volpato family.

Volpato has been called up by Italy’s youth national team in recent months, but he is still eligible to represent Australia – and Basha believes Graham Arnold needs to act fast to secure a potential player of interest for the Socceroos.

“You’ve got to be stupid to not get him in,” he said.

“I think Arnold’s a great coach, a good guy. But if Mourinho likes this kid and has picked this kid … like, hello? If that’s not enough to tell you to get him in, you’ve got to be kidding me. An Aussie boy playing Serie A … this is why we coach football in Australia, this is why I run my academy.”

Arnold had previously extended an invitation to Volpato to join a training camp with the Olyroos in Marbella before the Tokyo Olympics. A spokesperson for Football Australia said the federation had spoken to Volpato about more recent camps which he was unable to join due to being outside a FIFA window. However, the spokesperson said FA’s discussions with Volpato had been “positive”, that he was interested in playing for Australia, and that he was firmly on the radar of Australia’s national teams unit. FA’s interim technical director Trevor Morgan also sent a message of congratulations to Volpato after his Roma debut.

When Volpato turned 18 last month, Totti reportedly gifted him a signed shirt with the inscription: “For Cristian, a future champion.”

“I’m confident he’ll play for the Socceroos, but they need to call him because Totti’s his agent now. If we don’t get him in, we’re going to lose him. There’s going to be a tug of war for him,” Basha said.

“In Italy, he’s rated very, very highly as one of the best young players. [Australia] should come and approach him because he’s an Aussie boy, he grew up in Australia, that’s where his roots lie. If they call him into a World Cup [qualifying] squad, I don’t see why he wouldn’t go, but at the end of the day it’s up to him.”

The Socceroos are delicately poised in their mission to reach next year’s World Cup, sitting third in Group B and outside the direct qualification positions with four more matches to play amid growing criticism of Arnold’s tactics and player selection.

Italy is also no guarantee to be there – the Azzurri have been forced into the European play-offs, and must get past North Macedonia and then either Portugal or Turkey to secure their spot at the World Cup, having failed to qualify for Russia 2018. Given the high calibre of players within Italy, there is no immediate prospect of Volpato being called up.

Mourinho, meanwhile, was in no mood to chat about Volpato or anything else after the defeat to Inter. In his post-match press conference, the Portuguese refused to take any questions, telling journalists: “Your job is a lot easier than ours which is why we earn a lot more than you.”

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