In the annals of Roma history, no name produces a deeper sense of regret and remorse than Antonio Cassano; a tale we've poured over many times in these spaces. But what about Davide Petrucci? The 16-year-old kid who scored 14 goals in 19 Primavera matches in the 2007-2008 season? What emotions or images spring to mind when you think of the kid dubbed the Next Totti: Thunderous goals? Jaw dropping passes? A pile of trophies? His own mural? Or perhaps a middle-aged man tending to the grounds at Old Trafford?
Born and raised in Rome just like Totti before him, Davide Petrucci was the jewel in Roma's Primavera crown in the mid to late 2000s. Trained by Andrea Stramaccioni, Petrucci, with his Roman roots and gift for attacking football, fit the bill as the “Next Totti” and seemed destined to follow in Francesco's footsteps, potentially making his Roma debut a few months shy of his 17th birthday at the outset of the 2008-2009 season, just like Totti had done 15 years prior.
Petrucci was this looming “yeah, but” that haunted Roma during those string of second place finishes in the late 2000s. “Yeah, we may have finished second to Inter again, but just wait till Petrucci gets here!”...“Yeah, Totti may be getting older, but we got Petrucci coming up, we won't skip a beat.”...”Yeah, you may run the league now, but just wait until Petrucci and Alessio Cerci take over!”
Petrucci was that good. Or at least the myth of Petrucci was that good. And such was the power of this myth that it lured one of the world's largest clubs to Petrucci's door step.
Exploiting a loophole in Italian labor law that prevented Serie A clubs from offering professional contracts to players under 17-years-old, Manchester United were able to effectively steal Petrucci from under Roma's nose.
With the Giallorossi only able to offer a minimum-wage contract worth €1,600 a month (per federal guidelines at the time) and without a specific expiration date, Roma could only promise him (or at least heavily intimate) a chance to train with the senior team in the build-up to the ‘08-’09 season.
United, meanwhile, put the full court press on the 16-year-old Petrucci, offering him a £95,000 salary, free flights back to Italy and, perhaps the real kicker, a grounds-keeping job for his father Stefano.
What happened next, even a dozen years down the road, remains controversial. According to Petrucci, he was only given 72 hours to decide between the two offers:
“It was hard to say no, although I am a Roma fan and I would have dressed that shirt for my entire career. United offered my father Stefano a gardener job. A month ago Roma offered me a salary contract minimum without even telling me the duration. I asked for some time to think about it, since United had already made their offer, but they only gave me three days. Roma closed my doors, United gave them to me open. They could have offered me a higher consideration. “
Even though he was technically making a lateral move—trading Roma's academy for United's—Petrucci simply couldn't resist the more lucrative package available at the Theatre of Dreams. For their part, Roma were paid €200,00 for the 16-year-old Petrucci, a sum that fell woefully short of popular projections at the time:
”It is a nightmare. Manchester United have dealt us another low blow, stealing Petrucci from under our noses, probably the best product of our youth system.
“In three to four years, he will be worth 100 times as much.”
That quote, from Il Romanista, was emblematic of popular opinion at the time. This was a theft of the highest order. United, a club that could purchase any player on the planet at any moment, stole the future of Rome thanks to a legal technicality. And all for a measly two hundred grand.
The prince who was promised was stolen by a Red Devil and Roma fans were fit to be tied. There would be no moments of magic between Totti and Petrucci, no grand succession plan and no future, or so it felt at the time.
As it turned out, Petrucci's dream move to Manchester United was anything but. Beset by injuries, Petrucci missed large swaths of the 2009 and 2010 seasons thanks to recurrent pelvic problems. He would battle back from injury and earned a few plaudits with United's youth teams, and was even called up by Sir Alex a few times to sit on the bench, but never made his senior debut with United.
With no route to first-team football in Manchester, Petrucci was loaned to Peterborough in the Championship, for whom he only made four appearances. From there, Petrucci was shipped out to Belgium with Antwerp (12 appearances and one goal) before returning to England with Charlton in 2014.
After training with the club in the summer of 2014, Petrucci's United career came to an official close when he was sold in early September 2014 to Cluj, where he found a bit of stability. In two years with the Romanian club, Petrucci made 58 league appearances, scored eight goals and even wore the captains armband on a few occasions.
From there, Petrucci moved to Turkey, signing a three-year deal with Çaykur Rizespor in August of 2016. After two seasons and 40 appearances in the Super League, Petrucci returned to Italy for the 2019-2020 season, signing on with Ascoli in Serie B, for whom he made 19 appearances prior to the pandemic shut-down.
In so many ways, Petrucci's career has been a lesson in expectations. Petrucci's failure to become the “next Totti” (as if anyone could achieve that) had nothing to do with the badge on his chest. At 28-years-old, Petrucci is in the middle of his seventh season as a professional footballer and has won titles in Turkey and Romania. By any objective measure, he’s had a successful career. Perhaps not as legendary as many envisioned 12 years ago, but a success nonetheless, and at the end of the day, he'll likely have a decade-long career to remember fondly.
So whatever regret you may reserve for Petrucci shouldn't be rooted in any particular athletic deficiency, but rather the immediate expectations we heap on young players the moment they show promise. Davide Petrucci's inability to become the “Next Totti” was more of an indictment of the absurd and unfair nature of that comparison and those expectations than it was his footballing abilities.
We can still be upset about United luring him with a higher salary, free flights home and a job for his father. He was taken from Roma but didn’t take anything from Roma. So we can rue what might have been for Petrucci at Roma, but we can't be upset at him. Davide Petrucci is not Antonio Cassano. His failure to achieve greatness didn't stem from immaturity or questionable decision making. He wasn't given the golden ticket from the football gods only to piss it away, so we shouldn't harbor any animosity for the Roma career Petrucci never had.
And much to his credit, Petrucci is able to reflect on his United career with context, consideration and maturity:
It was incredible in Manchester, there were champions like Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, Scholes and Giggs, without forgetting about the best coach in the world, Sir Alex Ferguson.
At the youth level I have achieved almost all the possible goals, I have been captain of the reserve team and I have won practically everything that was to be won.
With the first team I went on tour in South Africa and China, during which I was able to to debut, but also some squads in the Premier and Champions League, even if in that case the debut did not come in.
At the time it was almost impossible to assert itself in a club like that, I’m still happy with how it went and still today I feel lucky to having played in Manchester United.
When you think of Davide Petrucci and Roma, don't dwell on what might have been, but try and take an empathetic approach. Athletic careers are notoriously fleeting, and at 16-years-old, not only was he offered a salary most adults can only dream of, but he had a chance to learn at the feet of the greatest manager of all-time, all while being able to improve his family’s lot in life at the same time.
Being a professional athlete of any sort immediately puts you among an infinitesimal minority of human beings, but being the “Next Totti” is practically impossible. Players like that come along once in a lifetime, and slapping that label on someone's back necessarily dulls whatever they go on to achieve.
It may not have happened in the shirt he (or we) first envisioned, but Davide Petrucci has had a successful career. And if he has no regrets, why should we?