Superstar footballers come in many shapes and sizes. From tall, statuesque strikers to hulking defenders to those very few keepers who can change a match, football has no shortage of matinee idols. But when you think of the real marquee players, the ones that even casual football fans know, it's often the wide players blessed with pace, creativity and an eye for goal that spring to mind: your Messis, Kylian Mbappes, Neymars, Martas and Alex Morgans.
We're fond of calling Agnese Bonfantini, Roma's 20-year-old forward, the Italian Alex Morgan but that once pie in the sky comparison isn’t looking so crazy after Bonfantini's stellar second season with AS Roma. In only her second season in Serie A, Bonfantini improved nearly every facet of her game, made her national team debut, and emerged as one of Italy's brightest young talents.
Before we trumpet her 2020 successes, we need to take a look back at the player Bonfantini was last season, her first in Serie A. Born and raised in Verbania, Bonfantini came up through Inter Milan's youth ranks and spent parts of three seasons with Inter in Serie B, scoring a whopping 40 goals and featuring for Italy at the youth level, including scoring a brace against Scotland in the spring of 2018.
Needless to say, she was quite the prospect and quite the coup for Roma when they signed her in the summer of 2018. On her decision to sign with Roma, Bonfantini cited the freshness and ambition of the project:
When I heard Roma were interested in signing me, I immediately thought that’s where I wanted to go. The project inspired me. Everything was great from the get go. When I moved to my new home I found everything, from the keys with Roma’s Scudetto engraved on them to my kit with the number 22 on it. It was a special season.
It would have been foolish to expect Bonfantini to carry over her Serie B scoring form to her rookie season in Serie A—though she certainly showed flashes of the explosiveness that made her such a hot commodity at the youth ranks—but Bonfantini's four goals were still good enough for third on the club behind Annamaria Serturini, Flaminia Simonetti and Elisa Bartoli.
But when you're talking about a 19-year-old kid playing in the top flight for the first time, simply surviving is probably the biggest test, and with nearly 1,800 minutes in her rookie season, Bonfantini not only survived, she made herself indispensable for Betty Bavagnoli and Roma during their inaugural season.
So that was the table setting. Bonfantini was an über prospect who, though she failed to replicate her absurd scoring rate from Serie B, was a mainstay for a top four club and showed enough promise to become Roma's top priority last summer.
With Roma revamping on the fly in the summer of 2019, signing veteran players from all over Europe, Bonfantini faced stiffed competition for minutes. And when the season started with Bonfantini planted on the bench in Roma's opener against AC Milan—and only three starts in the first seven matches—it looked like Agnese would be on the outside looking in. Roma were undoubtedly deeper and better than the prior year, but, for Bonfantini, it came at a cost.
Despite being a part-time player early in the season, Bonfantini made her mark on the score sheet, scoring two goals and providing one assist through her first four appearances, using her speed, timing and finishing to team up with Lindsey Thomas and Serturini to form one of the league's most potent front-lines.
As fall gave way to winter, Bonfantini began to reclaim her place in the starting lineup, running off a stretch of eight straight league starts, a span in which she really began to assert herself in Roma's pecking order.
In those eight starts, Bonfantini poured in five goals—punctuated by her hat-trick against Verona—showing the sort of breakaway speed, aggression, close control and finishing that made her one of the most heralded U-19 prospects with Inter Milan.
This particular goal is emblematic of her unique blend of patience, acceleration and flat-out speed:
I mean, just look at that! From start to finish, Bonfantini not only showcased her top-line speed, but she showed enough patience and touch to steer the ball past the first defender and to set the ball up on her stronger foot to beat the keeper.
Bonfantini followed up the club's first-ever hat-trick by heading home the lone goal in the Giallorosse's 1-0 win over Sassuolo, which turned out to be the final match of the season due to the FIGC's decision to cancel the remaining six matches of the 2019-2020 season.
With the paucity of statistics available for Serie A Femminile, we have to rely on the eye test more than hard figures, but with eight goals in all competitions, Bonfantini finished the season as Roma’s second leading scorer and tied for fourth league-wide. But with seven league goals in only 988 minutes, Bonfantini's 0.64 goals per 90 minutes led Roma and were seventh in Serie A Femminile—and, at only 20-years-old, she was by far the youngest player to crack the top ten in both categories.
Any way you slice it, Agnese Bonfantini is well on her way to being one of the most lethal forwards in the league. She has the size, strength, touch, speed and finishing to be a prototypical 21st century forward—a winger capable of creating and finish with equal parts brain and brawn.
But since we started off this piece by calling her the Italian Alex Morgan, let's compare Bonfantini's first two years in the topflight to Morgan's early years as a professional footballer. Unfortunately, we can't really do an age-for-age comparison because when Morgan was 19 and 20 she was playing collegiate soccer for UC Berkeley, so we'll use her first few seasons as pro, which is in and of itself tricky because the WPS folded after 2012.
Keeping all of that in mind, Bonfantini stacks up quite well with her idol. Between her first three years as a pro (between the ages of 22 and 24) with the Western New York Flash, Seattle Sounders and later the Portland Thorns, Morgan scored 15 goals in 36 appearances. Bonfantini, meanwhile, has managed 12 goals in 37 appearances between her age 19 and 20 seasons.
Given that we're talking about three different leagues, one of which folded, it's not a perfect comparison but the early stages of Bonfantini's career have a distinct Alex Morgan-like feel to them.
For her part, Bonfantini doesn't want to play like Alex Morgan so much as play against her:
My dream is to play in the World Cup. It would be great to play against Alex Morgan. I feel better playing as a winger, I think that’s more my natural role where I give the best of myself. I’ve definitely tried playing as a center-forward but I don’t think that’s my strength. Compared to last year, I feel more self-aware, even if they tell me I should be even more aware of what I’m capable of.
I’ve improved my game so much thanks to the coach and the staff. Last year I scored four goals. This year eight goals. Next year, who knows?
It's precisely that ‘who knows’ that should have Roma fans giddy for the future. At all of 20 years old, Bonfantini is already proving herself to be one of the most efficient, effective and entertaining forwards in the league, and if her career continues on this path, that ‘who knows’ could mean super stardom.
Despite the premature end to the season, women's football in Italy is on the upswing. The Azzurre already have the stonewall defense we've come to expect from Italian teams, they have a few big game players like Cristiana Girelli, Barbara Bonansea and Valentina Giacinti, but they don't have a recognizable star on the order of Alex Morgan.
If the next few years go according to plan—if that ‘who knows’ becomes what we think it might be—Agnese Bonfantini could change all of that.
She has everything it takes to become Italy's first true superstar.