In the south of Kansas City on a corner of 43rd Avenue there is an Italian restaurant called Cupini’s. Eddie Cupini and his father, Franco, have dedicated nearly 15 years to serving up the best pasta in town (“just like my mom used to make,” says Franco), earning a few awards along the way. But soon they will be leaving behind the restaurant and the life they have built in America.
Eddie’s 10-year-old son, Alessandro, has signed up to Roma’s esteemed academy. Alessandro is something of a social media sensation with more than 40,000 followers on Instagram and a dedicated YouTube channel showcasing his prodigious talent, all managed by his father. He even has a nickname: The Wolf. “A lion and a tiger are mean but you can’t take a wolf to the circus,” Eddie explains.
The news has raised a few eyebrows – it is almost unheard of for a player so young to move continents ever since Fifa’s crackdown on the international transfer of minors in 2014, which led to Barcelona being sanctioned. Fifa prohibits anyone under 16 moving across the world unless “the player’s parents move … for reasons not linked to football”. The rule was supposed to protect children from being shipped to academies only to be discarded later, but was liberally flouted for many years. Now it is implemented meticulously, forcing families who had previously moved their lives abroad into limbo.
Alessandro, however, will be able to get around the regulations by applying for dual-citizenship, courtesy of his Italian heritage, which puts him in a rare position. He will move with his grandparents, parents and three-year-old sister next summer, attend Rome International School where he can expect to learn fluent Italian within six months, and will balance his education with training five days a week at the academy.
“It’s going to be a culture change for us, a language change, it’s a pretty big move,” says Eddie. “But he wanted to pursue it. He said: ‘Dad, I want to live in Rome and play soccer in Europe, that’s where the best footballers come from and that’s where I want to be.’”
Early dedication is a necessary ingredient to reach the very top in sport and there are plenty of stars who made a big step at a young age to find the best environment to succeed: Lionel Messi swapped Rosario for Barcelona aged 13; Maria Sharapova’s Russian father famously worked odd jobs in Florida for years so she could receive the best coaching as a young child. But there are also far fewer heralded stories of rejection and devastation.
Eddie is under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge facing his son. “Even though we’re going [to Rome], it’s still a needle in a haystack to be a professional footballer,” he says. He has gone to huge lengths to give Alessandro the best possible chance. Alessandro trains with his local team and with a select group of youngsters at the MLS franchise Sporting Kansas City, and has a private coach as well as regular sessions with a friend of Eddie’s, Giorgio, who runs the Rockhurst University men’s team in the city.
He even has his own training pitch. “We built him a stadium in our basement which is 15ft wide by 45ft long filled with turf. He’s usually either down there or outside in the front yard wanting me to take him to training. Every day the first thing he asks is: ‘Where are we going to train, who are we training with, Dad?’ If he says he wants to go to the field, I never say no. I figure out a way to get him there.”
Alessandro’s story bears a striking resemblance to that of Rhain Davis, a young Australian who signed for Manchester United in 2007. Davis joined United’s academy aged nine after his godfather sent in clips of his dribbling exploits which racked up five million hits on YouTube. Davis was released by the club aged 16 following a broken leg and now plays in the National League with Altrincham.
“It was a new adventure for me and my family and they supported me thoroughly,” Davis told an interview with Football Central last year. “Of course I felt pressure but in a way it seemed to drive me further. I can truthfully say I have no regrets in the journey I’ve taken. In my case my motivation comes from my family; the thought that I brought them here to England is enough to keep me motivated.”
Eddie has considered the possibility of Alessandro not making it. “Our goal is for him to just enjoy the game. We would hope that he would make it to the top level of course. If not, maybe he’ll get a full-ride scholarship to college somewhere for soccer.”
What if Alessandro later swaps training for typical teenage pursuits like drinking and parties, or simply loses interest? “That’s one question we ask ourselves now. When he turns teenage that’s a turning point. If they stay focused, they make it. If they don’t, they’re just gonna be another kid on the street. They’re gonna go to college and do something else with their life so we can’t hold that back. Hopefully he’ll get over that hump and stay in the right direction that he wants to go to play football. I would just tell him it would be wasted talent for you to quit right now and you don’t want to be wasted talent, definitely.”
Eddie admits that the move was a difficult financial decision. The Cupinis will try to keep the restaurant going from afar while switching the imports side of their business to exports, and they will run culinary tours in Rome and Florence, something they have done before. “It is definitely a financial burden but we’re hoping for the best and, if anything [goes wrong], I’ll have to come home. Alessandro knows that maybe down the road when he’s 12 or 13 there are academies who can take him, he can stay over and go to school. He might have to think hard about if that’s what he wants – separation of the family at an early age.”
These, perhaps, are the sacrifices in grasping a unique opportunity. “I want to try and give him his best chance in life to live what his dreams are. You can’t wait too long. These kids get so good so fast and a soccer career is over quickly, almost when you’re 30 sometimes, so you don’t have much time to make that decision. You’ve gotta go for it.”