Matteo Ferrari spent 2005/06 on loan with Everton and, despite a campaign heavily disrupted by injury, was enormously popular among supporters. In an interview originally published in the Club's matchday programme, the classy former defender talks about his enduring gratitude for the ‘unconditional love’ of Evertonians, ongoing regret over not hitting the heights at Goodison Park, overcoming grief and setbacks to reach the pinnacle of his profession, receiving one of Italy’s highest honours, and playing Serie A football on one leg.
Living in a community exclusively populated by the world’s pre-eminent athletes, explains Matteo Ferrari, separates the Olympic Games from every other sporting event.
Where else could Ferrari have gained a first-hand account of the life and times of one of his own idols over lunch?
“I was sitting in front of this huge guy who had his head down eating everything coming to the table,” says Ferrari of one mealtime in Athens 17 years ago.
“He looked up for a break from the food and said, ‘Hi’.
“I loved basketball and straightaway realised it was Yao Ming from the Houston Rockets. He was at the Olympics with China. We spent an hour talking about his entire life and career.”
Thing is, had time permitted, Ferrari could have responded in kind. One hour, in fact, probably wouldn’t have sufficed. From overcoming childhood grief, through leaving home at 15 and an emphatic response to being discarded by Inter Mian, to success and injuries and regrets and nearly losing an eye, the Italian has quite the story to tell.
He finished that 2004 Olympics with a bronze medal – Italy lost to Argentina in the semi-finals – while Yao retuned to Texas empty-handed.
Ferrari was among his country’s Olympic contingent awarded the Knight Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
“Not many people have this honour and the pride will stay with me for life,” he says.
“I am proud of the bronze medal, too. Argentina, unfortunately, were unbeatable.”
Ferrari spent one season on loan with Everton in 2005/06 and has no answer for why he was so enthusiastically acclaimed by supporters who remember the accomplished defender in glowing terms.
“This a question you should ask the fans,” he says. “They gave me more than I gave them and I will always be grateful for their support.
“The love the Everton fans and family had for me is something that even now I don’t understand. I wasn’t performing but it was unconditional love.
“I played for many clubs but never saw this love elsewhere.
“If God could give me a last 90 minutes on my legs, I would play at Goodison Park one more time.
“The stadium is not the best I played in but the atmosphere is amazing.
“When I look at the Premier League table today, the first thing I check is the position of Everton. Then I can study the rest.”
Everton were desperately trying to clear the fog of a throbbing Champions League hangover during Ferrari’s opening months at the Club. He joined 24 hours after the fatal defeat in Villarreal and was on the winning side only once in six appearances before a 10-week injury absence from late October.
Only five games into his new-year return – four wins and one draw – Ferrari damaged a hamstring in a victory over Arsenal at Goodison, all but drawing the curtain on a maddening season.
“The first injury was an ankle twist, which was just bad luck,” says Ferrari, who was limited to 13 games in all. “The second, I think, happened because I was adjusting to a new type of training, especially the workload in the gym.
“The mood was low when I came, Everton had just lost in the Champions League and weren’t performing. I went in at left-back and my performance level was low.
“But I’d experienced similar situations in my career and believed it was only a matter of time before everything settled.
“I progressively learned about the size of the Club and its support. Everton, to me, meant family.
“I wasn’t ready to have my worst season for injuries.
“My biggest regret is that the Everton fans never saw the real me. I played a poor number of games and, even then, at 50-per-cent condition.
“I wanted to stay and show everybody what I could do when I was healthy, but it wasn’t possible.
“People usually say they don't regret anything in life. But I would have had at least one more season with Everton – and I wish I’d had fewer injuries, my career would have been different.”
Ferrari spent the first three months of his life in Aflou, the town in Algeria where his father was stationed for work.
His childhood memories belong exclusively in the small northern Italian city of Ferrara where, in Ferrari’s words, he lived a life exclusively with pasta e pallone: pasta and ball.
“Nothing other than football was important,” begins Ferrari. “Today, it is different. My kids love soccer but get distracted by other things.”
Ferrari was so outstanding as a defender after swapping from centre-forward at 13 that he received Italy Under-15 recognition as a youth player with third-tier S.P.A.L.
“I used to score many goals but always played as a defender in practice because I liked to read and anticipate the game,” says Ferrari.
“My coach asked me to try in a game and, after, I didn’t want to play as a striker anymore, which I know is weird, because most kids want to score the goals.”
Football was Ferrari’s salvation when he lost his dad at the desperately young age of 12.
“It was devastating in many ways,” he says.
“I couldn’t accept it for a while and was acting like he was still alive. I became angry, in general, fighting at school, doing bad things and taking the wrong way in life.
“Soccer saved me, absolutely, because it was the only good thing I was still doing.
“My dad preferred me to be good at school, rather than football, but I am sure he’d be very proud of what I achieved.”
Ferrari was an outlier in his Italy Under-15 team, the lone player not on the books of one of Serie A’s glitzy employers.
When Inter Milan made overtures, then, Ferrari knew “it was time to push myself harder” – even if that effort entailed a move more than 150 miles west before his 16th birthday.
He reached Inter’s star-laden first-team squad at 17, played his first senior football on loan in Serie B with Genoa and began coming into his own the following 1998/99 campaign in a Lecce side that won promotion into Serie A on the final day.
Ferrari had a third loan with Bari, narrowly avoiding relegation to the second tier in 1999/00, then returned to Inter to play 27 games the next season.
“It wasn’t difficult to leave home because I was following my dream” starts Ferrari. “There were obstacles and challenges and I wasn’t the best player but I made it through, I was ready to die to reach my goal.
“I was amazed by the quality of the players when I first sat on Inter’s bench. I will never forget Paul Ince and his personality. And I was enchanted watching Ronaldo, I never saw another player with his speed and power and precision with both feet. He is the best ever, with Maradona and Pelé, in my opinion.
“At Lecce, I started to show I was ready for the big step – winning promotion feels like all the sacrifices were worth it and you want more.
“That big step came with Bari – I didn’t want to go there but had no say and it was the perfect place for me; this young player from Algeria, who grew up in a little city, making my Serie A debut. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Inter finished a relatively lowly fifth in Ferrari’s sole season as a regular and reached a nadir when undressed 6-0 by city rivals AC.
Players were jettisoned, with the inexperienced Ferrari among those taking the fall for a flat campaign.
He transferred to Parma and after a sticky first season excelled for two years under Cesare Prandelli, the manager who joined Roma in 2004 and duly won a heavyweight contest for the signature of a player who went to that summer’s European Championship with Italy.
“We didn’t have a great season at Inter and, in Italy, if things don’t work for a big team, the young players are first to pay the price,” says Ferrari.
“The first season in Parma, we had a fantastic team but poor results.
“When Prandelli came, many of us understood we couldn’t afford another bad season. I didn’t play one minute in pre-season and, with my agent, was deciding where to move – but I wanted to show Parma and the coach who I was.
“One day, Prandelli was complaining about our friendly results but mentioned me as a good example because I trained hard every day, despite not playing.
"From there, everything changed. I went from not playing to captain, we had a fantastic season and I received my first Italy call.
“I think he always believed in me but wanted to see my reaction in a difficult situation.”
Ferrari was next in line behind “master defenders” Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro for his national team when he turned down Juventus, Inter, Real Madrid and Manchester United to reunite with Prandelli at Roma.
The manager resigned before overseeing a competitive match due to his wife’s ill health and Ferrari, battling fatigue following a European Championship and Olympic summer, laboured in his debut season.
“I considered going back to Inter because I had unfinished business but decided to follow coach Prandelli,” says Ferrari, who accumulated 11 Italy caps.
“When I arrived, I was out of condition and mentally very low. I had less than one week’s holiday and no pre-season.”
Roma rattled through four coaches in one season, then settled on Luciano Spalletti in summer 2005.
Ferrari wasn’t given the option to impress the new manager. Equally, he had no choice over returning to Roma after one Goodison campaign.
“I think fate wanted me to have one of my best seasons back in Rome, winning the Italian cup and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals,” says Ferrari, whose side were Serie A runners-up.
“I was healthy and motivated. When I was in condition, I always played great games.
“In England, I learned the intensity we don’t have in Italy. The following year in Rome, my style of play was faster and stronger.”
The desire for a “new chapter” following the expiry of his Roma contract, in 2008, persuaded Ferrari to reject the offer of fresh four-year terms.
He chose a second stint at Genoa over both Milan clubs, where Ferrari feared a reduced role, sealing the transfer in a Rome restaurant meeting with his new club’s president, Enrico Preziosi.
“Sometimes,” he declares, “a handshake and the right words are worth more than a thousand contracts.”
Ferrari consistently getting on the pitch as Genoa came within a whisker of Champions League qualification counted as a triumph for the player’s will and adaptability.
He suffered with athletic pubalgia – or a sports hernia – causing acute groin pain.
“I had this issue for almost two years at 30 and seven months when I was 19,” says Ferrari.
“I never missed a game or training session. There were times during games I couldn’t kick the ball with my right foot, I became a ‘lefty’, basically.
“But we had a fantastic season with Genoa and, more importantly, I helped change the mentality of the club.”
Ferrari, despite his accomplished form, had given up on an international recall.
The chance to move to Besiktas, then, was viewed through the prism of financial security.
A sound first campaign in Turkey gave way to an injury-ruined second. He left the club under a cloud after two years and, in October 2012, the Court of Arbitration for Sport found in Ferrari’s favour after he accused Besiktas of illegally terminating his contract.
“Besiktas offered crazy money to join, I couldn’t say no,” says Ferrari.
“The team was good and the atmosphere fantastic. Istanbul is one of the best cities in Europe.
“Injuries caused my problems, again. I twice tore a muscle and needed surgery on my orbital bone after I almost lost an eye following a collision in a game.
“I didn’t take my salary for 11 months without saying a word but when I felt I was treated badly, I asserted my rights and won a big case.”
Ferrari joined Montreal Impact in MLS, spurning clubs in Italy and Germany for a “life experience” with his young family.
He stayed for three seasons, finally succumbing to a failing body shortly before turning 35 in late 2014.
“Canada is an amazing place and I regret we didn’t buy a house in Montreal when we had the opportunity,” says Ferrari.
“Some players think going to MLS will be easy. It isn’t. The league is physical. American players counter lack of technique with athleticism.
“I don’t think anybody is ever ready to retire but I knew my body was done. I had to work for one hour before and after every training session and trips to away games were very long. I couldn’t take anymore.
“I think I embraced retirement. Finally, I have time for my family. I play sport every day, sometimes I feel fitter than when I was a footballer.
“I became an international investor in different sectors and am proud of my new life.
“I have a coaching license and maybe one day I’ll come back to soccer.
“I would change some decisions, in football and in life. But I have no complaints, I consider myself very lucky.”
How Matteo Ferrari and Evertonians wish fortune was on the side of the defensive colossus 16 years ago.