La Gazetta Dello Sport's Massimo Cecchini once described the life story of Marco Borriello as a tale of murder, sex and money. The 31-year-old, he stated, has for far too long been a prisoner of perception, and like everyone has secrets and skeletons in the closet that can be revealed if you scratch away at the surface. So let’s start by addressing Marco’s sporting fallacies. "Firstly that I’m 'just the striker who is only good in the air'" shrugs Borriello, before pointing out that of the 70-odd goals he has scored in Serie A, 90% of them have been scored with his feet. Part of the problem is a lumbering 6ft frame that belies a surprising technical ability. Writing in Bleacher Report, Matteo Bonnetti reveals the striker is "a serviceable No. 9 in the right system"; operating most effectively in a 4-3-3 when the wing players provide him with a steady stream of crosses which he's able to feast on. While never a natural finisher, Borriello has specialized in bizarre left-footed volleys and has plenty of power to score from outside the box as well. Yet inconsistency is always the word used to define Borriello's career in Italy, from long dry patches without a goal to being near the Capocannoniere title with a flurry of hat-tricks and braces, Borriello has never been able to cement a place with a squad for more than a few years. When it is frequently asserted he has so far got less out of his career than his talent deserves, typically Borriello only partially agrees. "I could have achieved more, but it wasn’t always my fault," he explains. "Sometimes people put a spanner in the works. And every time I actually had a good season it was always followed by one blighted by injury."
So many goals, so many girlfriends, so many teams; it's perhaps this nomadic type of career lived on the road and in the gossip papers, thinks Bonnetti, that never really allowed him to reach his full potential. If every sporting career is the culmination of a journey, then Marco Borriello's peregrination- through ten clubs and thirteen moves via assiduous patronage of the world's most exclusive nightclubs- has been circuitous by any standard. Born in San Giovanni Teduccio, one of the most deprived suburbs of eastern Naples, Borriello remains fiercely proud of his roots. "It is my neighborhood and one of my favorite places," he states. "It is my home even though Naples can at times be difficult." It is the unceasing turmoil and the daily come and go that makes Naples such a heaving and fibrillating city, concluded the Marquis de Sade. If visiting now even he would be astounded by the groups of small boys who drive motorbikes at high speeds through tiny streets, where you can still see the damage from the 1980 earthquake and the population density is amongst the highest in Western Europe. On every corner there are huge muralled walls pockmarked with bullet holes from the local criminals using them for target practice. "It's not easy," admits Borriello. "In my neighborhood there is the highest concentration of clans in the city. It is a jungle, but also a little bit Disneyland. There a child is forced to grow up fast because one year there is worth ten years somewhere else. Football, then, helped me to overcome losing my father, but I would have liked him to have seen what I could do."
Borriello's father Vittorio was killed by the mafia in 1993; like Pescara's Giuseppe Sculli and Roma's Daniele De Rossi another in a long line of players whose private lives have been affected by the miserable consequences of organised crime. In those years (we are at the beginning of the 90's), according to court and police reports, Borriello's father, known as "Baby Bottle", was supplying usurious loans to the people of the local community controlled by the Mazzarella clan. Vittorio ended up on trial for Mafia association, but was acquitted completely. On the same day, however, "Baby Bottle" disappeared. It wasn't until years later that Borriello discovered that his father had loaned money to Pasquale Centore, the former mayor of a town in Casertano with links to the Casalesi clan. "He didn’t want to pay my father back and, during a fit of rage, he murdered him," he explains. A repentant Centore had confessed to the murder over what he considered unreasonable interest demands; shooting Vittorio before removing the body and burying it under his villa. "I was 10 at the time and from then on my mother was instrumental in the way I grew up," recalls Borriello. "I've always had a family behind who supported me and I have never gone without. Growing up without a father figure was hard but it is an experience that has strengthened me and made more independent. Otherwise I would not have left home at age 14." Signora Borriello is wide-eyed when she recalls the first time she truly noticed how talented her bambino could be. "My son started playing football in the square in front of the tobacconist" she says, pointing to a square where there are shirtless boys chasing the ball. "It all started from that road, as it does for most boys, but unlike many his dream came true."
Spotted by traveling scouts when playing in a practice match with friends, Borriello came up through the ranks of Milan with a growing reputation but never had the opportunity to prove himself before being transferred to Treviso in a joint-ownership deal. He made his professional debut for Triestina in Serie C2 but it was his subsequent 10 goals in 27 Serie C1 games for Treviso that prompted Milan to recall him in June 2002. He was then handed his Serie A debut the following September against Perugia. After he failed to immediately establish himself he would spend much of the next few years on loan at other Serie A clubs, including a stay with league rival Empoli for the rest of the 2002–2003 season. Borriello returned to Milan for the 2003–04 season, playing in just 4 games before going on loan to Reggina. It was here that Borriello would meet the first of several high profile girlfriends in the shape of Argentine model, actress and television personality, Belen Rodriguez. Still playing second fiddle to his younger brother Fabio, star of the reality show "Champions", in the 2005–06 season, Marco was once again sent on loan, this time to Sampdoria along with Milan team mate Samuele Dalla Bona. Boriello left Sampdoria in January 2006 for a six-month loan stint at Treviso where he scored his then career best of 5 Serie A goals.
It was in the summer of that year that Borriello returned to Milan with the assurance of first team football following the departure of Andriy Shevchenko to Chelsea and the release of Marcio Amoroso. Yet by December his future was put in jeopardy when he tested positive in a drug test for prednisolone and prednisone after the 11th match of the 2006/2007 Serie A season. After confirmation of the test results in January 2007, he was suspended for two months. A scandal at the time, Belen would famously claim that the positive test was down to her boyfriend's contact with the creams she was using to fight an 'intimate' infection. It is just another in a long line of apocryphal tales in the building of Borriello's legend. "She was given bad advice and exaggerated during the interviews," Marco explained to Cecchini. "It had nothing to do with it. Those substances [catabolic steroids], were only present in a cream for back pain that I never actually used. Would you believe me if I told you that I still don’t know how I tested positive?"
Whatever the truth, six months later Borriello was sold to newly promoted Genoa in a co-ownership deal with Milan. At age 25, with his reputation now in tatters, it would be the move that finally saw the blooming of Borriello's latent talent. He finished the season with 19 goals, third behind Juventus pair Alessandro Del Piero and David Trézéguet and now a firmly established member of the Italian national squad. Having received his first cap in a friendly against Portugal in February 2008, he would subsequently earn a call up to the European Championships only for Roberto Donandoni to inexplicably prefer a clearly hobbled Luca Toni. Despite being shunned during the hottest streak of his career Borriello remains philosophical about the experience. "I stayed 20 days in a 5-star hotel," he smiles. "The food was great, I saw lots of great sights for free and had my picture taken with Cannavaro and Buffon." By now he was back in Milan, the subject of a €10 million transfer following Alberto Gilardino's departure to Fiorentina. He was also back in the gossip pages, telling the world in typical hyperbolic fashion that he made love to Belen "37 times a day". Even if Antonio Cassano has slept with between 600-700 women, he graciously conceded, "I've bedded fewer, but better looking ones."
In Borriello's first season of his second spell at Milan, he made just 7 Serie A appearances scoring a solitary goal against Reggina. Toiling away in Carlo Ancelotti’s preferred 4-4-2 diamond formation for which he was patently unsuited, he also scored against F.C. Zurich in the UEFA Cup, but an unfortunate injury kept him out of action for the rest of the season. After star man Kaká left the club in the summer 2009 transfer window, Borriello chose to move to shirt number 22 which he had worn at Genoa. The following season, now "in the court of Leonardo" and as the figurehead in a 4-3-3, he scored his first ever brace for the Rossoneri in a 2–0 win over Parma followed a few weeks later by his first Champions League goal against Marseille in a match that finished 1–1. Ahead of a fine run of form, Borriello scored another brace in Milan's 5–2 defeat of former club Genoa, one of his goals being an acrobatic bicycle kick from a cross from Ronaldinho. The following week Borriello scored a lovely goal against A.C. Siena, when he hooked a 30 yard chipped pass from Pirlo into the top corner first time from an acute angle in a move that brought back memories of Marco Van Basten's strike for Holland against the USSR in Euro 1988. On 21 February 2010, Borriello scored his fourth volley of the season in Milan's 2–0 win over Bari. Then in April, he scored two second half goals to help Milan come from 2–0 down to draw against Catania before finishing the season with an impressive 14 league goals in 26 appearances. It was enough to see him in Lippi's 28-men provisional 2010 FIFA World Cup squad, although he never made the final 23-man cut.
Despite starting the first game of the 2010-11 season for Milan against U.S. Lecce, Borriello's position was unceremoniously usurped by the high profile arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. By late August he was loaned to Roma for free (where he then scored the winning goal against Milan at the San Siro on 19 December), with the obligation to purchase the player's rights before the 2011-2012 season for the payment of €10 million split over 3 years. He would go on to score 11 goals in Serie A that season, as well as two in the Coppa Italia and four in the Champions League. Yet June saw more upheaval, this time with the arrival of Luis Garcia as the Giallorossi's new head coach and the start of his ill-fated 'Spanish Project.' In what was becoming a familiar pattern in Borriello's stuttering career, the signing of a 'new toy'- this time €15 million Dani Osvaldo- would lead to severely diminished opportunity and indifferent form. He spent the first half of the season on the bench, playing just 7 matches of which he started in only 2, before this most peripatetic of footballers agreed a January €500,000 loan deal with Juventus, with the option to buy him for €8 million at the end of the season. After his official unveiling to the Turin press, Borriello met with a hostile reception from Juventus fans. In his first game he was greeted by a huge banner that read: 'Borriello, mercenary without honour or dignity.' The antipathy could be traced back to a perceived snub two years previously when Borriello was thought to have chosen Roma over Juventus when he decided to leave Milan. Like so many things in Borriello's life things are not necessarily what they seem. "Borriello is to all intents and purposes a Juventus player," Juventus coach Antonio Conte pleaded with the fans. "I think he explained that he never actually 'rejected' this move previously. The Bianconeri simply didn’t have the funds to offer a permanent deal at the time and the player and Milan preferred to send him to Roma, but he did not reject Juve. Only a madman could reject this jersey."
Predictably Juventus decided not to purchase Borriello after his loan spell at the club and he returned to Roma. Although Luis Garcia had by now departed there would be no respite in the form of new coach Zdeněk Zeman who immediately placed the striker sight unseen on the transfer list. By August Borriello was back at Genoa, in the arms of the club where he first made his mark. "I must not be a top player, just call me a good player," he said bitterly in his Genovese press conference when prompted to contemplate the circularity of his career. Emboldened by being back in the City of the Griffin, at the one place where he had always been loved unconditionally, he added: "I do not understand. I scored 15 goals for Milan, more than Ronaldinho and Pato, then was Roma's best scorer of the season. I scored the crucial goal for Juventus that sealed the Scudetto but none of this counts." Here it is, the eloquent summary of the nomadic striker with his numbers clutched in hand; "destined forever to always take on new challenges with commitment and goals," observed Galeano, "but never repaid in the same love or coin." As replacement for Alberto Gilardino, Borriello bagged three goals in eight appearances before a nasty ankle injury sidelined him for six weeks. Despite the enforced absence, he still ended the season as the club's top scorer, his 12 goals vital in helping the Rossoblu avoid the drop.
Which brings us to the start of this season and a return visit to Roma's bench. Having started in the first game of the season against Livorno, Borriello watched on forlornly as new coach Rudi Garcia preferred Francesco Totti, Adem Ljajic and Gervinho for his new look attack. Naturally his cause was not helped by the fact the club happened to be embarking on the best start ever recorded in the history of Serie A. In typical Borriello style he did have a small but crucial role in maintaining the record; scoring an historic winner against Chievo in late October. His first and only goal this season a small crumb of solace for a striker now unavoidably labelled a reject. No matter the circumstances, it never sounds like an appealing title to be given and yet in football terms huge number of players may wear such a hat, noted Jack Ross. Ultimately, there are different ways at looking at being labelled a reject. One is that a player believes he is not good enough, or the alternative is that he maintains faith in his own ability and acknowledges that his rejection is only down to the opinion of one man. Those who fall into the latter category, like Borriello, need to support such a belief with a drive, dedication and displays which make it impossible for them to fall out of the game and find themselves without a team.
It is the very reason Marco Borriello is now looking forward to the challenge of playing top-flight football in England. Having joined West Ham on loan from Roma until the end of the season earlier this week, the 31-year-old insists he is eager for the chance to prove himself in a new league. "I was given the opportunity to move in the summer and I was looking to come over to England and the Premier League, but I decided to stay at Roma at that time," Borriello told the club's official website. "However, when the opportunity arose to join West Ham in this transfer window, I was very happy to make the move. I can't wait to start playing in the Premier League - I know the fans are very passionate and I'm very excited by the challenge. I know it is a very tough league, but I am very much looking forward to testing myself here. Serie A and the Premier League are two different leagues. The Italian league is a bit more tactical, whereas the English league is maybe more physical. However, the ball is round in both countries, so if you are good player you can play in any league in the world."
Good footballers adapt. It is the motto of journeyman footballers everywhere; those brave souls forever traversing the highways and by-ways, forever starting out at a lower level club, forever pulling on a new strip (slightly tighter than the last). Men who were once bright-eyed players wheeling away in celebration but, as time goes on, the look of grim determination and old pro guile becomes the defining feature replacing the vim and brio of youth. As Rob Marrs once wrote, it is tempting to imagine a journeyman suffering with aches and pains, physically making noise as he pulls on his boots, hauling his wearying body onto frosted pitches in the icy air of the provinces and shires. Yet in truth, argues Ross, the term should be used in a more positive way as it reflects someone who has served their apprenticeship and learned their trade and provides a manager with reliable and experienced performances. Of course, a football team cannot consist of 11 such players, just as it cannot be filled with defenders, but their presence is vital and should be considered invaluable. Nobody understands this quite as well as Sam Allardyce. A man who has signed 87 players from 32 different countries in his time as a Premier League manager, and the vast majority of which have been of the longer in the tooth variety. Remarkably, in all that number, Big Sam had never signed an Italian in the top flight. In fact, his only previous purchase from Italy was Emanuele Morini at Bolton in 2000; Morini flopped and playing just twice in the Championship. It goes without saying Allardyce has far higher hopes for his latest arrival. "You go on the quality of the CVs they have got, the quality of the player they have been, and they want to achieve that type of quality here," he says. "It will bring more to the team. It’s not too difficult to say what we want from Marco - that’s goals and Italian flair." Goals and flair... of all the misapprehensions that continue to surround Marco Borriello, West Ham fans will hope his potential to produce both is not in question.