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Monday, May 27, 2024

Matias Soule is Juventus’ silky loanee who just turned down the Saudi Pro League

“It would have been a shame,” Frosinone coach Eusebio Di Francesco admitted.

Al Ittihad wanted to bring Matias Soule, the revelation of this season’s Serie A, to the Saudi Pro League over the winter. Marcelo Gallardo — their coach and Soule’s fellow Argentinian — thought he would have been the perfect player to keep Karim Benzema happy up front.

The offer Soule received must have been tempting. Other young players, such as 21-year-old Gabri Veiga, who moved to Saudi’s Al Ahli from Celta Vigo in Spain last summer, gave in. Ultimately though, he declined.

Guido Angelozzi, Frosinone’s sporting director, was as relieved their manager. The promoted side did not want to lose the 20-year-old halfway through his season’s loan from Juventus.

“The offer was real,” Angelozzi insisted. “But he’ll stay with us until June, 100 per cent. It was the boy’s decision. Juventus would have got a lot of money for him and he would have been paid well too. But he kept his word.”

Soule, in Di Francesco’s opinion, won’t regret staying for another six months. “It’ll pay off in the future.”

Jeddah-based Saudi champions Al Ittihad can’t be the only team monitoring Soule. After one of his team-mates in the Juventus Next Gen team, Nicolo Fagioli, won the Serie A Young Player of the Year in his first top-flight season last year, Soule is the early favourite to pick up that accolade this time.

“He’s decisive for us,” Angelozzi explained. “He’s fourth in the scoring charts. A 20-year-old kid has nine goals already, the same as (Roma’s former Serie A MVP Romelu) Lukaku, and if you look at the stats he’s among the best for dribbles completed in Europe’s top five leagues. Matias still has so much more to give too.”

In Serie A this season, only reigning MVP Khvicha Kvaratskhelia of Napoli and Lecce’s diminutive Lameck Banda have attempted and completed more dribbles than Soule.

Juventus first spotted Soule playing for Velez Sarsfield in an under-12s game against fellow Buenos Aires side Boca Juniors.

“Obviously, he couldn’t sign for us then,” Juventus’ former chief scout Matteo Tognozzi said. FIFA rules would not permit it. But Tognozzi adroitly built a relationship with the player’s family that endured.

It meant that by the time Soule became more widely known through playing for Argentina’s youth teams in places such as the Portuguese Algarve, Juventus held an advantage over Europe’s elite. “He only wanted Juventus,” Tognozzi explained to Italian newspaper Tuttosport. “Even though there were at least 10 or 12 big clubs ready to forge papers to sign him.”

Velez in particular became sensitive about losing him for next to nothing around the time Soule became eligible to sign his first professional contract in 2020.

They stopped him joining the Argentina squad travelling to an under-16s tournament in France out of fear European clubs would use the opportunity to get his signature. It caused a storm in the local media and Soule had to bunker down in Velez’s digs until it calmed down. The coverage whipped up the fans, who waited outside and demanded answers.

Velez’s move was a curious one and, in the end, it backfired. By keeping Soule in South America, the atmosphere they created only pushed him closer to Europe. He committed to Juventus, who paid Velez around €120,000 (£102,000; $130,000) in solidarity contributions. The move was considered a ‘rapina’ (a robbery) and did not go down well at all in Argentina.

Soule during a Juventus training match in 2023 (Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

“They didn’t think I’d do well in black and white (Juventus’ colours) and said I’d have quit football shortly thereafter,” Soule recalled to Sky Italia. “A radio station in Buenos Aires said I’d left for Italy to go train dolphins. You know, the ones they train to put on a show at SeaWorld. That’s where they thought I’d end up. My father has never forgotten about it.”

Occasionally, when Soule proves his critics wrong, his father can’t resist firing off a social media post featuring some dolphin emojis. “I’ve told him to stop but he’s been doing it for almost four years now,” Soule laughed.

A silky player in the enganche style, linking his team’s midfield with its attack, Soule quickly became the talk of Juventus’ Next Gen side — a B team registered in Italy’s third tier to help bridge the gap between youth team football and the men’s game. It has fast-tracked the development of Juve players such as Fagioli, Dean Huijsen, Fabio Miretti, Samuel Iling-Junior and Kenan Yildiz. The youth sector at Continassa, Juventus’ training ground, has become one of Europe’s most productive.

Soule began training with the first team relatively quickly. Last season, countryman Angel Di Maria took him under his wing. They’d barbecue together and even now Di Maria slides into Soule’s DMs, offering him encouragement such as ‘Dale Wacho!’ (‘Go on, my son’). Banned from playing in Europe this season and unable to count on Champions League revenue in their transfer budget, Juventus were prepared to cash in on Soule. Luckily, they opted for a loan at the end of the summer window instead.

Angelozzi didn’t think Soule would consider Frosinone, a short drive south-east from Rome. But he cleverly persuaded his Next Gen team-mate and fellow Argentinian, Enzo Barrenechea, to make his own loan switch to their Stadio Benito Stirpe in the hope that he would then work on Soule and convince him to make the same move.

And Angelozzi has really leaned into this strategy of borrowing kids with tremendous upside. At one point, it looked as if he might take four players from Juventus — only for centre-back Huijsen to join Roma this month rather than hook up with Soule, Barrenechea and Kaio Jorge, formerly of Brazil’s Santos. They even have Reinier, a rental from Real Madrid, and an Ibrahimovic — Arijon, a German youth international farmed out from Bayern Munich.

Soule playing for Frosinone against Torino in December (Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

But none of them has made as big an impact as Soule.

Credit for that must go not only to the player and Angelozzi but to Di Francesco, who is resurrecting his own career at a club with a similar ethos to former employers Sassuolo, where ‘Di Fra’ made his name as a coach a decade ago before moving on to Roma. Di Francesco recognised that: “Juventus were playing a system (3-5-2) that didn’t get the most out of (Soule’s) skill set. Matias does well in the right half-space or as an out-an-out winger.” He’s proven the perfect fit for Frosinone’s 4-2-3-1 formation.

Soule has won the promoted side points they wouldn’t ordinarily expect to get against a Champions League-qualification-chasing team such as Fiorentina. Already close to double figures with nine league goals, he has curled in a free kick and found the net with his left foot, his right and his head. He made a mark in six-pointers against Verona and Genoa and caught fire in October when he scored for three games in a row. Frosinone now sit 13th in 20-team Serie A, five points above the relegation places.

His form meant Italy gave serious consideration to calling him up ahead of the November international break. He is eligible on the basis he can trace his ancestry back to the area around Ancona (as can Lionel Messi, and Argentina’s head coach Lionel Scaloni). But, unlike now Genoa striker Mateo Retegui, who made his Italy debut last year while still with Argentine club Tigre, Soule is holding out to play for the country of his birth.

“I’d like to thank (Italy coach Luciano) Spalletti, because he wanted me,” Soule revealed. “Then I spoke to (Scaloni’s assistant) Walter Samuel and he told me I was on the provisional list of call-ups for Argentina. I don’t know if I’ll get called up now or later, but I’m Argentine. I was born there and my heart always says: ‘Argentina’.”

Luckily for Frosinone, his ticker did not say ‘Al Ittihad’ either, allowing their fans to keep singing Soule’s name at least until the end of the season.

(Top photo: Daniele Badolato – Juventus FC via Getty Images)

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