Stefano Sorrentino: Chievo’s Unheralded Old-Timer

In Italy, there has always been a large talent pool of goalkeepers. Italian football has rarely experienced a shortage of entertaining shot-stoppers, as most of the Azzurri’s World Cup triumphs have included inspirational goalkeeping performances.

The likes of Gianpiero Combi, Dino Zoff, Walter Zenga, Gianluca Pagliuca, Francesco Toldo and Gianluigi Buffon are only a small portion of Italy’s long list of heroic portieri. But if there is one Italian shot-stopper rightfully deserving a place amongst calcio’s finest goalkeepers, it would be Chievo Verona veteran Stefano Sorrentino.

Despite his advancing years, Sorrentino is continuing to perform at an exceptionally high level in Serie A – producing breathtaking saves like a goalkeeper in his twenties. With the techniques to save low shots, repel long-range efforts and provide cat-like reflexes, Sorrentino keeps on demonstrating these qualities to this very day. Also, his exceptional positional awareness, handling and concentration have continuously kept his team in the game. With his father – Roberto Sorrentino – playing as a goalkeeper in the 1980s with Catania and Cagliari, it’s no surprise why top-quality goalkeeping is in Stefano Sorrentino’s DNA.

With Italian goalkeepers renowned for longevity throughout their careers, Sorrentino has been no different, aging like a vintage Italian wine. The 39-year-old’s class, professionalism and consistent performances have established him as one the most respected Italian goalkeepers of his generation. Sorrentino may not be a household name in world football, but his ability to rescue mediocre sides from relegation proves how underrated he is.

Deriving from Cava de’Tirreni – 10 kilometres from Salerno – Sorrentino has played the bulk of his football in Italy’s north. The shot-stopping specialist – known for his HO Soccer-branded eye of the tiger gloves – has encountered it all in his journey: rejection, lack of playing time, bouncing from various clubs as a loanee and receiving a heroic status at both Palermo and Chievo Verona. It’s his tenacious and competitive nature that defines him; while most goalkeepers his age have either retired or been relegated to third-choice, Sorrentino has remained one of Italy’s top keepers thanks to an unshakeable work ethic.

Having spent a year at Lazio’s academy and finishing training with Juventus in the late 1990s, he failed to receive any opportunities to play for either of these historical sides. Eager to play football on a regular basis, he seized the chance when Torino offered him a contract in 1998. While the Granata were still lingering in Serie B, a 20-year-old Sorrentino still failed to establish himself as a starter in Turin. Still struggling to register a single appearance – even on his season-long loan at third division outfit Juve Stabia – the southern Italian eventually grew into a regular starting role at other Serie C side Varese.

Following a two-year loan spell in Italy’s semi-professional league, Sorrentino’s return to a newly-promoted Torino side in 2001 saw the Italian immediately make his mark in Serie A – debuting in a 1-1 draw against relegation outfit Lecce. Gradually earning more game time in the following season, Sorrentino’s efforts between the posts were not capable of rescuing a struggling Toro side from relegation to Serie B. For the next two seasons in Italy’s second division, it was here that the agile penalty-stopper became the focal point of the Granata’s slow ascent to the Italian top-flight. However, with the Turin club’s large debts and bankruptcy in 2005, the seven-time Scudetto winners remained in Serie B for the 2005-06 season. Sorrentino – being released along with his Torino teammates – accepted a rare opportunity abroad with AEK Athens.

As a pivotal member for AEK, Sorrentino’s most memorable performance in his Greek venture was a 1-0 victory against AC Milan in a Champions League group stage fixture – where he kept a clean sheet and was named Man of the Match. After a two-year stint in Superleague Greece, the acrobatic keeper was loaned out to Spanish side Recreativo de Huelva for a single season. The Italian’s outstanding displays confirmed him as the starter – helping the Andalusians through a relegation battle to stay in La Liga for the 2007-08 campaign.

After plying his trade in Spain for a year, Sorrentino finally returned to his home country – this time going on loan with a newly promoted Chievo Verona side. With the loan spell being successful, the mesmerising shot-stopper would go on to become a club legend. For the next three seasons, Sorrentino’s consistently reliable performances tightened Chievo’s vulnerable backline – helping the club comfortably achieve consecutive mid-table finishes.

In the middle of the 2012-13 Serie A season, the Gialloblu loaned out a confident Sorrentino to a struggling Palermo side that was on the cusp of relegation. After failing to help the Sicilians remain in Italy’s top division for a tenth straight season, Sorrentino – despite being monitored by Juventus, Fiorentina and Roma – stayed on by signing a three-year deal. With the Rosanero boasting a roster of prominent individuals for the 2013-14 Serie B campaign, the addition of Sorrentino’s experience between the posts assisted this intimidating Palermo outfit in cruising all the way to a Serie B title and top-flight promotion.

With the Rosanero now back in Serie A after a year of absence, the Sicilians accomplished an incredible 11th-place finish in the 2014-15 Serie A edition. Led by coach Giuseppe lachini, this lively Palermo outfit – flourishing with Paulo Dybala, Franco Vázquez, Andrea Belotti and Emerson Palmieri – was relishing Serie A life. In addition, Sorrentino’s heroics in goal left most of the league’s prime strikers frustrated on most occasions. It was on May 15, 2016 that Sorrentino played his final game in Rosanero colours. After maintaining top-flight status with a 3-2 victory over Hellas Verona on the final matchday, an emotional Sorrentino broke into tears in front of the home fans at the Stadio Renzo Barbera. The rapport that Palermo’s captain had with the western Sicilian tifosi was quite extraordinary, but he chose to leave Sicily to be closer to his family – prompting the return to the Stadio Bentegodi in Verona.

After guiding Chievo to back-to-back mid-table finishes for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 Serie A seasons, Sorrentino has now become an all-time great for the Gialloblu side. On the cusp of forty years of age, the journeyman goalkeeper keeps rolling back the years – producing eye-catching saves against some of Serie A’s talented strikers. And Sorrentino is still saving penalties – Dries Mertens and Andrea Belotti being the latest victims from the previous campaign.  

At the beginning of this current Serie A season, the former AEK Athens star put on a phenomenal goalkeeping spectacle when Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo visited the Stadio Bentegodi. Chievo mounted a 2-1 lead, but Juve’s late comeback saw the Bianconeri come out on top. Nonetheless, neither Douglas Costa nor Paulo Dybala nor the five-time Ballon d’Or winner managed to put a goal past the veteran shot-stopper, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Cristiano’s long-range effort – curling into the corner – was palmed away from Sorrentino’s mighty left hand. A brutal collision with the Portuguese towards the end of the game saw the Italian receive whiplash and a fractured nose, and while Juve came away with all three points, Sorrentino came away with the respect and amazement of neutrals, Chievo fans, and Juve fans as well.

With Sorrentino’s warrior mentality and rapid recovery, the former Palermo shot-stopper has only missed one game this season – when a rampant Fiorentina attack put six goals past the Flying Donkeys. When he returned the following match, the seasoned goalkeeper recorded his first clean sheet of the season against Empoli. Sorrentino has also accumulated two other clean sheets against SPAL and a second-placed Napoli so far this term – highlighting his importance for this last-placed Chievo side. In the recent 1-1 draw against Inter Milan, Sorrentino’s heroics were enough to prevent Mauro Icardi from getting on the scoresheet.  

No matter how big the occasion or how fearsome the opposition, Chievo can always rely on its veteran goalkeeper. Still going strong in Italy’s top flight and keeping talented forwards at bay, one can only lament how Stefano Sorrentino’s heroics at club level never earned him an Azzurri call-up in the past. As the likes of Alessio Cragno and Alex Meret step into Roberto Mancini’s plans for the next era, his window of opportunity has probably passed him. It’s further proof that the Chievo legend will go down as one of Italy’s most underrated goalkeepers in its illustrious history.

By: Anthony Barbagallo

Photo: Getty