In the footballing world, we tend to gravitate to the idea of the “wonderkid”. The Kylian Mbappes, Erling Haalands, and Joao Felixs of the world often captivate fans with their immense talent as teens and early 20-somethings.
Perhaps more enigmatic is the late bloomer. The player who bounces around from club to club until a particular manager, system, or just the instance of finding their game, flips a switch and creates a formidable player.
A league that captures this phenomenon well is Serie A. Through the years, the Italian top flight has produced late-blooming attackers fairly regularly and allowed for many to flourish well into their 30s, when most players begin to wind down and call it a career. The reasoning behind how this happens so often in Italy is up for debate. Whether it be the importance of tactical awareness or the more physical, deliberate style of play can be discussed at length.
To examine the prevalence of the late bloomer in Serie A, here are nine such attackers that found their peak after the age of 25, later in their careers than most.
Known for his elite heading abilities and his heroics in the final of Euro 1996 with Germany, Oliver Bierhoff didn’t find his feet in a top league until 1996, at the age of 28. After three uninspiring stints in the Bundesliga with Bayer Uerdingen, Hamburg, and Borussia Monchengladbach, the German moved to Austria Salzburg (now Red Bull Salzburg) for a fresh start. The gamble paid off, as Bierhoff scored 23 goals in 32 appearances, earning a move to newly-promoted Ascoli in Serie A in the summer of 1991.
Though Serie A would be where Bierhoff found his greatest success, his first few seasons in Italy proved to be a mixed bag. His first season at Ascoli ended in relegation, with only two goals in 17 appearances. He then spent the next three seasons in Serie B, scoring 20, 17, then 9 goals in the Italian second tier.
Bierhoff’s Serie B exploits earned him another shot with a newly promoted Serie A side in the 1995-96 season, this time Udinese. His first Serie A season since 1992, Bierhoff scored 18 goals in 33 appearances in all competitions, helping Udinese to a respectable midtable finish and earning him his first callup to the German national team. At Euro 1996, he scored both goals in the final, including the first golden goal in a major international tournament, to defeat the Czech Republic 2-1. The following season saw Bierhoff’s 13 goals help the Friulian club qualify for the UEFA Cup for the first time in its history.
With Udinese in Europe, Bierhoff scored 27 goals in Serie A and 31 in 39 appearances in all competitions, recording his best goalscoring season at the age of 29. The German won top scorer honours and propelled Udinese to a comfortable third place league finish.
The impressive season earned Bierhoff a move to AC Milan, where his 20 league goals helped the Milanese club to a Serie A title. However, after the Scudetto in 1998, Bierhoff struggled to replicate his past goalscoring form. His second season in Milan was good for 14 goals. Then after only scoring 9 in 40 appearances in 2000-01, the German moved to Monaco and Chievo Verona for two one season stints before hanging up his boots in 2003 at the age of 35.
Despite his slow start and time in Serie B, Bierhoff’s 103 Serie A goals have made him the highest scoring German in Serie A to date, outweighing the likes of other notable Germans including Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann, Miroslav Klose, and Rudi Voller.
An enigmatic journeyman across four tiers of Italian football, Dario Hubner did not even set foot in Serie A until the age of 30.
The Italian spent his earliest professional years in Serie C, the third tier of Italian football, in the late 1980s, playing for Pievigina, Pergocrema, and Fano from 1988 to 1992. A move to Serie B with Cesena in 1992 began a stint in the second tier that lasted until a newly promoted Brescia gave Hubner his first chance in Serie A in 1997 at the age of 30. In his years in Serie C and B, he won top scoring accolades in each, in Serie C with Fano in 1991-92 and in Serie B with Cesena in 1995-96.
Hubner’s Serie A career began with a bang. In his first two Serie A matches, he scored four goals, including a hat trick in his second match against Sampdoria. The 1997-98 season saw him score 16 Serie A goals, but also included a return to Serie B, as Brescia suffered relegation. The following season, Brescia regained promotion at the first time of asking, with Hubner scoring 21 goals. In his three seasons at Brescia, Hubner played with the likes of Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo, scoring 75 goals, with 33 of them coming in 61 Serie A matches.
In 2001, another newly promoted Serie A club came calling for Hubner, with Piacenza securing the striker’s signature. In his debut season, aged 35, Hubner became the first player to finish top scorer in Serie C, Serie B, and Serie A, as his 24 goals made him joint top scorer alongside Juventus’ David Trezeguet. His second and final season at Piacenza brought 14 more goals, making him the club’s all-time Serie A top scorer with 38.
In 2003, at the age of 37, Hubner moved to Serie B side Ancona before making his final Serie A appearance in 2004 with Perugia. Subsequent Serie C and D moves kept him in football until 2011, at the age of 43. The cigarette smoking, grappa drinking journeyman’s colourful career and record of goalscoring at all levels has made him a cult hero among many.
Known for his role in the Palermo teams of the late 2000s alongside the likes of Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore, Fabrizio Miccoli spent time at multiple clubs, trying to find a place to flourish before landing at the Sicilian club.
After making his name with Casarano in Serie C2 and Ternana in Serie B in the late 1990s, Juventus bought Miccoli, loaning him to Perugia for the 2002-03 season. With nine goals in 34 league appearances, Juventus saw enough to give him a spot in the squad. However, after an eight goal first campaign, friction between Miccoli and manager Fabio Capello saw Miccoli move to Fiorentina in 2004 on a deal for half of the player’s contract rights.
Miccoli’s lone season in Florence went well, yielding 12 league goals in 35 matches. The season was good enough to cause a bizarre bidding war between Fiorentina and Juventus, which the Turin-based club won. Despite making a return to Juventus, Miccoli was sent on loan to Benfica, spending two seasons in Portugal. With Benfica, he scored 14 goals in a total of 39 Primera Liga matches.
After two years in Portugal, another transfer away from Juventus was on the cards. Miccoli moved to Palermo in the summer of 2007, the same summer as Edinson Cavani. A promising but injury-plagued first season at the Sicilian club was good for eight goals in 22 appearances. Following the injuries, the following seasons brought the stability needed for Miccoli to flourish. In a total of six seasons, Miccoli scored 81 goals in 179 matches, including a career high 19 league goals in 2009-10 at the age of 30 and a stint as the club’s captain. Miccoli also helped Palermo to European competition on two occasions, the Europa League proper in 2010-11 and Europa League qualifying in the following season.
After stints with his boyhood club Lecce and Maltese side Birkirkara, Miccoli retired with 103 Serie A goals and a legacy as Palermo’s top scorer.
Antonio Di Natale
Udinese legend Antonio Di Natale didn’t hit his peak until 31, scoring 29 goals and winning Serie A top scoring honours in 2010. Di Natale began his career with Empoli in Serie B in the late 1990s, spending time on loan with a few Serie C sides with modest goalscoring numbers before moving to Udinese in 2004.
At Udinese, Di Natale made his name as one of Serie A’s all-time highest goal scorers. After modest returns of 7, 8, and 11 league goals from 2004 to 2007, Di Natale posted only his second double-digit Serie A scoring season and his first since the 2002-03 season with his former club Empoli.
Another couple of decent scoring seasons from 2007 to 2009 were followed up by Di Natale’s 29 goals season in 2010. His torrid goalscoring record that season broke the club’s single season goalscoring record, set by another entry on this list in Oliver Bierhoff.
The Udinese talisman followed up his record setting season with a 28 goal campaign the next season, repeating as top scorer. His goalscoring and goal conversion stats in 2010 and 2011 put him only behind the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, and Drogba in terms of goals and efficiency, extremely lofty company.
From 2010 to 2013, Di Natale scored no less than 23 goals in a season. Even when his decline began in 2014, he was still scoring in the double digits. This remained true until his final season, where he only scored two goals at the age of 38.
Di Natale’s remarkable late-blooming career landed him at number six on the all-time Serie A scoring list, with 209 goals, 191 of them coming with Udinese.
Perhaps Italy’s most beloved journeyman, 2006 World Cup champion Luca Toni made his presence known to Serie A in his age 27 and 28 seasons with Palermo and Fiorentina.
Before Palermo, Toni spent his career bouncing around various teams from Serie C to Serie A. He even played for a Brescia side in 2001 that featured Roberto Baggio and Pep Guardiola, scoring a respectable 13 goals. Following up the previous season with only two goals in 16 appearances, Toni moved to Palermo in 2003.
In his first season at Palermo, Toni scored 30 Serie B goals, helping Palermo achieve promotion to Serie A. The target man made his presence known in the top flight the following season, with 20 Serie A goals. His success across Serie A and Serie B with Palermo was enough to gain the attention of Fiorentina, where he moved in the summer of 2005.
Toni cemented his place in Marcello Lippi’s World Cup squad in 2006 by scoring 31 Serie A goals in his first season at Fiorentina, a record that earned him Serie A top scoring honours and the European Golden Boot. At the World Cup, Toni scored twice and was named to the team of the tournament, etching his name in history as a World Cup champions.
After leaving Fiorentina in 2007, the Italian moved to German giants Bayern Munich. His first season in Bavaria was a 39 goal campaign that included 10 UEFA Cup goals. After his high-scoring first season, Toni slowly fell out at the club and returned to Italy.
Brief spells at Roma, Genoa, Juventus, Al Nasir in the UAE, and back at Fiorentina began to suggest that Toni had reached the twilight of his career. However, following a move to Hellas Verona, Toni fought the years and produced two swan song seasons at the age of 36 and 37. In the 2013-14 season, he scored 20 league goals for the first time since his first season at Bayern seven years prior. In 2014-15, he scored 22 league goals, earning a share of the top scoring title with a 21 year old Mauro Icardi, 16 years younger. At the age of 37, he broke the record of oldest top scorer in Serie A, previously held by Dario Hubner.
Toni’s long and meandering career yielded 157 Serie A goals and an overall career total of 268 competitive club goals.
The most well-known example of the late bloomer in recent seasons, Fabio Quagliarella has found his groove at Sampdoria.
Quagliarella began his career as a promising young striker, garnering attention during stints with Sampdoria and Udinese in the mid to late 2000s, returning double-digit goalscoring totals for three consecutive seasons. His modest success earned him a move to his hometown club Napoli. However, various on and off field issues hampered what would have been considered his prime years, spent largely out of the team at both Napoli and Juventus.
His time at Juventus ended with a move to crosstown rivals Torino, where he scored a goal to beat his former club, but a fallout with Torino’s fans spurred on another move to Sampdoria. In his 34 and 35-year-old seasons, he has finally found his goalscoring rhythm. He scored 19 goals in 2018 for Sampdoria and exploded for 26 goals the following season, leading the league in scoring. He also set the record as the oldest player to score for the Italian National Team and set another record by scoring in 11 consecutive Serie A matches.
This season, Quagliarella has scored nine league goals in 21 appearances, bringing his career total in Serie A to 162, good for number 18 on the Serie A all-time scoring list to date, sitting between Luca Toni and Roberto Boninsegna.
The only non-EU player in this list, Duvan Zapata, brother of Genoa’s Cristian Zapata, moved to Italy in 2013 from Argentine club Estudiantes at the age of 22. For all his promise, he was an unpolished, raw talent. He made just six starts among periodic substitute appearances for Napoli, scoring 11 goals.
After failing to impress, he went on loan Udinese for two years starting in 2015, where he started 52 of 76 league matches for the Friuli-based club, scoring 21 goals. A decent output, but not enough to tempt Udinese to sign him permanently.
Upon returning to Napoli in 2017, Zapata was immediately sent to Sampdoria on loan with an obligation to buy, where he scored 11 goals in 24 starts before the obligation was picked up. Even with the obligation to buy being honoured, Zapata packed his bags for another loan move to Atalanta. By then, he was 27 years old and moving to his fourth club in six seasons, failing to establish himself anywhere.
At Atalanta, Zapata has been given a place to flourish under manager Gian Piero Gasperini. In the 2018-19 Serie A season, Zapata began to finally establish himself as a strong centre forward after a slow start. He went on a goalscoring stretch of 14 goals in just eight matches to jumpstart his season in late 2018, ultimately helping Atalanta to their first ever Champions League appearance. His 23 league goals in 2018-19 goals put him behind only Fabio Quagliarella at the top of the season’s scoring chart.
So far this season, Zapata has battled injuries to score 11 goals while adding six assists in Serie A, also adding a goal and an assist in four matches in the Champions League. At the age of 29, he looks poised to continue as Atalanta’s star centre forward.
Another player finding his best football under Gian Piero Gasperini, Josip Ilicic has thrived in front of goal since being pushed higher in the Italian tactician’s system. Ilicic began his career in Slovenia before leaving his home country to join Palermo in Serie A in 2010.
At Palermo, Ilicic proved to be a solid attacking midfielder, providing 5-10 goals per season for the Sicilian club. In his best scoring season at the club, Ilicic was employed slightly farther up the pitch in a role more similar to that of a second striker.
When he moved to Fiorentina in 2013, his abilities higher up the pitch were noted, but were sometimes misused as he was sometimes pushed too high up the pitch. However, in his best season in Florence, 2015-16, Ilicic scored the majority of his 13 league goals from the midfield.
Though Ilicic had long demonstrated his talent and versatility to those following Serie A, it was also apparent that he sometimes suffered from gaps in consistency. His best seasons were often followed up by underwhelming campaigns. However, this changed when Ilicic swapped Florence for Bergamo in 2017. Since then, Gasperini has utilized the best of the Slovenian’s abilities, primarily employing him either just behind two strikers or as one of the two in his preferred attacking 3-4-1-2 formation. Since then, Ilicic has enjoyed three consecutive double-digit scoring seasons.
This season, Ilicic has scored 15 Serie A goals and 5 Champions League goals, including all four in Atalanta’s 4-3 away win against Valencia in the Round of 16. His success this season has made him the name on every European football fan’s mind. With the success he has found at Atalanta, the 32 year old will likely be very hesitant to move away from Bergamo and will continue to play a key role in Gasperini’s team.
The earliest example in the list, Roberto Boninsegna made his name primarily with Inter Milan in the 1970s. He spent his youth career on the black and blue side of Milan before bouncing around various Serie B clubs and eventually moving to Cagliari at the age of 23. At Cagliari, Boninsegna’s goalscoring numbers were modest, but enough to earn him a move back to Inter after Cagliari’s second place finish in Serie A in the 1968-69 season.
In his first season at Inter, aged 26, Boninsegna recorded his first double-digit scoring season with 13 goals in 30 matches. On this foundation, his partnership with Inter legend Sandro Mazzola began to find its feet. The season was also good enough to earn Boninsegna a spot in Italy’s 1970 World Cup squad, scoring in a 4-1 final loss to Brazil.
The following season, 1970-71, he claimed Serie A’s golden boot at the age of 27. He nearly doubled his previous season’s goal tally, with 24 in 28 matches and a Serie A title to match. In that season, Boninsegna scored 24 of Inter’s 50 league goals.
The Inter striker scored 57 goals over his next three seasons. His numbers began to drop in 1974-75, a season before a move to Juventus, where he 22 more goals over three seasons before finishing out his career with one season at Hellas Verona in Serie B at the age of 37. Boninsegna’s 163 Serie A goals in 364 appearances are good for number 16 in the league’s all-time scoring list.