Once considered one of the best prospects to come out of Rome, to rebuilding his reputation in Istanbul – this is the story of Nicolò Zaniolo.

Words: Regan Foy | @findfoy


When Nicolo Zaniolò made his debut for Roma, it wasn’t just any kind of game he found himself playing in. It was a Champions League tie against Real Madrid, and he was a 19-year-old that had all of the physical traits to head into a gladiatorial battle against some of the biggest names in world football. And he didn’t look out of place – he carried himself in such a way that had fans salivating for more from a self-assured youngster who looked as if he had the world at his feet.

Roma were in a post-Totti world, and through his performances – which included audacious goal attempts, an excellent first touch, and an almost ethereal presence on the pitch – Zaniolo sparked a debate as to whether he could be Rome’s prodigal son, the young man ready to take on the weight of the number ten at the club.

Nicolò was on the path to superstardom and it beckoned him like a lover watching from the docks. He was explosive and exciting and the Eternal City was starting to fall in love. He kissed the badge, and the fans felt their hearts were full.

His first goal came against Sassuolo in the league, and then in 2019, he became the youngest Italian player to score twice in a single match in the Champions League as Roma beat Porto in a 2-1 win. For his efforts in that campaign, Zaniolo was named the Serie A Young Player of the Year.

Fans were starting to change their mind towards whether Zaniolo could take on the mantle left behind by club legend Francesco Totti and in the following season, the maverick midfielder gave I Giallorossi further reason to believe so – notching five goal involvements across 18 matchdays.

And then, as Nicolò’s euphoric rise was reaching its peak, and the 6ft 3 Italian was truly beginning to showcase his ability, his world came crashing down. During a 2-1 loss to Juventus, in the 34th minute, Zaniolo suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury and damage to the meniscus – and would require surgery.


Nicolò posted on his Instagram on the night of the game, just two hours before midnight: “Vi giuro… tornerò più forte di prima“, roughly translating to “I swear to you… I will be back even better than before“. Within six months, following outpourings of support from the Italian football community including Mancini, Baggio and Totti himself, he was back training – although he had not missed too much, with the entirety of football brought to a standstill just two months after his injury due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July of the same year, Zaniolo returned from his injury – and within a week was reminding the La Lupa faithful who he was with a goal in a 3-0 victory against Brescia. A few weeks later, and another goal came in a 6-1 away win against SPAL.

His dream of returning to a regular starting spot for the following season soon, unfortunately, became a nightmare, as during the international break at the start of the 20/21 season Nicolò would sustain another anterior cruciate ligament injury while with the Italian national team.

Essentially, as the stars had started to align for Nico, he crashed back to Earth like a comet. He was robbed of almost two years of his development due to injury – and by the time he was ready to return Roma were starting life with a new manager, the enigmatic José Mourinho.

Life under Mourinho was a struggle for Zaniolo. His first season was littered with sprains and shoulder issues, likely as a result of persistent targeted fouling from opposition players. While fitness was a maintained issue across the season, he would however find himself playing a behemothic role in Roma being crowned Europa Conference League champions.

Nicolò’s first goal following his second knee injury came against Trabzonspor in the competition, before he would secure Roma’s passage into the semi-finals by scoring a career-first hat-trick against FK Bodø/Glimt. Perhaps cementing him in the eyes of some less excitable Roma fans as a hero, he would also score the only goal in the final too.


The summer brought with it rumours of an exit for Zaniolo, and his club, struggling financially, was not quick to dispel them. Roma asked for €50,000,000 – all while the youngster was busy trying to get himself a new contract following his Conference League exploits. It is thought Nico, or his agent, requested a number that would make him the joint-leading earner alongside Paulo Dybala and Lorenzo Pellegrini.

Zaniolo had given a kiss of life to Roma, and Roma the same to Zaniolo. He was an adopted son of Rome, despite not quite being the Herculean figure on the pitch that he was when their relationship first blossomed. Perhaps he felt overshadowed by newer arrivals, like Abraham and Dybala – and wanted to feel as important as they were. Perhaps the Tuscan maestro had fallen out of love with the Eternal City.

Fitness issues persisted in the first half of the season and the midfielder, being deployed as a tall option on the right wing, struggled for form – which culminated with the Giallorossi faithful booing Zaniolo off the field during a Coppa Italia fixture against Genoa. The bond between the fans and Rome’s prodigal son had severed, and a transfer request was submitted. Fans were outraged and a mob turned up at Zaniolo’s house – causing the player to flee his home and for the club to suggest he would not appear in any more games until the transfer window.

Interest from Bournemouth and AC Milan ensued, with the former attempting to sign the Italy international on a permanent basis. Zaniolo rejected their approach and found himself with nowhere to turn by the end of the Italian window. Galatasaray, with the Turkish window remaining open longer than much of the rest of Europe, offered respite and a chance to re-ignite his career in Istanbul, and the Italian arrived at his new club just a few days after the devastating Turkish earthquakes.

Nicolò would make ten appearances for Galatasaray and score five goals, helping the side become Süper Lig champions for the first time in four years.


This summer interest has come from Brighton & Hove Albion, Zenit, and Al-Hilal, but it is Aston Villa who have secured the services of the 24-year-old after just a handful of months in Istanbul – for the next season at least.

Fans are rightfully nervous surrounding Zaniolo’s injury record following the two season-ending injuries to Tyrone Mings and Emiliano Buendia. Of course, there is the chance he could suffer the same injury – the chance of the same injury occurring on the same knee is between 15% and 20%.

Monchi, Emery and co are committed to the player – the initial loan fee is thought to be around £3,500,000 with his wages paid, and the deal will become permanent should Nicolò reach certain milestones when playing.

The building blocks for Zaniolo’s ‘comeback’ have been put into place thanks to his performances at Galatasaray – he will now be aching to prove himself on the world’s biggest stage and in front of at least one team that he’s rejected in the last annum.

The fallen adopted son of Rome has all the attributes to become an adopted son of the second city, he’ll just need a little bit of luck on his side.

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