If Napoli’s Dries Mertens, currently on 25 goals, wins this season’s Capocannoniere title ahead of Edin Dzeko, it would go down as one of the most unlikely in history. Considering that Mertens isn’t your classic striker, and doesn’t play for one of the big ‘three’ in the Italian game, winning the title would be an extraordinary feat.
With the Belgian in mind, here are the top five most surprising Capocannoniere winners in recent Serie A history.
5. Michel Platini – 16 goals in 1982/83
To younger generations, Michel Platini is merely the disgraced former president of UEFA who got entangled in FIFA’s seemingly never-ending web of corruption. However, most remember an absurdly elegant playmaker who the driving force of the great Juventus and France sides of the early to mid 1980s.
So why is he on this list you ask? Two reasons; firstly, as noted above, Platini wasn’t a striker, playing further back as a traditional no.10. To score 16 goals for any midfielder is quite the achievement, however to do so in the defensively stringent days of calcio pre-Arrigo Sacchi, is simply outstanding.
The second reason being that this was Platini’s debut season with Juventus, following his move from St. Etienne as a direct replacement for the well-liked Liam Brady. The Frenchman initially struggled in his new surroundings, so much to the extent that there were whispers he wanted to leave Turin during the winter break. The demands of the Italian game initially proving too much for him.
Platini however showed a steely reserve to ride the rough period out, and in the second half of the season he excelled, netting 12 goals in the final three months of the campaign. It wasn’t enough to retain the Scudetto however, as Juve fell four points short of Roma. Furthermore, he would add another five goals in Juve’s run to the European Cup final.
Platini would finish one goal ahead of Inter striker Alessandro Altobelli to capture what would be the first of three back-to-back Capocannoniere titles. Cementing his legacy as one of the greatest straniero ever to grace the Italian game. but his first was undeniably the hardest.
4. Cristiano Lucarelli – 24 goals in 2004/05
Lucarelli is notorious in the Italian game for his communist leanings along with the odd outrageous comment, yet for a brief period in the mid 2000s, he was one of the most prolific Italian strikers in Serie A.
Lucarelli had been a journeyman striker for the majority of his career by the time he arrived at his hometown club Livorno in the summer of 2003. The Amaranto were his ninth professional club. After two very underwhelming seasons with Torino, Lucarelli dropped a division in order to join the team of his heart. This was to be the start of his golden period. In 2003/04 he scored 29 goals in Serie B as he finished second in the scoring charts behind one Luca Toni. Livorno would finish third and gain promotion to the top flight for the first time since 1949.
Not content with those heroics however, Lucarelli would hit 24 goals the following season as Livorno would finish in a very creditable 9th position in 2004/05. In a league that contained Andriy Shevchenko, Hernàn Crespo, David Trezeguet, Alex Del Piero and in the peak-of-their-careers Adriano and Alberto Gilardino, for Lucarelli to outscore them all, with Livorno no less, spoke to the talent the burly Tuscan undoubtedly had.
Wearing the no.99 shirt as a tribute to the Livorno’s left-wing ultra group Brigate Autonome Livornesi (something he would later deny and state his preference for the number boiled down to the year his first child was born), Lucarelli would bag six goals in a week, which would effectively net him the Capocannoniere crown. He netted four goals in a ludicrous 6-4 defeat against Parma. The following week he scored a brace in an equally as outlandish 3-6 loss to Siena.
His performances would see him earn a call up to the Italy squad and would in fact make his debut against Serbia and Montenegro in June 2005, and needless to say, he scored.
3. Dario Hübner – 24 goals in 2001/02
Everyone’s favourite Serie A journeyman, there’s something quite alluring about Dario Hübner that makes him very difficult to dislike; maybe it’s the fact that he was as prolific with cigarettes and grappa as he was in front of goal. Hübner’s career was an example to all footballers that it’s never too late to reach the upper echelons of the game.
Having made his Serie A debut aged 30 with Brescia in 1997, Hübner stayed with the Little Swallows until 2001, scoring some seventy-five league goals across the top two divisions in the process, and moved to newly promoted Piacenza. What was to transpire next would warm the hearts of even the most ardent calcio fan.
Hübner netted his first goal for his new club in a famous 2-0 win over reigning champions Roma, and subsequently couldn’t stop scoring. He claimed three back-to-back braces in September and October 2001, and added a further four later in the campaign. By the winter break he was leading the charts with twelve goals.
Hübner, who is of German descent, was a supremely efficient finisher and hugely underrated from penalties, he scored six from the spot in 2001/02, a 100% record.
From January onwards the striker went toe-to-toe with Juventus hitman David Trezeguet for the crown, like two heavyweight boxers trading blows. Whilst the latter was receiving ample service from the likes of Del Piero, Pavel Nedved and Edgar Davids, the former was surrounded by the likes of the gloriously-named Paolo Poggi, future Lazio midfielder Matuzalém and current Sassuolo boss Eusebio Di Francesco. Making Hübner’s achievement even more remarkable.
Going into the final two rounds of the season the Piacenza striker was still leading the table by two strikes, but had only scored once since March. Trezeguet would grab four goals in the two games, including a hat trick against Brescia and a vital strike at Udinese to end the campaign strongly. Hübner would add a brace against Hellas Verona that would condemn them to Serie B.
Both finished on 24 goals and Hübner became one of only two men to have finished as Capocannoniere in Italy’s top three divisions, having topped the Serie B chart in 1995-96 with Cesena and C1 with Fano in 1991-92. At the time he was also the oldest player to win the golden boot at 35. Hübner remains one of the best strikers never to have earned a cap for the Azzurri.
Nonetheless, his popularity amongst fans endures.
2. Igor Protti – 24 goals in 1995/96
Football has this amazing ability to throw up one season wonders, that one campaign where a player just suddenly clicks with his teammates and for those nine months of the year he simply can’t stop finding the back of the net, and then reverts to his usual levels thereafter. An aberration no one can quite explain.
This is the case of Igor Protti in the 1995/96 season, Protti was just about to turn 28 years old and had only ever played in Serie A for one season, scoring seven goals for Bari in 1994/95. Yet even in the lower reaches of the Italian game he could never have been described as prolific; his career best was twelve goals for Messina in Serie B in 1989/90.
Strikers often claim confidence is their best friend; once you have it, you can shoot from anywhere and the ball will hit the back of the net, or to borrow Ruud van Nistelrooy’s euphemism, a bottle of ketchup. This was the case for Protti.
He scored six times in the opening four games, including a hat-trick against Lazio and for the remainder of the season, played like a lite version of Gabriel Batistuta, scoring everything from free kicks, bicycle kicks to long range piledrivers that Batigol would’ve have been proud of. His confidence sky-high.
Two goals stand out above the rest; his first in the 4-1 demolition of Inter at the San Nicola, a 25-yard scorcher that draws similarities with Batistuta’s famous goal against Man Utd at Old Trafford four years later. The second, a wonderful scissor kick in a 2-1 win against Atalanta.
Protti would finish level at the top of the charts with mid ‘90s goal scoring champion Beppe Signori. Despite being the key striker in a team that would finish third, the bulk of Signori’s goals came against the lesser sides; failing to find the target against both Milanese clubs and scoring only once against Juventus and Roma. Protti by contrast, would score thrice against reigning champions Juventus, twice against Inter, and five against Signori’s Lazio, all in a team that eventually got relegated. In addition, half of Signori’s goals came from the penalty spot.
This was to be the apex of Protti’s career, with Bari’s relegation, it wouldn’t be long until one of the bigger clubs snapped him up, and indeed it was to be Signori’s Lazio, with many Laziale dreaming of a partnership full of goals.
Much like Hübner, Protti never received a call up to the national team. Even during his finest hour, in the Arrigo Sacchi era, when just about everyone earned an Azzurri cap, Protti can count himself unfortunate not to receive at least one. Yet it speaks to the depth of quality strikers Italy had at the time that Sacchi didn’t take Protti nor Signori to Euro ’96.
Protti’s goal average returned to its normal self post-Bari, as the move to the capital failed. He only netted seven goals for his new side - mostly from left midfield it should be pointed out - before leaving the Roman outfit on loan to Napoli in the summer of 1997. His moment in the sun, extinguished.
As mentioned earlier, there are only two men to have been top scorer in Italy’s top three divisions. The name that sits along with Dario Hübner? Protti.
1. Luca Toni – 22 goals in 2014/15
The lanky forward’s name shouldn’t really be on this list. Afterall, this was a striker who scored goals everywhere he went in a nomadic career and notched up some 158 goals in Serie A, not to mention the fact he won the Capocannoniere title in 2005/2006 for his sublime 31-record haul with Fiorentina, a feat that hadn’t been matched since 1959. Toni was a striker of serious pedigree.
However, fast forward nine years after his first title, he inexplicably won it again, at the ripe old age of 38 years. And for this reason, he not only makes the list, but also is no.1.
But what was behind Toni’s late career excellence? He was a late bloomer, despite playing with Roberto Baggio at Brescia earlier in his career; he didn’t explode until his move to Palermo in the summer of 2003, aged 26. Then the goals column skyrocketed.
After huge success at Bayern Munich followed less successful spells with Roma, Juventus, Genoa and a bizarre spell in the Middle East just for good measure, many felt Toni should retire. However, he made his way to Hellas Verona for the most Indian of Indian summers.
Joining the Gialloblu ahead of the 2013/14 season, Toni would hit twenty league goals – his personal best since 2009 – as Verona finished tenth after an eleven-year absence from the top flight. Toni was just getting warmed up.
He would begin his second season slowly, indeed only scoring five goals by the winter break. Then Toni seemed to reverse time; it felt like 2006 once again.
Netting no fewer than six braces as the season marched towards its conclusion, Toni discriminated against no one; putting strikes past Juventus, Milan, Napoli and Inter.
A look through Verona’s squad shows that this wasn’t exactly a team bursting with creative players setting Toni up with a plethora of chances on a weekly basis; they had lost their most creative player, Juan Iturbe, the previous summer. Toni showed classic centre forward instinct for the majority of his twenty-two goals, which also included Toni’s laughably poor version of a Panenka, against Milan.
He would top the charts with Inter’s Mauro Icardi, a player sixteen years his junior and in the process broke Hübner’s thirteen-year record as the oldest Capocannoniere in history, and one suspects the wait will be long before it gets broken again.
Words by Emmet Gates: @EmmetGates
Emmet is a freelance football writer based in Italy. He is the creator of Goal O' The Times. As well as The Gentleman Ultra, he has written for FourFourTwo, These Football Times and In Bed With Maradona.