Sitting on the edge of a grey, L-shaped sofa in his airy apartment in southern Athens, Federico Macheda casts his mind back 10 years to the week when his life changed forever.
A cocksure 17-year-old striker, “Kiko” Macheda was on an exercise bike at Manchester United‘s Carrington training centre when the most famous man in English football walked over for a chat.
Macheda was due to line up in a reserve match against Newcastle United that evening and if he did well, Sir Alex Ferguson told him, he might get a spot on the bench for the first team’s next home game against Aston Villa.
“I couldn’t believe what he was saying,” Macheda told Bleacher Report. “I’d only joined the club a year before. I was like, ‘Wow.'”
Macheda duly scored a hat-trick at St James’ Park and Ferguson was true to his word.
With Wayne Rooney suspended, Dimitar Berbatov injured and Carlos Tevez only just back from international duty with Argentina, Macheda was named among the substitutes for the visit of Villa. It was April 5, 2009.
United were the English and European champions. Ferguson’s team, packed with stars such as Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, was arguably the best in the club’s history. But having lost their two previous league games, they had allowed Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool to supplant them at the Premier League summit. Victory was imperative.
Not that Macheda was fully aware of the context. He had been reluctant to leave Lazio, his boyhood club, to join United in the first place and was now so focused on scoring goals for the reserves that he barely paid attention to the Premier League table. He had only trained with the first team twice.
“I was looking at myself, my career with the reserves—my team. The first team wasn’t my team,” he says, with characteristic frankness.
His only thought was to get on to the pitch “even for one minute.” Sitting on the bench, he found himself secretly willing Villa to score, knowing it would increase his chances of being thrown into the fray. He had no doubt that if he was given an opportunity, he would seize it.
“I was so sure of myself because my confidence was very high,” he says. “I was a little, crazy kid when I was 17, so I didn’t care a lot about things. I even told a good friend of mine, ‘If I come on tomorrow, I will make the stadium bounce.’ He still has the text message.”
A goal from Gabriel Agbonlahor put Villa 2-1 ahead, and with 29 minutes remaining, Macheda was introduced in place of Nani. Ronaldo equalised with his second goal of the game and then, in the third minute of stoppage time, the teenager’s moment arrived.
“I remember I was very tired,” Macheda recalls. “My heart was pounding. It was the last minute and we knew we had to win. I made a little sprint to go into the box and Gary Neville gave me the ball. I tried to bring the ball on to my left foot with a back-heel, but I was very tired and I lost power in the second step. And the ball went out to Giggs.
“Of course, Giggs has got those amazing vertical passes. I demanded the ball from him—I don’t know why—and he gave me the ball. I had my back to the goal and the ball was a bit wide. It was very difficult to make something happen. As the ball was going to my right foot, I saw the defender was going to go to the ball, so I decided to make this flick with my heel. Thanks to God it went to my right foot again and I shot. When I looked up, the ball was in the net. It was an amazing feeling.”
Old Trafford exploded. With one sublime turn and one glorious sweep of his right foot, Macheda had entered United folklore, his goal becoming an instant Stretford End classic.
He ran towards his family, who were sitting to the left of the players’ tunnel, only to be dragged to the ground by Darren Fletcher and then buried beneath a delirious mass of celebrating team-mates.
When the red shirts eventually parted, United’s No. 41 bounded over to his family and shared an emotional embrace with his tearful father, who had been a teenager himself when Macheda was born.
“I wanted to go to my father, because he was the one who’d been next to me, working nights [as a security guard] when he was young and bringing me to training,” Macheda said. “I went to him and it was a crazy feeling. My mum was there as well, with my brother. It was an amazing moment for our family. That day was the day we had dreamed about.”
Macheda’s goal earned United a 3-2 victory and gave Ferguson’s side the impetus to go on and retain the Premier League title. It also turned him into an international celebrity, his face on every newspaper back page and his goal replayed “200 times” on television.
A week later, he made another match-winning contribution as a substitute, coming on to net an instinctive 76th-minute winner in a 2-1 success at Sunderland. Ferguson said he had “something special” about him.
“Those two weeks were something I didn’t even dream about,” Macheda says. “It was bigger than the dreams.”
Little did he know the first two weeks of his career would also prove to be the best two weeks of it. He made only sporadic appearances over the following season and a half, and following a series of loan moves—Sampdoria, Queens Park Rangers, Stuttgart, Doncaster Rovers, Birmingham City—he left United in May 2014 having made only 36 first-team appearances.
Injuries hindered him during his time as a loanee—ankle, hamstring, back—and the constant moving from place to place made it difficult to build any kind of rhythm, but he knows his attitude left much to be desired as well. Even in those early months as a first-team player at United, complacency had started to creep in, his trademark insouciance proving to be both a gift and a curse.
“When I was there, I felt unbeatable, but instead of working even harder than before, I kind of sat down a little bit,” Macheda says. “I was happy about my life, I was happy about being in the first team with those players. Maybe I should have had another mentality.”
Against Ferguson’s advice, Macheda chose to go to Sampdoria for his first loan spell in January 2011, thereby fulfilling his dream of playing in Serie A.
However, Samp were at the end of a cycle, and the forward struggled to handle the burden of expectation. He scored only one goal, in the Coppa Italia, and could not prevent the Genoa club from being relegated.
“They thought I was a big player, but I wasn’t,” Macheda says. “Yeah, I played for United, but I didn’t play regular football. Most people forgot I was only 19. Most 19-year-olds don’t even make the first team. But of course, when you come from Manchester United, they see you as a star.”
His final loan move, to second-tier Birmingham, was his most successful. Knowing his United contract was due to expire, he seized the opportunity to put himself in the shop window by scoring 10 goals in 18 Championship games in the second half of the 2013-14 season. Despite having only arrived at the club in January, he finished the campaign as Blues’ top scorer in the league.
Cardiff City, freshly relegated from the Premier League, snapped him up when he left United in May 2014. It was a move that reunited him with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had been his coach during his time in the United reserves. But the Norwegian was sacked less than two months into the following season and although he scored eight goals in his first campaign in the Welsh capital, a serious back injury prevented Macheda from imposing himself.
He returned to Italy in December 2016, joining second-tier Novara in the hope of getting fit and rediscovering some long-lost momentum. By his own admission, there wasn’t exactly a queue of clubs vying for his signature.
“It was a difficult time,” Macheda said. “You think about your life. You played Premier League, you played Champions League, you trained with big players, and then after four or five years, nobody wants to sign you. It’s hard.”
Just as at Birmingham, Macheda made an immediate impact, scoring seven goals in 21 Serie B appearances in his first half-season. Then things went wrong.
Novara struggled in Macheda’s second season, costing coach Eugenio Corini his job, and as the club slid towards relegation, he found himself in and out of the side, his status complicated by his refusal to sign a new contract. He scored only three league goals and describes it now as “the worst season of my career.”
Just as the storm clouds were gathering, a shaft of light broke through. Encouraged by Novara team-mate Marco Calderoni, Macheda got in touch with Nicolo Ferrari, a mental coach and chief executive of a company called Nest Football that operates as a kind of one-stop shop for top-level footballers.
Macheda was reluctant to open up about his innermost thoughts, but in conversations with Ferrari, he came to realise his career desperately needed a reboot.
Assisted by members of Ferrari’s team who specialise in fitness, psychology, match analysis and nutrition, he formulated a plan to get himself out of his Novara rut and finally start fulfilling some of the potential that had once made him feel like he had the world at his feet.
“When you go from being on top of the world at 17 years old and then at 25 you’re without a team, there must be something wrong,” Macheda says. “Yeah, you can put injuries and bad luck and all those things that have been there. But there’s something wrong with yourself as well.
“It’s when you have bad times that you realise you have to change. If things aren’t working for you, you have to find a solution to make them work. At the moment, I think I’m finding the solution. I’ve never been as fit as I am now. I’ve completely changed everything, in my life and my way of training, and I’ve not had one injury in two years. The way I’m training is unbelievable; hitting the gym, my diet. From a bad experience, that gave me the strength and motivation to find myself again and to be reborn as a player.”
A son of Rome, Macheda is rebuilding his career in another ancient city, Athens, having joined Panathinaikos last September.
The Greek giants are themselves in a period of renewal, having been hit with transfer restrictions and a six-point deduction over financial irregularities, and Macheda is relishing his unfamiliar new role as a senior figurehead for Giorgos Donis’ young team.
The No. 9 shirt on his back, he is playing regularly and scoring goals. In his most recent outing against Apollon Smyrnis, he took his tally for the season to seven with a delightful strike, gathering the ball after his free-kick came back to him and skilfully weaving between three players before steering a shot into the bottom-left corner with his left foot. It is the first time he has scored more than one goal in a top-tier campaign since his breakthrough season at United.
Macheda is happy in his home life, too. He lives in a spacious but modestly decorated second-floor apartment in Voula, a well-heeled suburb south of Athens, with his wife, Martina, and their two-year-old son, Lorenzo. There are beaches, parks, shops and restaurants close by, and in the evenings, he is happy to lose himself in a game of football or an episode of Gomorrah. Fatherhood, he says, has changed everything.
“When you have a kid, you start to understand life a lot more,” says Macheda, as Tigro, his 10-year-old Jack Russell, snoozes on a fawn-coloured rug beside a patio door that opens on to a sun-soaked balcony.
“You care less about the stupid things you used to care about when you were young. You only care about him. That’s something that changed my life a lot and made me realise a lot of things. I love the life I have now.”
It is a testament to how young he was when he made his spectacular entrance at Old Trafford that, perched on his sofa in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, clean shaven and with his black hair still closely cropped, he scarcely looks any older than he did then.
The 10-year anniversary of his goal against Villa means Macheda will inevitably be invited to spend time looking back in the coming days, but the 27-year-old is much more interested in looking forward. He still believes he has the ability to play at the highest level and with Roberto Mancini remodelling the Italy national team, he has not abandoned hope of a first call-up, eight years after winning the last of his 10 caps for the under-21s.
“My dream is to play for my national team,” he says. “If I look at a player like [Fabio] Quagliarella, he’s 36 years old and at the moment he’s the top scorer in Italy and playing for the national team. So I say, ‘Why shouldn’t I?’
“I’m still young. It’s not too late to become the player I could have been. I’ve got a lot of time in front of me and I’m very positive that I can reach the top again. I want to show that you can go from the top to the bottom and then go back to the top. That would be an amazing story to tell.”
There is no escaping the role Manchester United have played in Macheda’s life, and not least in the distinctly Mancunian way he pronounces the letter U in his speech. On a plinth beside the television, there is a framed image of him celebrating his goal against Villa that was presented to him by the Manchester United Greek Supporters Club. A line of text on the image reads: “Thanks for the memories!”
A few shelves further up stands a certificate that he was given by United’s Hellenic Supporters Club in Thessaloniki. An unofficial table-top club calendar adorns the mantelpiece, with a jubilant Robin van Persie looking out triumphantly across the Macheda living room.
Macheda has been delighted by United’s recent improvement under Solskjaer, an “amazing guy” he credits with restoring his confidence during their brief time together at Cardiff. “It’s a pleasure to watch them play now and to see the United spirit, the United soul, back,” he says.
Old Trafford will always have special meaning for Macheda, and in the corner of his mind that he reserves for his most precious ambitions, he holds on to the hope his story there might not yet be finished.
“Since I left England, I haven’t been back,” he says. “Manchester is a special city for me, and United are a special club.
“Of course I want to go back to the stadium. But with my boots on.”
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