It’s late April 2016 and the covers of the football magazines all look the same. On the front page is a photo of Joe Hart jumping out of goal, arms and legs spread out, trying to cover as much space as he can. It’s the first leg of Manchester City’s Champions League semifinal and the hosts have left Pepe alone on the edge of the area, giving the Real Madrid defender the opportunity to shoot from close range. The ball hits Hart’s chest, and having saved the result at least twice during the game (the first was an earlier attempt by Casemiro), the English goalkeeper is proclaimed the hero of the night. And it’s partly because of Hart that City are here at all: he stopped Zlatan Ibrahimović’s penalty in the first leg of the quarterfinals, keeping PSG to a draw and eventually leading City to a historic first appearance in the semis.
Four months later and we’ve arrived at the final day of the 2016 summer transfer market. A photo stands out: Joe Hart’s arrival in Turin on a private jet, ready to sign his contract with Torino FC. Granata supporters are waiting for him at the airport, singing chants and draping Torino scarves around his neck. Even more fans can be found cheering outside the club’s headquarters when, a few hours later, Joe appears at the window, wearing a Toro scarf, his Torino shirt in his hands. He waves at the supporters, who treat him like a star.
In those few short months, the goalkeeper who helped City conquer a place among the first four teams in Europe had been dismissed by his coach and then sent on loan to Torino, a team that knew absolute greatness in the 40s but last won a title in 2001…and that was in Serie B. Torino finished their last Serie A campaign in 12th place, aiming more at avoiding relegation than qualifying for European competitions.
The reason for the move can be found mainly in the disastrous Euro played by the England squad and Hart in particular, and in the firm decision by Pep Guardiola, City’s new coach, that Hart did not suit his idea of play, given his weakness at playing with his feet. It seemed Joe Hart’s career, already characterized by a roller coaster of ups and downs, quickly hit a slide, tumbling from its highest high to reach a new low.
The British media, occupied with Hart’s possible move to Everton, Sunderland or Sevilla, were surprised by Hart’s move to Torino. As usual, the “shocking” aspects of this transfer made headlines. Newspapers mentioned his “lack of options” and described Torino’s “limited ambitions” in Serie A and their practically non-existent European play. The icing on the cake of these rather ironic articles were the comments about how Serie A has become less appealing, especially compared to the much richer Premier League. Rather than look at how the move might be positive for Hart, the media mocked and belittled his choice – a choice that’s almost certain to benefit all involved.
Joe Hart was born in 1987 and grew up with his hometown club, Shrewsbury Town, currently playing in League One. He first got noticed with England’s U-19 squad, before joining City in 2006. During the early years of his career, he was going back and forward from City’s bench to several teams where he went on loan, and then had a particularly good season at Birmingham in 2009-10, which helped him book a ticket to the World Cup in South Africa as England’s third keeper. The positive season at Birmingham had a decisive impact on the player’s return to City, where Hart subsequently imposed himself while finally establishing himself as the first-choice goalie for the Three Lions.
Italian football fans got to know Hart at Euro 2012, when his quick save denied Mario Balotelli and kept the match at 0-0, taking it to penalties. Andrea Pirlo humiliated Hart with a panenka and England were eliminated. But City had just won their first Premier League title, and no one could imagine that the blond goalkeeper making faces to distract Italian penalty takers would one day play for a Serie A club.
That’s when his career hit its first real dip. Soon after came the famous bicycle kick goal conceded to Ibrahimović during a friendly against Sweden. One of the most beautiful goals ever scored was in fact possible only thanks to the complicity of Joe Hart, who tried to push away the ball with his head only to awkwardly serve the Swedish striker.
The black clouds drew darker at the start of 2013. Hart made several mistakes in Premier League games but one of his most infamous came while wearing the England shirt. It was during a friendly between England and Scotland, where he could not save a long-distance shot that seemed everything but irresistible. The English public, and their high expectations, muttered their criticism, and the press jumped on the bandwagon. Joe was finally relieved from his responsibilities of City’s goalkeeper after an enormous misunderstanding between him and Matija Nastasić allowed Fernando Torres an easy goal at the very end of a game against Chelsea.
But he was able to recover from his disastrous 2013. Understanding that recovery is essential to realizing that his time at Torino might be the perfect occasion for the 29-year-old to begin to rise once more.
Hart fought his way back into City’s starting line-up and was Hodgson’s first choice for the England squad that travelled to Brazil 2014. During the 2014-15 season he won the Premier League’s Golden Glove and established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the world (or, at least, Gianluigi Buffon said so before the Champions League group stage match between Juventus and Manchester City, and his opinion about a goalie is supposed to be reliable). Hart gained a lot of European visibility after saving the last three penalties taken against him in Champion League games (two of his victims were Messi and, as previously mentioned, Ibra). Confidence between the sticks was key, as Hart also became one of the leaders of a team that was finally establishing itself as one of the European super-squads, ready to take the final step up when Pep Guardiola took his seat on the bench.
Then came Euro 2016, which seemed a perfect time for Joe Hart to cement his spot at the top, while finally bringing the England team in line with fans’ ridiculously high expectations. However, his side lacked both ideas and motivation. And, unfortunately, Joe played a part in all four goals conceded by England: he was lobbed by Vasili Berezutski’s head in the game against Russia, was unable to stop Gareth Bale’s free kick from “far, far away” against Wales, made the poor decision of staying in the goal on Ragnar Sigurdsson’s attempt in the game against Iceland and condemned his team when unable to save Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s weak shot that allowed Iceland through.
Hart, covered with sackcloth and ashes, found something even worse on this return to Manchester: Guardiola, who had already expressed some concern about the England number one, let City know he needed a goalkeeper more at ease with his feet, as his style of play requires the game to be constructed from the back. Marc-André ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo were his targets during the summer, with City ultimately signing the Chilean. Hart spent the Champions League playoff match against Steaua Bucharest on the bench, replaced by former number-two Willy Caballero.
After City won 5-0 in Romania, Hart started the second leg. City won 1-0, after which Joe went to applaud the fans, a gesture taken as evidence of his leaving. In return, the chants the supporters sang in his honour demonstrated the respect and affection the City public feels for him.
Guardiola didn’t want Joe Hart. His club was about to sign Bravo. There’s no way Joe could see himself relegated to the bench at a team where he’d been one of the key men. He also needed to re-establish himself as England’s number one keeper.
But what he couldn’t contemplate was playing for another Premier League team and facing his former club. Still, no one imagined him playing in Italy – and even less at Torino. Serie A, unable to compete with other top leagues economically, is no longer as interesting and competitive as it used to be in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Few English players move abroad (except, perhaps, to MLS), and among the very few who’ve moved to Serie A, only one or two have had successful years in Italy. Finally, Italy has a well-established tradition for goalkeepers, and although Italian teams are starting to look for their number one abroad, it was thought that Torino would give another chance to Daniele Padelli, who’d had a few call-ups to the national team (although he’d never had that chance to wear the Azzurri shirt).
But Padelli made many mistakes last season, the most incredible one an own goal scored while trying to circulate the ball from one of his defenders to another. Torino had decided to replace him, and wanted to make a splash. Signing Joe Hart, a Champions League goalkeeper and still England’s number one, would certainly attract attention. Compared to the rest of the squad, Hart’s status and international standing were huge.
For many footballers, the best place to recover from a career slide are clubs are where pressure is not too high, supporters are passionate, and they are given the time to “breathe”. It makes sense then that, for Hart, leaving City and the Premier League seemed the best thing to do. Moving to a team where he could be a star made it even better.
The Torino fans might have provided a great reception, but Hart’s first game wasn’t easy. In the match at Atalanta he misjudged a corner, conceding a goal and ultimately all three points. Suddenly, the British press were ready to jump on Joe Hart again, breaking the radio silence surrounding him since he signed with Toro. After England’s disastrous Euro, Hart was still an easy target, and his Atalanta mistake attracted far more attention than a good performance would have. The media again mocked Hart for making the wrong decision, claiming his first (false) step was not only proving that he had chosen the wrong way to try to recover (how would he ever settle in at Torino, he does not even speak the language, etc.) but that his career was done and dusted. But it seems that they spoke too early.
In the four games following, Torino haven’t lost a match, and have conceded just twice. And in the recent World Cup qualifier against Slovenia, England were, on the contrary, saved by Joe Hart. The match ended in a goalless draw, but the Three Lions rescued a point only thanks to their keeper’s great performance and strong nerves. His spectacular save made the covers again, this time on a positive note. Finally, the press started saying that – maybe, but just maybe – this Torino adventure might actually a good thing for England’s goalkeeper.
Hart is gaining confidence, learning the key Italian words necessary to communicate with his teammates on the pitch. Social media capture his great optimism and positivity surrounding his granata adventure. He writes messages to the supporters in an Italian which is sometimes quite fun as he messes up some words, but gives an idea of his will to succeed not only as a goalkeeper on the pitch, but also as a player that could leave a mark in the supporters’ hearts.
At the moment, it’s not known how long Hart will remain at Torino. And at his age, he may not have time to become a legend elsewhere. However, the present situation can be considered a win-win-win: Torino wins, as they now have an internationally well-respected goalkeeper who is hyper-motivated to recover from recent failures (and they got him for free); Joe wins, as he has the chance to play every Sunday, regain confidence, prove his abilities and experience a new reality; and Serie A wins, as an international star has come to play in Italy, as it used to be in the old good days.