Domenico Criscito could have been 4,000 miles away. Everything was agreed for the defender to join Toronto FC at the start of March, swapping a relegation battle at Genoa for an adventure in Canada. It sounded like the perfect way to wind down a career: playing alongside Lorenzo Insigne, an old friend with whom he has shared family holidays.
As the moment of departure neared, however, the thought of abandoning Genoa in such a perilous state gnawed away at him. The Grifone were the first professional club to take a chance on Criscito, signing him from Sporting Volla in Naples and giving him his debut in Serie B at 16 years old.
Although his career would wend through Turin and St Petersburg, he always came home to Genoa. Across 20 years, and four separate stints, Criscito has represented them more than 270 times. He has worn the captain’s armband ever since he last returned in 2018.
When the time came to say goodbye, he couldn’t. Genoa were 19th in the table, eight points from safety. Criscito was out with a muscle injury – one of a series that have disrupted his season – but believed there was still time to recover and help. Results were improving under the new manager, Alexander Blessin, who led the team on an eight-game unbeaten run, albeit with seven draws.
Losses to Verona, Milan and Lazio set Genoa back but victory over relegation rivals Cagliari brought fresh hope. A further win over neighbours Sampdoria – at risk themselves, sitting 16th in the table – on Saturday would have been enough to lift Criscito and his teammates out of the drop zone.
The Derby della Lanterna is always one of the most intense fixtures in Italian football, but the raised stakes brought back memories of one of its most memorable editions. The shoe was on the other foot in 2011, with Sampdoria battling against relegation and Genoa heading for a mid-table finish.
As Marco D’Ottavi recounted evocatively for the Ultimo Uomo website last week, tensions were through the roof. Graffiti appeared outside Sampdoria’s club shop warning them that “not even Padre Pio [a Catholic saint] can save you”. The then mayor attempted unsuccessfully to arrange for the captains to meet before the game for a symbolic show of peace.
Genoa supporters resented the idea that their team might accept a ‘biscotto’ – a mutually acceptable draw – when there was a chance to relegate their rivals. With the scores level at 1-1 in the second half, that sentiment spilled into furious chants against their own team. Then Mauro Boselli, a forward who had played barely 180 minutes all season, came off the bench to score a Genoa winner.
There are conspiracists in Genova who believe even today that his goal was a mistake, arguing that Boselli, an Argentinian, only scored because he didn’t speak Italian so well and did not understand that there was an agreement in place for a draw. The match was investigated by public prosecutors as part of a wider betting scandal, but eventually dropped with no charges brought.
Defeat did not technically relegate Sampdoria there and then, but the impact on both morale and the standings was too great to overcome. A decade later, neither their supporters, nor Genoa’s, have forgotten how it felt.
There was no talk of a biscotto leading into this weekend’s fixture, nor any attempt from the current mayor to get involved. What we got instead at the Marassi was a low-quality but high-tension game between two demoralised teams at the end of a long season.
Sampdoria rehired Marco Giampaolo as manager in January, hoping he might recapture the magic that led them to three top-half finishes in his previous stint. Things have not been so straightforward, defeats continuing to outnumber wins, despite an early 4-0 rout of Sassuolo. He set his team up in an unadventurous 4-1-4-1 on Saturday, parking the lines of defence and midfield deep and close together.
A 25th-minute goal from Abdelhamid Sabiri only entrenched that position, giving Sampdoria a lead to defend. Daring Genoa to break them down seemed like a solid bet. They are Serie A’s least prolific side, with 25 goals all season.
Blessin’s players resorted to pumping crosses into the box, often from deep. Caleb Ekuban threatened to make something of one or two such deliveries, but these were little more than half-chances. In second-half injury time, however, a lifeline arrived. Filippo Melegoni’s ball in from the right glanced off the head of Mattia Destro at the near post and on to the arm of Alex Ferrari.
The contact was missed in real-time by the referee, Fabio Maresca, but after a VAR review he awarded a penalty. Criscito picked up the ball and headed for the spot.
There are few more reliable penalty-takers in Serie A than the Genoa captain. He had converted eight in a row before this, dating back to 2020. Standing opposite him, in the Sampdoria goal, was Emil Audero, a goalkeeper who only recently returned to their starting lineup after being dropped for poor performance at the start of the year.
Criscito aimed for the bottom left corner. Audero saw his side-foot effort coming and plunged to push it away.
The Genoa player crumpled, pulling his shirt up over his head to hide from supporters behind the goal, the ones he had planned to run and celebrate with. Audero came to console him, planting a kiss on his head in a moment of genuine empathy. “I know what he’s going through,” said the keeper later. “Putting our colours to one side, that was a ‘me or you’ moment. I get it.”
Could he truly, though? Can anyone know quite how it felt for Criscito in that moment, a player who chose to stay and help the club that gave him his break 20 years ago, only to instead become the one whose mistake against their most bitter rival could ultimately cost them their top-flight status? Even more than that, he must know that his missed penalty felt to Sampdoria fans like the most exquisite revenge for what happened 11 years ago.
Genoa are not relegated yet. With three games remaining, they remain only three points from safety, but the form of Salernitana, who vaulted them into 18th-place and have now won three games in a row, will complicate their hopes of escape. In practice, it is now highly likely that only one out of Genoa, Cagliari or Salernitana can stay up.
Perhaps Criscito is still happier to be where he is, fighting this fight instead of watching on, unable to help, 4,000 miles away. But on Saturday he looked like a man who wished the ground where he stood would swallow him whole.