It was only a game of five-a-side football. Domenico Berardi had played in plenty of those through the first 15 years of his life, mostly on pitches near to his family's home in Bocchigliero – a small Calabrian town located just below the instep of Italy's geographical boot. According to his grandmother, Caterina, he was always trying to sneak in extra practice, pretending to suffer stomach aches in order to get out of school, only to show up later in the day with a ball under his arm.
So when Domenico went to visit his older brother, Francesco, at university in Modena in 2010, it was entirely predictable that he would talk his way into a game. The only surprise was how easily he was able to hold his own against boys who were four or five years his senior. In fact, they were the ones who could not keep up with him. In the end one of Francesco's friends demanded to know if this kid was secretly a professional.
The truth was that Domenico did not even have an amateur club to play for, having recently been cut loose by his local side. Bemused, Francesco's friend put in a call to someone he knew at Sassuolo, a professional team near the university. Luciano Carlino, then working as an assistant for the club's academy, came down to take a look.
"Domenico left us all open-mouthed: a phenomenon," recalled Carlino in an interview with Tuttosport last September. "I didn't even wait a day. I went straight to ask my sporting director to give him a trial. My sporting director needed 20 minutes. He took me aside and said: 'you're right, he's better than all of them'."
Sassuolo's coaches wasted no time in offering Berardi, a tall and instinctive attacker, a place in their academy. He accepted just as quickly, his dreams of a career in professional football outweighing any anxiety he might have felt about leaving home at such a young age.
Four years on, both parties have progressed further and faster than they might ever have dared to imagine. In May, Sassuolo were promoted to Serie A for the first time in their 94-year history. And on Sunday, Berardi, at 19 years old, became the first player to score four goals in a league game against Milan.
"Berardi makes a mockery of Milan," ran the headline on the website of newspaper Il Giornale on Monday morning, and really there was no other way of putting it. The Rossoneri, struggling through a difficult and disappointing season, had nevertheless arrived in Reggio Emilia – where Sassuolo are playing their home games this year – as strong favourites to collect all three points. Their hosts, after all, were 18th in Serie A, and had not won a game since November.
For the first 15 minutes, Milan played up to expectations, taking a quick two-goal lead through Robinho and Mario Balotelli. To many people watching, it appeared that the game might already be over. Perhaps the Rossoneri believed it, too.
But just before the quarter-hour mark, Berardi pulled a goal back, slipping the offside trap before rounding Christian Abbiati to score. In the 28th minute, he brought his team level, hooking the ball past the goalkeeper again at the near post after Daniele Bonera had misjudged a bouncing ball. And then, shortly before half-time, Berardi put his team in front, meeting a cross from the left with an expert half-volley.
Milan were shell-shocked, but at least now they would have the opportunity to retreat to the changing room and regroup during the interval. That, too, proved insufficient. Berardi scored his fourth goal just three minutes into the second-half, exploiting yet more confusion in the Milan defence, before watching his shot deflect in off the hapless Bonera.
The Rossoneri would finally respond in the game's dying stages, the introduction of new signing Keisuke Honda off the bench stirring them back to life. He struck the post with a fine effort from outside the area before Riccardo Montolivo pulled one goal back with another shot from distance. Balotelli was denied brilliantly on a point-blank effort by Gianluca Pegolo, the Sassuolo goalkeeper, and Giampaolo Pazzini knocked the rebound against the crossbar.
Berardi, withdrawn to a standing ovation in the 78th minute, could only watch anxiously from the dugout. In the end, his team-mates clung on for a famous victory. "I dedicate the goals to [Sassuolo centre-back Francesco] Acerbi," said Berardi, sparing a thought for his team-mate who is battling testicular cancer. "Also my girlfriend and my parents."
He had swapped shirts with Kaká at full-time but told reporters he was only getting the Brazilian's top for a friend. Besides, if Berardi goes on to have the sort of career that some more enthusiastic journalists were envisaging on Monday morning, then it might turn out to have been Kaká who walked away with the more valuable piece of sporting memorabilia. Only one player younger than Berardi – Silvio Piola, aged 18, back in 1931 – has ever scored four goals in an Italian top-flight game.
Comparisons were drawn in the morning papers with Paolo Rossi's explosion for Vicenza in 1977-78, when the striker scored 24 goals in his first season of top-flight football, earning himself selection to Enzo Bearzot's World Cup side. Already the first calls are in for Cesare Prandelli to consider taking Berardi to Brazil next summer.
If that notion is not at all implausible – the manager has been willing to give young players a chance since taking over the national team – then the rush to anoint Berardi is a little premature. He has played very well this season, scoring 11 goals in 14 appearances, but he also has limited experience and one or two red flags to his name. Fairly or otherwise, the striker has a reputation for being a little difficult, stubborn and hard-headed.
He has only just become eligible for national team consideration again after serving a suspension at all age groups as punishment for his failure to answer a call-up to the Under-19 team last summer. He had earned himself a three-match league ban for an incident on the final day of the Serie B season, and – whether still stewing over that decision or living off the hangover from celebrating Sassuolo's promotion – he simply failed to show up for the team's trip to the European Championship in Russia.
He will make his return to the national setup at a training camp with the Under-21 side. Prandelli will doubtless be keeping close tabs on his progress. So too will Juventus, who own 50% of the player's rights, having acquired co-ownership during the deal that sent Luca Marrone to Sassuolo this summer.
Berardi's goals on Sunday did not only have consequences for his career. They also led directly to the sacking of Milan's Massimiliano Allegri, a decision that was confirmed by the club on Monday morning, after a statement by Barbara Berlusconi the night before had left little room for doubt. She had told the news agency Ansa that change was "urgent and necessary" for the Rossoneri following this latest defeat.
Mauro Tassotti will take charge as caretaker in the immediate term, although the plans for the rest of this season are unclear. It has been widely speculated that Pippo Inzaghi will be promoted from his role with the youth team, but would that only be an interim appointment as well? After all, the club had also spoken with Clarence Seedorf about taking over at the end of the season, when Allegri was expected to stand down.
While few Milan supporters would dispute the notion that change was required, with their team having collected just 22 points from their first 19 games, some might still wonder about the manner in which this move unfolded. There was a whiff of a power play to Barbara Berlusconi's approach, going public with a statement that made the manager's position untenable without first ensuring a united front with her co-vice-president Adriano Galliani.
Whoever does take over as manager will not face an enviable task, trying to pick up the pieces of a season gone awry. At least they can take solace from knowing that they do not face Berardi every week.
• While Sassuolo's players and coaching staff will have enjoyed that victory on Sunday, their owner must have been feeling more than a little conflicted. Despite having his own club to worry about, Giorgio Squinzi remains an outspoken Milan supporter, who told reporters before the season began that "when we play Milan I will have no doubts. I will cheer for Milan". He moderated that line last week, saying that he intended to stay "rigorously neutral", but it is hard to imagine anyone affiliated to these teams keeping their emotions in check on such an eventful evening.
• Juventus's general manager, Beppe Marotta, played down talk of his team making any imminent bid to resolve their co-ownership of Berardi, reminding fans that, "moving to Juve is a weighty challenge. More talented players have struggled with it." And besides, Juventus are not exactly struggling for goals at the moment. The Bianconeri struggled for long stretches away to Cagliari this weekend but still walked away with a 4-1 win. In doing so, they posted a club record 11th-straight Serie A victory – surpassing the mark that was previously set in 1931-32. At the midway point of the season, they have an outlandish 52 points. Pundits are wondering whether they can break the 100-point barrier.
• David Moyes was at the Stadio Sant'Elia to see Juventus's win over Cagliari, but who was he there to see? He told Gazzetta dello Sport that he was interested in "all players", but the common assumption in Italy has been that he had his eye on the Cagliari defender Davide Astori, who played OK despite the scoreline – which was inflated by some iffy goalkeeping by Antonio Adán. United have also been linked with the Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchiso in recent days and he marked the occasion with his first goal of the campaign. There is much to recommend about the Italy midfielder, a versatile and dynamic presence whose sense of timing make him both an effective ball-winner and goalscoring threat. But it must be said that his form has been down this season, and there would be a certain irony to seeing United spending upwards of €20m on a player who has been displaced from the starting line-up by their own former player, Paul Pogba.
• Roma thrashed Genoa 4-0 on to finish the first-half of the season with 44 points to their name. In most years, that would be a title-winning pace. Alessandro Florenzi scored the opener on Sunday with an overhead kick so athletic that Francesco Totti claimed it would have driven him into retirement. "If I had scored a goal like that, I would have stopped playing a while ago, I would have stayed there on the floor," he said. "The important thing is not to try it too often, otherwise you know what will happen to your back …"
• Napoli's 42 points after 19 games is also a club record in Serie A, as is their 41 goals at this stage of the season. This weekend they became just the second team all season to win away to Verona, and did so in style, crushing their opponents 3-0. And for the first time all season in the league, one of their goals was scored by an Italian, Lorenzo Insigne finally getting off the mark.
• Allegri was not the only manager to lose his job in Serie A this weekend – Livorno parting ways with Davide Nicola following their 3-0 defeat to Parma. Although he led them up from Serie B last season, owner Aldo Spinelli felt that the manager had been "too young to support the weight of leading a team that is trying to save itself in Serie A". And whether because of youth or any other factor, the evidence of the last 19 games suggest that Nicola was indeed struggling; a return of 13 points so far leaving Livorno joint-last alongside Catania.
Results: Atalanta 2-1 Catania, Bologna 0-0 Lazio, Cagliari 1-4 Juventus, Livorno 0-3 Parma, Roma 4-0 Genoa, Sassuolo 4-3 Milan, Torino 0-0 Fiorentina, Verona 0-3 Napoli