Coming To America

Written By Eddie Cotton

In Europe, soccer is just different.

Ohio State Men’s Soccer forward Matteo Bennati began playing at the age of three. He would simply pick up any ball he could find and play throughout the streets of Genova, Italy, wherever and whenever.  It was a way of life.

Bennati moved onto playing organized soccer at six years old and eventually found himself in the academy system with his local first division club Genoa.

“It’s difficult to be a part of your academy,” said Bennati. “In Italy especially, all kids play soccer so there is a very big and deep selection. I got picked when I was young. I was I think 10 years old. So, I went all the way through.”

He had set himself down a path that so many professional soccer players had followed in the past. Joining a system that ingrained the fundamentals of soccer in you at a young age and pit you against the best of the best at your age.

The path was clear. The same path as those around him and the same path that kids in Europe aspired to travel.

That was the problem. Bennati isn’t suited to do whatever everyone else did or wanted to do.

For Bennati, life is much more than kicking a ball. He is fueled by a self-proclaimed worldwide curiosity. A curiosity that isn’t suited to sticking to the status quo.

So, at age 15 he ventured out to England for an entire summer. He spent time there, watching English shows like “Peaky Blinders,” and listening to English music like Blink 182. He did it all just to teach himself English and prepare himself to escape from that small part of the globe that he always called home.

“Here it’s completely different. They actually try and help you…it’s the most beautiful thing.”

“I was very excited, but at the same time when I started…I thought if it doesn’t work I’m gonna go back,” said Bennati.

Nervous and anxious, Bennati had made his decision to come to America. He told his parents, and they supported him every step of the way. He began studying for the SAT and compiling all of the highlights he could find. Then came the calls.

Late at night, he would Skype with coaches from every part of the United States. He took call after call until he finally just made the jump.

Bennati packed his bags, left everything he knew, and went off to Belmont to face an entirely new culture.

Once he arrived in America, Bennati faced many differences in culture that comes with leaving Europe. Of it all, the most surprising part was the education.

“The way that people care about you being an athlete is completely different than it is in Europe,” said Bennati. “In Italy and all around Europe, you have to go to school or you have to do a sport. Combining the two especially at a high level, it’s very difficult because professors at a university don’t care about you being an athlete and coaches don’t care about you being a student.”

This immediate surprise is what transformed his original anxiety into comfort.

“It wasn’t, ‘okay, I’m going four years. I know what I’m doing and I’m going to go through it,’” said Bennati. “It became that way because of the way I felt once I came here.”

This immediate sense of comfort is what propelled him to quickly make an impact on the world of college soccer.

In his two years at Belmont, Bennati scored 10 goals, added four assists, and was named Horizon League Freshman of the Year.

What that set him up for was an even bigger stage, and more reasons to fall in love with what he calls…

“The American Dream”

“When I came here and shook Mais’ hands and went in the Schumaker Complex, I was already sure where I was going"

When Bennati first entered the transfer market, Ohio State head coach Brian Maisonneuve was originally scouting another Belmont player. Maisonneuve went back and watched as many Belmont games as he could and every time he found the same thing.

“Matteo popped out,” said Maisonneuve. “His ability, his IQ, his technical ability, his work rate. He’s a difference maker and you could see it every game.”

That pop sensation turned out to be a mutual feeling between Maisonneuve and Bennati.

Bennati had interest from plenty of schools in the transfer market and took visits to UCF, Drexel, and Santa Barbara. With Ohio State, something was different.

“When I came here and shook Mais’ hands and went in the Schumaker Complex, I was already sure where I was going,” said Bennati. “This is the perfect environment to win a championship. This is the perfect school. I think there is nothing better than Ohio State and I truly believe it.”

With Maisonneuve in his second season, his approach to the transfer market was pivotal entering the season. According to him, the most important element of his recruiting process was finding transfers that would fit the culture he was trying to build.

Nobody fit that description better than Bennati.

“Once we met him it was easy to know he was somebody we wanted on our team,” said Maisonneuve.

Bennati’s personality is what has driven him this season. His curiosity, joyful optimism, and his work ethic is what has made him such a perfect fit for Ohio State.

“He’s fantastic,” said Maisonneuve. “Right when he came in he fit in with the group right away. He’s got the personality that he’s a team guy and everyone can see that right away. He’s in it for the team and yet, he’s a difference maker. Sometimes those guys are more about scoring goals, what they can do for themselves? He is a team first guy. Everybody knows it’s that way in the locker room.”

When looking at who he has become the closest with on the team, there really isn’t much of an answer. Defying the expectation of an international student athlete, Bennati has immersed himself with everyone.

“It’s a good problem that I can’t even pick someone out,” said Maisonneuve.

Bennati came to America because he was different. He didn’t aspire to follow the same path as those around him. He also wanted a chance to be more than just an athlete.

“I love what I’m doing,” said Bennati. “I love my life. I love what I’m doing here.”

As more than just an athlete, Bennati is using his love for language to study International Relations & Diplomacy. He dreams of being drafted to play in Major League Soccer, but that’s not everything to him.

“I’m not that concerned about my soccer career…because I came here for college,” said Bennati. “Whether this works with soccer or not, I still have a very good base to use for my future.”

He’ll still continue to work towards that goal under Maisonneuve, an individual that Bennati believes has showed him that he still has a lot to learn about soccer.

Continuing to learn the sport and the world, Bennati does it all while trying to stay connected to the family he has back home.

“I think they’re proud of me,” said Bennati. “That’s something I see, I can feel, and I love it because that’s what I want to make them.”