Umtiti’s Rebirth: How a World Champ Helped Lecce Stay in Serie A

In the summer of 2018, Samuel Umtiti had the football world at his feet. A starter in a La Liga-winning side Barcelona, he had just won a World Cup as a protagonist with France, scoring the only goal of Les Bleus’ winning Semi Final against Les Diables Rouges of Belgium. What else could he ask for?

But destiny had other plans for the French-Cameroonian center back. Football is a fast and forgetful world, and that’s just the way things work in this crazy sport. When Umtiti’s left knee started to creak, both his playing time and reputation at the Blaugrana dropped.

After two initial seasons where he had collected 43 and 40 caps respectively, he saw the pitch less than 20 times for each of the following three campaigns. In 2021/22, he hit rock bottom as he made just ONE appearance across the whole season.

What hurt him most, as the Frenchman recalled in multiple interviews, was the lack of trust and support he had started to feel at Barcelona as he struggled with a string of recurring injuries. During a recent interview with Canal+, he let it all out: “I spent the last four years in Catalonia like in a prison.”

At 29 years of age, Samuel Umtiti wanted to feel like a player again. He needed some consideration. He found it in the most unexpected place.

If you open a map of Italy and look at the heel of the so-called Italy’s Boot, you’ll bounce into a region called Salento and its capital city Lecce. Salento is mostly known as a popular summer destination, with its beautiful beaches stretching along two seas (the Ionian and the Adriatic), its peculiar, overmarketed folk dance called pizzica, and its deeply rooted identity (Salento is part of the Apulia region but the locals will obviously tell you that they are Salentini, not Apulians…)

And even though calcio is passionately lived and felt in Lecce like in any other Italian town, the local club has never been a household name, not even among the so-called provinciali. Since their debut in the elite division of calcio in 1985, Lecce’s Giallorossi have been constantly yo-yoing between the Serie A and the Serie B and never managed to retain their top-flight status for more than three seasons in a row.

So, when their Director of Sports Pantaleo Corvino – arguably one of the best at this job in Italy – knocked at Barcelona’s door and asked for Samuel Umtiti on loan, many thought it was a joke. A title winning, not-so-long-ago World Champion, accepting to move to a club with zero European appearances and regularly battling for relegation? That couldn’t be possible.

Sure, this wouldn’t be the first case of a French World Champion accepting to fare in an Italian club whose best achievement could realistically be to maintain Serie A status. Frank Ribery had spent the previous season at Salernitana. But he had done so at the very dusk of his career, aged 39, and after taking an intermediate step down from Bayern Munich to Fiorentina, who at least had an international pedigree.

Umtiti was still 29, after all, and still playing for a top European club despite all the struggles. Would he accept?

He did.

But as the news of Umiti’s arrival spread among the Salento beaches, there were legitimate questions about the operation. Would he be fit? And, moreover, what would be Umtiti’s attitude as he approached a club with reduced ambitions?

Because the recent history of Serie A is full of stories of international players who supposedly came to Italy to revamp what looked like a declining career, but then seemed content with just lackadaisically getting by for a few months or years – and, come on, Lecce is just the perfect place to live an easy life. The pasticciotti, some typical local pastry filled with cream, are delicious. Just saying.

Yet, it didn’t take long to understand that Umtiti’s intentions were different. It took just a few steps indeed, those that separates the arrival area from the exit gate at the Brindisi Airport. As soon as the Frenchman left the airport to put pen to paper, he was joyously rushed at by a horde of screaming Salentini fans, who had already cared to create chants dedicated to him.

Umtiti was dumbfounded. He looked around, gasping for words. He was expected to make some statement, but he just couldn’t speak. So, he just started to jump together with his new fans. And cried. To feel again like a player. That’s just what he needed.

Fast forward to today, and Lecce’s season has been a success. The Salentini managed to achieve salvation last week, spending most of the league in a comfortable mid-table position and despite a slight drop of form in the past few months. The secret of coach Marco Baroni’s side has been the collettivo, the team spirit, but Lecce’s backbone laid in a rock-solid defense.

With one game to go, Lecce have conceded 43 goals, just one more than both Inter and Milan, and the Salentini are close to achieving the remarkable feat of closing their Serie A campaign without conceding more than two goals in any game.

Umtiti partnered at center back with 27-year-old Federico Baschirotto, who had never played in Serie A before and just recently received his first call-up for Italy. “He gave me so much,” Baschirotto recognized. “He put himself completely at the team’s disposal with humility.” Striker Gabriel Strefezza also had sweet words for him, praising his attitude: “He is a fantastic person. It wasn’t easy for a World Champion to come to Lecce, but he came to help the team. In a young team like ours, he helped everybody, he was key. You would see him press during games, go for a slide tackle, after having won a World Cup. If he does it, then you also must do it.

Umtiti always gave it all, even when he found himself on the receiving end of a repelling situation still too often seen in the Italian stadia. On January 4, 2023, during a Lecce vs. Lazio game, he and his teammate Lameck Banda were targeted with racist chants by the opposition fans. As the Lecce supporters rose in their defense with some counter-chants to support them, the referee temporarily halted the game.

Referee Livio Marinelli was ready to call the game for good, but then Umtiti reportedly whispered to him: “Let us play. I’ll answer to them on the pitch.” A few minutes later, Lecce scored their second and wrapped the game with a 2-1 win.

A few days ago, his Lecce teammates honored him with a giant picture of him wearing the Giallorossi jersey during a dinner to celebrate the club’s permanence in Serie A. Umtiti was once again touched, just like at the dawn of his adventure in Lecce and, as tears broke out, he uttered a few words that confirmed why, of all places, he accepted to come to Salento: “I needed to feel important with simplicity. I found a team with people with a great heart and that’s what I needed.”

It is unlikely that Samuel Umtiti will stay in Lecce one more year. His reputation as a footballer now re-established, he might not have (nor want…) another chance at Barcelona but can surely still yearn for a spot in some high-profile club. The Salentini know that and are ready to accept it. They are showing only gratitude to him as he possibly prepares to leave the sun and the seas of Salento.

Still, the tale of Samuel Umtiti’s season at Lecce – a World Champion playing for a relegation-battling club in the South of Italy – will always remain one of our favorites calcio stories, and one of those that still make football a game worth watching and enjoying, despite all.