An hour or so before kickoff in their first match of the 2016 European Championship, the Italian team — scratch that, the ‘worst Italian team in an entire generation’ walks around the field at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais. Two members of the squad — tall, with the impeccably-chiseled faces of Mediterranean gods — walk toward the goal together. They operate on opposite ends of the pitch, and yet their play is inextricably linked by the net and the frame enclosing it. Gianluigi Buffon, 38, is playing his 4th European Championship as a proud son of La Squadra Azzurra, while his companion, Graziano Pellè, on the cusp of turning 31, his first.
Pellè looks over the frame and mentions to Buffon that the Lyon goal seems somewhat smaller than normal. The Southampton striker tells his captain immediately that there is no way their opponents — the highest ranked team in Europe — were going to score past him in that goal.
A few hours and a nosebleed for coach Antonio Conte later, as Mark Clattenburg whistled for full time, the Italian team celebrated like they’d won the cup itself. Indeed, Buffon had not conceded, and to go one further, it was Pellè’s neatly-taken volley that had sealed the deal.
It was a moment that would definitely make the highlight reel of the tournament, but this Italian team is all about those moments of toil, those million moments of hard work, that don’t make it to that reel. And perhaps the man leading the line for them is a brilliant synecdoche for the industry the Italian team has exhibited.
For nothing about Graziano Pellè’s career was ever achieved without industry, or in a straightforward manner.
As a 20-year-old, Pellè shone at the World Youth Championship held in the Netherlands in 2005 (though a certain Lionel Messi stole the show). He capped his tournament with a last-minute equaliser vs Morocco, a typically-taken No.9’s finish, and although Italy went out on penalties, Pellè scored his kick with aplomb, a fine panenka. He later made a bet with Giorgio Chiellini and Riccardo Montolivo that if he got the chance at the 2007 U21 Euros, he’d do so again. And he did: a super-calm panenka à la Francesco Totti against Edwin van der Sar in Euro 2000. (See, Pellè did it twice already, before Andrea Pirlo made it cool in 2012)
In hindsight, it seems it was written in the stars that the Netherlands would play a role in Pellè’s future.
Indeed, the young striker’s career seemed to reach a premature cul-de-sac at his native club Lecce, after an alleged struggle with obesity and hat-trick of loan spells at Catania, Crotone and Cesena. The last, a spell in 2006-07, saw Pellè reach 11 goals for the season, his highest-scoring season until 2012-13.
Forced to save his footballing future, Pellè made a bold move. Where, given the circumstances, many would rather seal a deal with another Serie B club, then try to bounce up to Serie A, the then-21-year-old stepped out of his comfort zone and went abroad to the Netherlands, in whose fields he had found joy, just a few summers back.
His move to AZ Alkmaar, then managed by Louis van Gaal (who was also trying to get himself back on track), was nearly jeopardised when he joked about not signing because his preferred shirt numbers weren’t available. As his father said to Gazzetta dello Sport, ‘If [Graziano]’d never met the Dutch guru [Van Gaal], as well as Ronald Koeman, maybe my son would now be a carpenter or he’d be sitting with me in my van, selling coffee,’
Pellè was part of the AZ squad that pulled off a miracle by winning the Eredivisie under van Gaal, but never really caught the eye. Moussa Dembélé and Mounir El Hamdaoui were the stars, while the ‘Italian stallion’ largely just sipped water on the bench.
Once Louis van Gaal exchanged the small town of Alkmaar for the Megatron club of Munich, instability and turmoil washed over AZ, helped along by DSB Bank, the main sponsor and the bank of AZ owner Dirk Scheringa, going bankrupt. Ronald Koeman was handed the reins briefly before they were snatched away, and amidst this tumult, Pellè found himself getting increasingly less play-time. The ‘lessons’ learnt in the training ground grew infrequent once van Gaal left and frustration took over.
Pellè decided his Dutch escapade needed to come to an end, and returned to Italy with Parma. Two seasons and a loan at Sampdoria later, Pellè realized he’d reached another cul-de-sac in his career.
As Euro 2012 began and many of his former U-21 teammates belted out the immense Italian anthem in Poland & Ukraine, Pellè was, in plain terms, a failed striker whose best goal-return had come in Serie B, whose participation at the Euros only stretched as much as to watching them on TV, while on vacation.
Pellè’s next move came in the most unlikely way possible, as my friend and Feyenoord expert Mark Lievissie Adriaanse once recounted. Ronald Koeman’s son Tim’s girlfriend spotted the Italian at a beach while on vacation and informed her boyfriend. Tim had a brief chat with Pellè and immediately sent word to his father, who was seeking a striker at Feyenoord after John Guidetti’s loan from Man City had ended.
After Guidetti — and his 20 goals — won them over, Feyenoord fans refused to believe a former AZ flop was a true successor, and Mark himself was part of the first group of enraged fans to hear it from the investors, at a bar in Prague.
But behind the scenes, something clicked with Koeman and Pellè. The duo, whose brief time together at AZ was hardly ideal, were given a second chance, and the metaphorical cogs started creaking into action.
Suddenly Pellè seemed like a gamer who had finally completed all the tasks to progress to the next level and unlock new features. Scoring 14 goals and adding 6 assists in his first 14 matches was enough for Feyenoord to sign him up on a permanent deal in January 2013, effective from that July. The then 27-year-old finished the season with 27 league goals, the second-highest tally for an Italian outside Serie A.
At Feyenoord, Pellè, with his iconic perfectly coiffured hair and beard, rose up like a perfect Italian ciabatta. He became the fulcrum of their every attack, operating with his back to the goal, constantly bringing the midfielders and wingers into the game by holding off defenders and, of course, showing up at the right spot to finish the attack by finding the back of the net.
His time in Rotterdam was peppered with controversy, as at times Pellè could not keep his temper in check. At the beginning of 2014, he kicked out at and damaged various pieces of TV equipment after a frustrating last-minute draw at Twente. In the next match, he elbowed Ajax’s Joel Veltman. After losing De Klassieker, when confronted rudely in the post-match interview by FOX Sport reporter Jan-Joost van Gangelen, Pellè said he did not want to be interviewed by someone ‘with a face that looks like an Ajax supporter’. It won him many, many brownie points with the Feyenoord supporters, but he lost the captaincy to Jordy Clasie.
Fortunately, the outbursts did not create a rift in his relationship with Koeman. In fact, just a few months later, Pellè would finally enter the spotlight in the role most now associate him with — the striker of Southampton.
After being snubbed by Cesare Prandelli, Pellè found a supporter in Antonio Conte, another Lecce native and a fan of all things intense, like the striker’s long, tiresome climb to success. “Pellè is physically top, an excellent target man. He brings our team something we did not have”, noted the former Juventus coach.
The floodlights provide the ambiance in the Stade de France as Graziano Pellè lines up once more for Italy at Euro 2016, tasked with a very important role: he is to subdue one of the best midfielders in the world, who also happens to play for the defending Euro champions. For 90 minutes he toiled, even as Italy went ahead through Chiellini, he kept running and blocking and jumping. Then, in extra time, a cross from Matteo Darmian took a deflection, bouncing perfectly for Pellé to volley home — a near-replica of his goal vs Belgium. Italy were through to the quarterfinals. Euphoria would not begin to describe the feeling.
Koeman first experimented with the 3-5-2 at Feyenoord, tinkering before a tricky away match at FC Groningen, but its most memorable success came toward the end of the 2013-14 season. The Rotterdammers were traveling to PSV, a side that plays a high-possession 4-3-3 with a high-passing style of football. The extra man in defence ensured that the lines would not be broken easily, while the two upfront were almost exclusively focused on the attack, pressing upwards and never dropping too deep. Feyenoord came away with 3 points and a vice-grip on second place.
This blueprint was used by Pellè’s old boss van Gaal at the World Cup, most memorably against Spain. The patterns of the 3-5-2 used under those two coaches can also be seen in Italy’s setup, though Conte has been a long-time proponent of the formation.
Pellè was easily the man of the match against Spain. He not only got on the scoresheet, but he managed to effectively remove Sergio Busquets out of any equation in the match. Typically, be it for Feyenoord, Southampton or Italy earlier, Pellè is paired with a faster, more agile striker (Schaken/Long/Mané/Zaza/Éder — take your pick) so that he can work just off the big target man and feed into the space he creates by drawing defenders away or forward.
But against Spain, Pellè was required to stay deep and link up with Éder higher up the field to run at Ramos-Pique. Conte sought to nullify Busquets by going over or around the Barcelona midfielder; for both, Pellè was integral. In fact, Pellè was almost indefatigable in that match — and remember, he’s a rather big man who’s almost 31. He had to reach ground passes before Busquets to lay them off sideways to an on-rushing teammate from the flank or he had to jump to chest down long passes and then re-circulate to the flanks.
And of course, there was beautiful volley taken with a dancer’s balance and flexibility. As James Horncastle detailed, Pellé was a ballroom dance champion as a child, a skill that shows when he finishes in such fashion — technique and skill, yes, but also filled with grace, and all the while, hair still bloody perfect.
In an interview to Voetbal International, Pellé enthused, ”It’s always been my goal to wear the number 9 for La Squadra… at a big tournament and I have even scored… I’m so proud, not normal anymore. I live in a dream, though I realise that we have only just begun and it can be even more beautiful.”
Pellè’s career has been a long-played game, and just as everyone feels affection for the young teenager that finds his feet at an international tournament, there must be a certain romance for the drastically-late-bloomer living out his childhood dream at 30. We’ve all heard of Vardy’s rise from non-league football, and Rickie Lambert before him, but for Pellè, that rise was less dramatic. It makes it all the more relatable. Getting sucked into a vortex of endless mediocrity is all too realistic a prospect in many of our occupations. Breaking out, achieving something exceptional is all the more difficult and all the more phenomenal.
Even if Italy fall to Germany, Pellè’s story is already remarkable. But if he can actually lead ‘Italy’s worst team in a generation’ to the championship, having been a mediocre Serie B striker sans a future just four years ago, you just might tune in to the 2017 Oscars to watch Graziano Pellè win Best Actor portraying himself in an eponymous movie.