"We know we’re not the favourites, but you can also win without starting out as favourites,” said Emanuele Giaccherini at the beginning of this tournament.
Two matches in, and already safely qualified, he and his team-mates are relishing their unaccustomed role of underdogs. And they are taking their inspiration from an unlikely source. Not Italy’s long history of success but Leicester City’s triumph against the odds in the Premier League.
“That must be an example for us,” says Giaccherini. “History is in the past and we’re a level below the others. So like Ranieri’s team we need to look beyond technical ability: we have to run harder than the others and rely on our tactical organisation to make the difference.
“We don’t have the world class players we had in the past, but the most important thing is to be a team, where everyone helps each other and each man knows what he has to do.”
Giaccherini is one of those due to be rested against Ireland, but if Italy have a talisman in this tournament, then surely he is the man.
After a tough time at Sunderland, and an injury while on loan at Bologna, he was being written off only a few months ago, only to force his way back into the reckoning.
Antonio Conte has always rated him, perhaps because Italy’s hero against Belgium has been an underdog for his entire career, and has had to overcome adversity on several occasions.
To begin with he was badly injured at the age of 15, when he had to have his spleen removed after a collision with an opposing goalkeeper. The spleen is an organ most of us take for granted, but it’s an important part of the immune system and he still needs injections every four months to protect himself against infections.
At 19 he was spotted by Cesena, one of Italy’s regular yo-yo clubs, which gave him the chance of a career, but he then spent four seasons struggling to make an impact in the fourth division, mostly on loan. He was out for almost year with a double ankle fracture.
For all his ability, his lack of height was against him. Too easily knocked off the ball was the verdict of the coaches at Bellaria Igea and Pavia and by 2008 he was almost ready to give up and preparing to go back to the factory where he’d once had a holiday job, making precast concrete.
“I didn’t see a way out. But I wanted to go on trying till the end so as not to disappoint those who had always believed in me. It was a friendly in the summer that changed my life.” Cesena had just appointed a new manager, Pierpaolo Bisoli, and in the space of two miraculous seasons they won two promotions, Giaccherini in a key role.
Conte spotted him when he was still manager of Siena, and a year later signed him for Juventus, fee €3 million. “Other clubs pay €30m for players such as him,” said Conte at the time, and Giaccherini quite likes being undervalued.
“It makes you stand out more,” he says. “But so many players in Italy are undervalued.
“I’m grateful to have risen through the ranks, because I’m well aware of where I come from and who I was. I see myself as a simple, straightforward person, who’s had the good fortune to know how to play football.” It can’t be just coincidence that three of Giaccherini’s Italy team-mates also rose to prominence after a spell at Cesena, and that he and Marco Parolo were both part of the side that achieved consecutive promotions. Bisoli, like Ranieri at Leicester, is a shrewd coach who knows how to get the best out of players.
But Giaccherini is unusually modest.
At Cesena they remember he used to drive a Ford Fiesta, which he eventually sold when it had 250,000kms on the clock. “I got it from my father when it had already done 70,000, and it went with me from Bellaria to Pavia,” says Giaccherini.
“I think footballers are privileged, and it is only if you recognise that you are privileged that you can be a clean person with proper values.” His roots count for a lot.
He was born and brought up in Talla, a village in the mountains south of Florence, peaceful, friendly and also remote. As he says himself:
“Talla has a population of a thousand, and it’s like somewhere in a nativity play. It’s a little bit removed from this world, life has stayed as it was years ago. It’s a humble place with people who are workers, builders, peasants – and that gives you so many values. I’ve built my home there and it’s there that I’ll live with my wife and children when I stop playing.” His wife Dania is about as unlike a WAG as you could possibly imagine, their two young daughters, Maria Giulia and Caterina, are at the local school. Their father remains part of his village and still treasures his memories of “mucking about with my mates down by the river” — and his father Roberto continues to insist that his son will never change.
Conte evidently has a similar trust in Giaccherini the player. He was annoyed when Juve let him go to Sunderland for €7.5m, and kept an eye on him while he struggled to make an impact in England. Giaccherini believes that struggle may have helped his game: opponents no longer to try to wind him up because of his lack of inches.
“Before I went to the Premier League there was a bit of that. These days I get more respect.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved