Emanuele Giaccherini: Italy's Sunderland reject with a fascinating backstory
"I played against monsters like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but wasn't afraid," Emanuele Giaccherini happily declared after the second Serie A game of his career in September 2010. It was a glorious moment: the midfielder scored a goal, leading tiny Cesena to a 2-0 win over Milan. Zlatan missed a penalty that day and was left frustrated.
On Friday, when Italy face Sweden in Toulouse in an important Group E fixture at Euro 2016, Giaccherini will play against the monster once again – but this time it’s Ibrahimovic who should be much more worried. Giaccherini is coming off a phenomenal performance, having sent Italy on their way to victory against Belgium on Monday.
He has been the revelation of the tournament so far, as far as sceptical fans at home are concerned. Most Italy supporters could hardly understand why Antonio Conte included him in his squad, let alone the starting lineup. And yet he has proven all of them wrong again – just like four years ago.
Most Italy supporters could hardly understand why Antonio Conte included him in his squad, let alone the starting lineup. And yet he has proven all of them wrong again
Incredibly, almost unbelievably, it’s the same story all over again for Giaccherini. The Italians criticised Cesare Prandelli for taking him to Euro 2012, but the coach believed in the dynamic, diminutive star and gambled on him in the starting lineup for the opening fixture against Spain.
Remarkably, that was Giaccherini's debut for the national team, but he wasn't nervous and played superbly on the left wing. Eventually, the champions were rather lucky to salvage a 1-1 draw.
Giaccherini surprised many that day, and he did so again on Monday. His energy and looks are quite misleading – the midfielder is actually 31 already, which makes his story even more unique. He is both a late bloomer and a comeback kid.
The man Sunderland considered surplus to requirements less than a year ago overcame enormous difficulties and almost lost hope before arriving into Serie A, finally, at the age of 25.
It all started when Giaccherini was 15 – his spleen was severely damaged in a collision with a goalkeeper, and urgent surgery was needed to save his life. His whole career was in very serious doubt.
His energy and looks are quite misleading – the midfielder is actually 31 already, which makes his story even more unique. He is both a late bloomer and a comeback kid
Giaccherini recovered, only to discover that nobody was interested in a player of his slight build. Furio Valcareggi, son of the coach who led Italy to Euro 68 triumph and 1970 World Cup Final, took Emanuele under his wing, became his agent and tried to persuade countless small clubs to give him a chance... to no avail.
Finally, third division Cesena signed the 19-year-old in 2004, but they didn't intend to give him a place in the squad. Giaccherini was loaned out to the lower leagues for four long years, and suffered a double fracture to his ankle, missing almost the entire 2006/07 season. The whole story seemed to be going nowhere, and thoughts of returning to his home Tuscan village Bibbiena crossed his mind more than once. Why suffer if you can quietly work at a local factory?
Giaccherini decided to dream on, and was rewarded in 2008 when new Cesena coach Pierpaolo Bisoli noticed his talent. Together, they celebrated two promotions in a row, and suddenly the midfielder – whose contribution to the success was truly immense – found himself in the spotlight.
That was when Antonio Conte got in touch for the first time. The current national team coach signed for Siena in 2010, and wanted to bring Giaccherini to his team. The idea didn't work out, but a year later Conte moved on to Juventus, and didn't have problem getting his men anymore.
Giaccherini was loaned out to the lower leagues for four long years, and suffered a double fracture to his ankle. The whole story seemed to be going nowhere
Giaccherini, who impressed in his first season in Serie A by scoring seven goals for Cesena, was bought for just €3 million in a co-ownership deal. "Other teams pay €30m for versatile players like him," Conte said.
Giaccherini had never really believed he would make it into the top flight. Playing for the biggest club in the country and winning two championship titles in a row was beyond his wildest dreams, but that’s what he did.
The only problem was that, despite holding Emanuele in very high esteem, Conte couldn't play him in the starting lineup on a weekly basis with such a star-studded squad.
After representing Italy at Euro 2012 and scoring against Brazil at the Confederations Cup a year later, Giaccherini wanted to be more than just a substitute. That’s why he chose an adventure at Sunderland. "This is my chance to be a regular starter. At Juventus, I didn't have that because there were a lot of important players ahead of me," he said.
Black Cats = bad luck
Juve were glad to get £7m for such a player, but Conte was sad to see him leave. Thus, as the manager unexpectedly left in the summer of 2014 and replaced Prandelli as the national team coach, he immediately recalled Giaccherini to his squad even though his first season in the Premier League was rather disappointing.
Then disaster struck, as the midfielder missed almost the entire 2014/15 season with ankle problems, and the Black Cats lost all patience. So did Giaccherini himself. He wanted to return to his homeland.
Newly promoted Bologna apparently were the only club interested to take him on loan a year ago. Bologna’s manager, Roberto Donadoni, was widely considered a failure as Italy coach at Euro 2008, but his influence on the current campaign is quite curious.
He took over from Delio Rossi in November when they were in the relegation zone and turned them into a sound mid-table outfit, with Giaccherini returning to superb form. "I’m in the national team again thanks to my team-mates and Donadoni," the midfielder said in March. Conte was glad to work with him yet again.
Newly promoted Bologna apparently were the only club interested to take him on loan a year ago
Giaccherini started in all the friendlies this year ahead of the Euros, and – despite widespread criticism across the country – the coach never doubted him. Now, after another disciplined and energetic performance and his brilliantly taken goal, he is the man of the moment.
Sunderland might be the ones to profit from the situation. The Black Cats were ready to let Giaccherini go for £2m but his price might be a bit higher now, even though his contract expires next summer. Lazio and Sampdoria were mentioned as possible destinations, but Fiorentina look to be leading the race, making the player’s mother Patrizia very happy.
His father, Roberto, has always been a die-hard Inter fan, and that is how he raised his sons. "My wife supports Fiorentina, but I didn't let her influence them," he once said proudly.
But Inter never showed interest in signing Giaccherini. Fiorentina do, and it will be interesting to see how things are about to develop in the family. Or maybe Conte will take him to Chelsea. Stranger things have happened.