Commenta per primo
It was just like watching Brazil. Not the current Brazil but the Brazil of old. The myth of Brazil. The one we associate with flair and skill and loving life. “Giaccherinho!” hollered Fabio Caressa, the Sky Italia commentator, as Emanuele Giaccherini brought the ball down and slotted it past Thibaut Courtois in the Belgium goal. 
 
It was tongue-in-cheek. A nod and a wink at something Italy coach Antonio Conte once said of Giaccherini during their time together at Juventus. Keen to make the point that Giaccherini didn’t get the credit he deserved and that more faith should be put in Italian players, Conte sighed: “Maybe if he were called Giaccherinho you’d all be talking about him a lot more.” Instead, more often than not, jokes were made at Giaccherini’s expense. Opponents, fans, journalists, they all poked fun at him. You see, Giaccherini is not the biggest. He’s 5’4”, which is around Tom Cruise’s height without the insoles. 
 
Even after his goal in Lyon on Monday night, La Gazzetta dello Sport couldn’t resist referring to him as the nano da giardino or garden gnome.  But size isn’t everything as Lionel Messi and countless others have proved. “It’s football, not basketball,” Giaccherini reminded Il Corriere della Sera last month. 
 
While that may be true it still doesn’t stop people looking down on him. In fact, let’s call it what it is: snobbery. When Conte named his squad for the Euros, Giaccherini’s name was one of those singled-out for attack. How did he make the cut ahead of Milan’s Giacomo Bonaventura? Conte was accused, in some quarters, of cronyism. Everybody knows he has a soft spot for Giaccherini. 



When Juventus sold him to Sunderland, you could be forgiven for thinking judging from Conte’s reaction that Pogba, Pirlo or Vidal were leaving. He seemed genuinely devastated. Journalists at that press conference looked at each other wondering what he was getting so worked up about. Again, they underestimated Giaccherini and, unsurprisingly, even after a very good season with Bologna the scepticism followed him into this tournament.
Generally the reaction, even during the early stages of Italy’s game against Belgium was: has it really come to this? Much was made of how four of the players in Conte’s starting XI - Giaccherini, Antonio Candreva, Marco Parolo and Eder - were all in the Cesena team that got relegated before the last European Championship in 2012. Once the cause of self-deprecation and pessimism about Italy’s chances in France, it is now a source of pride, just as Giaccherini should be. Irrespective of his reputation as the teacher’s pet, no one has ever done him any favours. 
 
Giaccherini is from Talla, a tiny town in Tuscany with a population of little more than 1,000 people. “It’s like a nativity scene,” he reflected. As a boy Giaccherini used to go down to the river bank and skim stones. His neighbours were farmers who worked the land and the craftsman who built the dry stone walls. A simple life that was a world away from the bustling metropolises of Rome, Napoli, Milan and Turin. “When I retire, I’ll go back there with my wife and kids.” 
 
He might still have been there now without a little luck and a lot of hard work because all the scouts who came to watch Giaccherini shared the same assessment. He was talented but too small and they discounted him on account of his size. At 16 he had to get a job working in one of the Mabo Group’s factories. Giaccherini helped assembled prefabricated offices and the like. He approached the Mabo Group because they sponsored Bibbiena, the team he’d been turning out for since he was 10. “I quickly understood that it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Giaccherini admitted, “but what exactly could I do if I was bad at football.” 


 
Roberto Falsini, the owner of the Mabo Group, believed in him. He is a huge football fan. “After a year with us, Emanuele had already scored three times the number of goals as his older teammates. Sure he was small, but he was the best.” Word soon travelled and before long third division Cesena offered Giaccherini a contract. The chance he had been waiting for had finally arrived. Except all Cesena did for three years was send him out on loan to clubs who were even further down the football pyramid. He clocked up a lot of kilometers: 250,000 to be precise in the clapped out Fiesta that was a hand-me-down from his father. 
 
Understandably there came a time when Giaccherini considered packing it all in. “One day I got a call from our director of sport,” Falsini recalled, “and he said: ‘Look, Emanuele’s thinking about quitting and coming back to play for Bibbiena'. Roberto then asked me if I could get Emanuele’s old job back working in the factory. I couldn’t believe it.” 
 
“I almost gave up,” Giaccherini admitted. “I couldn’t see a way out.” His agents talked him around. Giaccherini got a run out with Cesena in a pre-season friendly and “it changed my life.” Impressed by his performance, Pier Paolo Bisoli put faith in him and was rewarded. They rose through the divisions together, all the way to Serie A. After a year in the top flight Giaccherini signed for Juventus, won the title and was called up to represent his country. His success is made all the sweeter by the hardship he endured. He appreciates it all the more because he was made to suffer for it and that’s why Conte has such a high opinion of him. 
 
As a rags to riches story, in Italy it draws comparison with that of Moreno Toricelli, the carpenter who worked in a furniture factory, and seduced the Old Lady into giving him a contract after playing against her in a pre-season friendly in 1992 for amateur side Caratese. Now, somewhat inevitably, Giaccherini is being spoken about as “the Italian Vardy.” You never know: if Italy win the Euros, maybe someone will even buy the film rights. 
 
@JamesHorncastle