From ballroom dancer to battering ram: How Graziano Pelle almost fired Italy to Euros glory

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Euro 2020 has been the international tournament we all needed after more than a year of pandemic-inflicted hellscape. There have been thrilling games, shocking upsets, and most importantly, plenty of goals.

Among the chief providers of exciting football have been Italy, reborn as a stylish, irrepressible outfit under Roberto Mancini.

It represents quite a change from the stereotypical defensive tactics of Italian teams in previous tournaments, a remarkable rebirth after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and a notable change from the last Euros five years ago, when they played with a very different attacking set-up.

While Mancini has utilised a pacy, fluid front line featuring Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi, Antonio Conte at Euro 2016 had a very different weapon: the human battering ram that was Graziano Pelle.

Pelle was the archetypal late bloomer at international level, not making his first senior Italy appearance until he was 29 and only collecting 20 caps in total.

However, he was the lightning rod for a hugely impressive Italian showing in France, where they beat Belgium and Spain, and came within a penalty shootout of eliminating Germany in the quarter-finals.

Pelle's path to the top was circuitous, starting in his native Lecce, where he initially practiced ballroom dancing, even becoming a national champion at the age of 12.

However, his father had also been a striker for Lecce, and Pelle eventually went into the family business.

He impressed in loan spells to Serie B with Crotone and Cesena, but the path to the first team remained blocked. 

Pelle, therefore, first moved to the Netherlands with AZ, but failed to establish himself as a regular scorer consistently over four seasons, although he did collect an Eredivisie winners' medal in 2009.

A return to Italy with Parma didn't work out either, so when Feyenoord took a punt on him in 2012 it appeared an odd choice. After all, this was a striker who had scored 15 top-flight league goals over the previous five seasons.

Graziano Pelle Les Reed Southampton GFX

The punt worked out better than anyone could have expected, as Pelle finally found his groove. Fifteen goals in five seasons, turned into 50 in two, as the Rotterdam outfit built their attack around their Italian target man.

Pelle's ability in the air and his physical presence, combined with his good first touch and accurate finishing, made him a complete force to be reckoned with. Hero status was achieved in Rotterdam –  there were even YouTube tutorials  telling Feyenoord fans how to style their hair like him.

The striker has always had an eye for flair as well as hard work, whether scoring stunning overhead kicks  or proposing to his fiancee on a helipad in Dubai.

His fine form at Feyenoord earned him a move to the Premier League, spending two years with Southampton, where he is still remembered fondly.

Former Saints vice-chairman Les Reed told FootballFanCast  last month: “We wanted to replace Rickie Lambert. Ronald [Koeman] had worked with Graziano at Feyenoord. Graziano had a similar style, you know, scoring record etc.

“So, it was a no-brainer out of three choices of strikers to go with Graziano because the manager knew him, trusted him, knew how to handle him and so on.”

During his successful stay at St Mary's, Pelle also caught the eye of Conte, appointed Italy boss following the Azzurri's group-stage elimination at the 2014 World Cup.

Pelle had played for Italy at Under-21 level and had been in the preliminary squad for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but any hopes of a senior call-up seemed far-fetched until Conte spread the net a little wider than the traditional Milan and Turin powerhouses.

Pelle top-scored in Euro 2016 qualifying for Italy with three goals, before starring in the tournament proper.

Pelle netted a sumptuous volley to complete a 2-0 win over Belgium in their opening game, before repeating the feat to wrap up the same scoreline against reigning champions Spain in the round of 16.

Graziano Pelle Italy GFX

Yet, as these Euros have shown, heroes can very quickly turn into villains. Pelle missed his penalty in the 6-5 shoot-out defeat to Germany.

Although he was far from the only man to miss his kick – six of the first 10 were spurned, including Simeone Zaza's infamous tip-toe and sky-it technique – it signalled the end for Conte with Italy, as he left for Chelsea after the Euros.

It would, in the long run, be the end for Pelle with Italy too.

He remained in the set-up under Conte's successor Gian Piero Ventura but during a 2018 qualifier against Spain he refused a handshake from the new coach as he was subbed off.

As a result, Pelle was sent home from the squad and never called up again.

A statement from the Italian FA at the time read: “Representing the Italy national team involves sharing values and exhibiting attitudes befitting the status of the Azzurri shirt.

“This begins with a player’s dealings with the staff, his team-mates and the supporters. The player will return to his club today.”

Pelle also took responsibility,  with a forthright message on Instagram: “Unfortunately, it has happened again and I’ve f*cked up."

It was an unfortunate situation all round. It certainly didn't benefit Italy, as without the focal point of their attack, they finished second to Spain in their group and were humiliated by Sweden in the play-offs – with Ventura's dismissal ushering in the Mancini era.

For Pelle, he clearly still had plenty to give, and even now remains highly regarded in Italy. Last January, amid a scoring crisis, Juventus considered making a move  for the now-35-year-old, who was with Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng.

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Ultimately, though, Pelle's peak was in 2016, when he looked for a while like he would power Italy to the European crown – something they are now aiming to achieve five years on.

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