BY KARAN TEJWANI
It has been clear for a while now that Marco Verratti is the best senior footballer Italy has to offer and at just 24 years of age, that is a frightening statement if you are up against the man. The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder has played a starring role in the capital side’s success alongside the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Edinson Cavani and Ángel Di María over the years and is always on the back pages, linking him with a move to a more rigid, competitive league to show the best of his abilities.
He is now the poster boy for Italian football, but many still raise the question – why hasn’t he ever played in the country’s top flight? There have been the obvious rumours of him making a return to his native land with either Juventus or Inter Milan, but it could all have been different for him, had he stayed with his boyhood club Pescara after they achieved promotion in 2012.
Verratti was a star destined for greatness from his days with Pescara’s youth sides and his first big break came in an under-16 game for the club against AC Milan. His showing that day impressed the Milan boardroom, and later gave the youngster an opportunity to play for the club’s youth setup – offering him a contract immediately after the game in the dressing rooms at AC Milan’s Milanello training facilities. A reported €300,000 fee was negotiated with only a signature on the dotted line waiting – a signature that would never come. Verratti cited his family and unwillingness to leave home as the reasons behind this rejection, and you could argue, that it was the better choice.
Verratti was born in Pescara and he would represent the club immensely in Serie B as they looked to climb a step up and play with the best of the best in Italian football. Raised in L’Aquila, the capital city of the Abruzzo region in southern Italy, he never stopped playing and wanted to prove how good he was from a very young age. AC Milan weren’t the first ones to face a rejection from Verratti, before that, it was their cross-town rivals Inter Milan amongst a few others who he vetoed before joining Pescara.
His aptitude for the game was top notch, but he always regards the earthquake that hit L’Aquila as one of the most notable events in his career. He was just 16 when disaster hit the small town – which has a population of just over 70,000 people. Playing the game from a very young age, this was the first event that forced him to stop, and it wasn’t until four months later that he was able to restart doing what he loved most.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night, it was like I was paralyzed, I couldn’t run anymore. When these kinds of things happen, when people you know have died, you’re preoccupied for a while with more important questions.”
Verratti would earn his first-team break in the 2008-09 season at the age of 16, but he wasn’t a regular in the side until two years later, where he had the team built around him under the tutelage of Eusebio Di Franesco – a former Italy international who played for the likes of Empoli and AS Roma. Di Francesco was a learner of former Roma manager Zdeněk Zeman’s methods and he always emphasized attractive attacking football – with Verratti being at the heart of everything they did.
Pescara ended the 2010-11 season in 13th place, eight points behind the promotion play-off slots and at the end of that campaign. Di Francesco ended his stay in the south of Italy to move to Lecce and later Modena, with Sassuolo, where he has (and still is) creating history of his own. He was replaced by his mentor himself, Zdeněk Zeman who would bring the best out of the club, and Verratti himself as they looked to return to Italy’s top flight.
It was around this time that Verratti’s style of football completed its reinvention. Previously used as a number 10, playing behind the strikers, he was moved backwards, to play in front of the defence as the deep-lying playmaker, and Zeman had a massive hand in making that change a resounding success when he took over and led the club in the 2011-12 Serie B season. The Czech coach’s stylish use of the offensive 4-3-3 system bore fruit in the development of Marco Verratti.
Pescara were expectedly in control of the Serie B campaign. With a smart manager at the helm and the likes of Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne amongst others alongside Verratti to support the team’s attack, they were on top form throughout the season. Some of their notable wins came against the likes of Hellas Verona, Sassuolo, Torino and Sampdoria as they finished the season as Serie B champions, finishing with 83 points, level with Torino, but more amazingly scored 90 goals in 42 games, averaging 2.14 per game.
Zeman’s new style stuck well with Verratti as he was influential in the club’s attacking methods that season. To reward his efforts, he was voted as the Serie B Player of the Season as well as receiving the prestigious Bravo Award – given to the best player in Europe under the age of 21 by Guerin Sportivo, the oldest sport magazine in the world. The award also has its own history with top names, with the likes of Iker Casillas, Lionel Messi and Patrick Kluivert amongst so many others being its previous holders.
But as Pescara prepared for life in the top flight, the continent’s best circled like vultures ready to pick up its prey. And before they could kick a ball in Serie A, Verratti was signing a deal in one of the world’s most famous cities to play under Carlo Ancelotti alongside some of the best in the business. Raised by his own and honed by Zdeněk Zeman, only time will tell whether he will return to his own land to play in the country’s finest league competition.