Marco Verratti might be the best Italian footballer never to have played in Serie A. Having made his Pescara debut in Serie C at the age of 15, he was part of the Delfini side which was promoted in 2010 and then became one of a number of star names, alongside Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne, to take the second tier by storm at the Stadio Adriatico in 2011-12.
His tremendous ability at the hub of midfield was never going to go unnoticed by Italy’s bigger clubs despite his slight 5ft 5in frame, and Verratti was linked with all of the bel paese’s giants. He had previously had a near-miss with AC Milan after impressing against them in an under-16 game, but it came as a surprise to some when the 19-year-old was identified by Paris Saint-Germain as the central character in their push to become Europe’s super club.
They didn’t only sign Verratti, of course. In fact, on the very same day they unveiled him to the press there was a shadow cast by the simultaneous arrival of the irrepressible Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In their first full summer of business under the ownership of Qatar Sports Investments, the likes of Thiago Silva and Ezequiel Lavezzi also came to Paris, but Verratti’s €12 million addition was a signing which proved that PSG were building for a great future rather than solely looking to add big-name short-term weapons.
“With the latest signings and the young, small talent Verratti I think there is both the future and the present,” said Ibrahimovic at his presentation press conference, identifying the diminutive midfielder’s importance to the PSG project. “There are not many teams like the team that we have today.”
Verratti’s great reading of the game, his relentless running and a thirst for making tackles soon made him one of the most durable talents in European football. While the bigger name additions who came in those early QSI days have been and gone, Verratti has gone on to become a modern-day club legend.
Nine years, 346 games, seven Ligue 1 titles and a total of 27 trophies after first stepping foot in Paris, Verratti is a true club mainstay in the French capital. What’s more, he has become one of Italy’s most important players, so it was expected to be a major blow to Roberto Mancini when the metronomic midfielder picked up knee ligament damage shortly before Euro 2020.
Mancini went ahead and chose Verratti in his 26-player squad anyway, trusting that the remainder of his squad would be able to guide them through the group stage and the PSG star could then have an impact come knockouts time.
He got a chance to test his knee out shortly before the start of the tournament when he donned the Pescara shirt for the first time in nine years, playing 20 minutes of a behind-closed-doors friendly for the Delfini youth team against Italy during the national team’s training camp. Beside the chance to reminisce in the colours of his former club, it was also a vital opportunity to get minutes in his legs in a non-competitive environment.
The problem for Verratti has been in just how well the Azzurri have coped in his absence to start the Euros. Manuel Locatelli’s excellent displays against Turkey and Switzerland in Group A, particularly when bagging two goals against the Swiss, left many wondering whether the Sassuolo midfielder might have done enough to force Verratti out of the first-team picture for the remainder of the tournament.
But Verratti’s performance in his return to action against Wales on Sunday showed that his class remains irrefutable. For all of Locatelli’s undeniable talent, Verratti is clearly a superstar and a leader in this Azzurri squad. Where did he develop those leadership qualities? Under the wing of his old teammate Zlatan, of course.
“I often heard about a lack of leaders in the dressing room following the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic,” Verratti told Goal in 2017 shortly after Ibra’s exit for Manchester United.” On the contrary, Zlatan taught us to become leaders! He is a player who improves everyone who plays with him.”
In 2021, he is that same player. He improves everyone around him whether for PSG or Italy, and on Saturday against Austria he ought to again be in the starting line-up at Wembley as the Azzurri attempt to reach the quarter-finals of Euro 2020. If that happens to be alongside Locatelli, then so be it, but if Italy are going to win this whole shebang it is hard to believe they will do so without Verratti playing a key part.