- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
LONDON (AP) — Emerson Palmieri hasn’t exactly taken the conventional route to the European Championship semifinals.
That’s not just a reference to the fact he has made only two Premier League appearances — both as a substitute — for Chelsea this season. A grand total of 89 minutes.
Or the fact that he will be playing for Italy against Spain at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday only because of a serious injury to left back Leonardo Spinazzola, one of the best players at Euro 2020, near the end of the win over Belgium in the quarterfinals.
No, Emerson’s unlikely journey to the biggest match of his life can be charted back to the start of the century, when he was a kid playing soccer on the beach with his brother in the Brazilian port city of Santos.
The life-changing move to Italy — and the subsequent switch of nationality — was still years away. At that time, Emerson was just having a fun time, living near the beach and going surfing and skateboarding when not blossoming as a soccer player.
After playing 5-a-side with two small teams in the area, he moved to Santos — famous for being the club of Brazil great Pele — to play 11-a-side first as a striker, then a central midfielder then, randomly, as a left back.
“It was meant to be for one game,” Emerson recalled, “but I played well there.”
A fulltime contract followed and, before long, a move to Europe to play on loan for Palermo, a club on the Italian island of Sicily. That enabled Emerson, who had just turned 20, to live the kind of life he had in Brazil, with the sea, the sun and the climate.
Kind of, anyway. Because the transition as a soccer player wasn’t so straightforward.
“In Brazil, it’s always about attacking, always one-on-one, dribbling, this kind of thing,” Emerson said. “Then, when I arrived in Italy, it was just tactics, tactics, tactics — every day, tactics — and at first I struggled to understand Italian football.”
An anterior cruciate ligament injury in 2017 at his second Italian club, Roma, was another obstacle for Emerson, keeping him out for seven months.
And since his move to Chelsea in January 2018, he has only played 32 games in the Premier League over 3 1/2 years. This season, his only minutes in the league came as a substitute for Ben Chilwell against Newcastle and West Ham, and he has made only seven starts in all competitions.
Being an unused substitute in the Champions League final — Chelsea beat Manchester City 1-0 in Porto in May — was hardly surprising, even if it didn’t stop him from collecting a winner’s medal.
“If you are not playing much (for your club), you naturally have to train a bit more, work harder, so when the chance comes around, you are in your best form,” he said before Euro 2020. “And that’s what I did, because in the national team you need to be at your peak physical condition."
Indeed, Italy coach Roberto Mancini hasn’t been put off by Emerson’s lack of game time for Chelsea, regularly starting him at left back over the last two years.
Spinazzola came into the European Championship as first choice after an impressive season for Roma, but the Achilles tendon injury he sustained in the 2-1 win over Belgium on Friday has again opened the door for Emerson.
He will likely start in the final, too, if Italy gets there.
“Emerson and Leonardo are two different players, but two great players,” Italy midfielder Nicola Barella said Sunday. “I don’t see anything to worry about.
“You can’t give advice to Emerson because he has just won the Champion League. He plays for a great team. And he has played a lot with us so there are no concerns, just confidence in Emerson.”
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press