‘We were wrong’ – An ode to Graziano Pelle

By Mark Lievisse Adriaanse

When Graziano Pelle first arrived at Feyenoord, nobody expected anything other than complete failure. However, two years later, the once failed forward is likely to make a €10 million move to Southampton after completely turning around his career and becoming a hero in front of the crowd at De Kuip.

We were standing drinking a few beers and cheap vodka in some fancy nightclub in Prague – a paradise of three floors and decade old hits – when I received a text message from one of my friends, a tall guy who is banned from all football stadiums in the Netherlands for close to eternity. “Come to club James Dean!”, it said. “Big party with the investors”. The investors were the investors of Feyenoord, my club, who were playing their Europa League qualification match against Sparta Prague the day after, and we were there – of course we were, as we were following the club home and away, even abroad.

Arriving some ten minutes later, we quickly spotted one of the main investors in the club, a rich, local businessman, who had been investing in Feyenoord for years. The table in front of him was full of empty glasses, and some beer bottles from a club employee constantly bringing new drinks, how nice of him. It was at the end of August 2012, and skies were grey after successful striker John Guidetti had returned to Manchester City and no successor had been bought yet. “Hey man!” (there’s a certain moment in the night when you start addressing club investors as “hey man!”), we said to him. “Any new strikers coming up?”

It was the night we heard of Feyenoord bringing in Graziano Pelle, a good-looking Italian striker, who had failed to score goals at AZ some years earlier. Two days later, the rest of the world knew. But at this underground bar in Prague, we were the first supporters to hear about it.

Five months later. It was a cold day, but okay for a Saturday in January. In front of us, the Feyenoord team played their first match in 2013, against AGOVV Apeldoorn – who went bankrupt later that week, making it their last game ever (never forget). It was a big day. Early in the morning, news got out that Feyenoord had signed Pelle on a permanent basis, after loaning him from Parma in the first months of the season. We were wrong, everybody was wrong, even the investor, calling Pelle a “terrible striker” that warm night in Prague.

After 14 goals in 14 league games, Pelle had won the hearts and minds of basically everybody in Rotterdam and further away. He was a great striker and he had always been a great striker, to paraphrase a party-slogan from Orwell’s 1984. Football director Martin van Geel had done what needed to be done, signing Pelle for around €3 million, the first big investment in a player for years after huge financial troubles bringing the club to the brink multiple times. After Pelle was serenaded for minutes, even Van Geel got some applause that afternoon– not very common for a club director.

The story of the forward moving to Feyenoord in the summer of 2012 is no story of great scouting and successful football management. Instead, all credits should go the girlfriend of coach Ronald Koeman’s son, who spotted Pelle at a beach in Spain. After Pelle and Tim Koeman exchanged some small talk, the latter asked the Italian if he misses the Netherlands. Yes, he does, he answers. It’s the moment Tim realises he must call his dad.

Now, two years later it is likely that Pelle will leave Feyenoord, after two unbelievably productive years for a striker whose career seemed to had been boosted after the U20 World Cup in 2005, only to go on to have a completely underwhelming career in Italy and Netherlands before the move to Rotterdam at 27-years-old. With 50 Eredivisie goals in 57 matches, Pelle has one of the highest goal averages of all Feyenoord strikers, ever. Some thrilling stats if you remember that he had only scored 14 in 78 matches for AZ.

Koeman, who has left Feyenoord for the manager’s job at Southampton, wants to bring the 6’4″ beast to the Saints. “We need more players like him in the Netherlands”, Koeman stated last season after Pelle lost his charming looks when he hit a sponsor’s board and kicked down a standard for a TV camera as he stormed down the tunnel after a last minute draw against FC Twente. One week later, Pelle hit an Ajax-player with his elbow, leading to a four match suspension, huge public criticism and losing his captaincy to Jordy Clasie. But Koeman always kept believing in him, even in hard times, and gave him the trust Pelle often missed from media and even some supporters.

Bringing him to Southampton for around €10 million would be a good deal for Feyenoord, Southampton and Pelle. The striker, turning 29 in a month, has never made a secret of his wish of playing in a bigger league for a higher salary. Now, after yet another successful campaign, it seems like the right moment to leave, giving Feyenoord the possibility to ask the jackpot for him – though one can wonder if a striker with such goalscoring capacities is worth even more. Finally, Southampton need a target man after Rickie Lambert has left for Liverpool.

It’s not just his goal scoring capabilities that make Pelle a wonderful striker. It is his completeness that distinguishes him from, for example, Eredivisie topscorer Alfred Finnbogason. While Finnbogason is a great goalscorer with moderate technical skills and not a target man with great footballing qualities, Pelle plays most of the game with his back towards the opponents’ goal, receiving balls from his goalkeeper, defenders and midfielders. No striker is so strong in keeping the ball, even with multiple defenders around him, as Pelle. Take the goal he made against PSV as an example (from 12:10)

Standing with his back to the goal, he receives the ball, surrounded by four defenders. He keeps the ball on his feet, turns around, shoots and scores. Combining this quality with a great workrate, his long distance shots and his leadership is what makes him probably the best striker in the Eredivisie. Oh, and did I mention his looks?

Graziano Pelle is great and has always been great. We were wrong that night in Prague, saying “fuck off!” (how dare we?) to the investor after announcing the Pelle-deal. Oh boy, how wrong we were.

Mark Lievisse Adriaanse is a freelance journalist who writes about both politics and football. You can find him on the twitter too: @Markla94.

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