Jorginho almost quit football at Hellas Verona… now he is on the cusp of Euro 2020 history


These days, Riccardo Prisciantelli works in the food business. He deals primarily with fish. For a time, though, he looked after wolves. Well, one lone wolf, anyway.

Back then he was sporting director for Hellas Verona in Italy’s third tier. But money was tight so alongside recruitment, responsibilities included housing and the occasional hand-out, too.

In late 2007, one scrawny teenager was particularly in need. Then only 15, he had arrived from Brazil carrying nothing but a dream. Tonight, Jorginho will walk out at Wembley, the beating heart of Italy’s reawakening.

Jorginho spent some of his early days in Italy living in an ancient monastery from the age of 15

Jorginho spent some of his early days in Italy living in an ancient monastery from the age of 15 

The 29-year-old has been a key ingredient of arguably the best midfield at Euro 2020

The 29-year-old has been a key ingredient of arguably the best midfield at Euro 2020

‘Other managers said that on the pitch, he was a tiger, or a lion,’ said Prisciantelli. ‘But to me, he was a wolf. Because tigers and lions, you can find them at the circus. Wolves? No. They remain to fight until the end. Like he does.’

Like he had to. From Brazil’s south coast to the Azzurri, via Verona and the confines of an ancient monastery — where Jorginho spent some of his early days in Italy.

‘I am ashamed to have sent him to live with the monks, life was very hard for him,’ said Prisciantelli. ‘Jorginho has made his suffering his strength.’

These are the foundations England must topple. Prisciantelli eventually turned his back on football. Fortunately, that boy never gave up.

‘I have never known a guy who in life has ever suffered as much as Jorginho,’ said Prisciantelli.

‘Another guy would have given up, 100 per cent. He had already decided in his heart that he would become a footballer. He has immense willpower.’

Earlier this year, the 29-year-old helped Chelsea win the Champions League, club football’s greatest prize.

On Sunday, more European glory beckons. Jorginho secured Italy’s spot at Wembley with a nerveless penalty against Spain. 

Two nations held their breath in the split-second when he hovered over the ball, Unai Simon toppled to his right and the midfielder did not waver, stroking the ball to the goalkeeper’s left. What pressure?

The ex-Napoli man tasted Champions League glory in May when Chelsea beat Manchester City

The ex-Napoli man tasted Champions League glory in May when Chelsea beat Manchester City

Jorginho’s 14-year journey to this point began in Imbituba. He flew to Sao Paulo, to Frankfurt and finally to Italy.

Europe had long been a dream — it was the home of his great-great-grandfather. But a first attempt to retrace those roots ended in problems with his paperwork and a teary phone call home. 

So at 14, Jorginho joined an academy project in Brusque, where he felt the rough edge of football’s vast underbelly. 

Occasionally the food wouldn’t change for days. In winter, the showers had no hot water.

It was some change of scene when he landed in Verona. For 18 months, the teenager lived in a monastery alongside monks and other academy prospects. Without his family, he was paid 20 euros a week.

‘It was the only safe accommodation,’ Prisciantelli says. ‘He had food and lodging. From time to time Rafael Pinheiro, Verona’s goalkeeper, and I gave him some money — €20, €30, €50. But because he was not registered with the club, he could not receive a salary.’

Jorginho almost quit football after he was initially paid 20 euros a week at Hellas Verona

Jorginho almost quit football after he was initially paid 20 euros a week at Hellas Verona

Those money worries eventually boiled over. The teenager called home, ready to quit the sport. His mother, Maria Tereza Freitas, gave that idea short shrift and Italian football eventually repaid her faith.

Prisciantelli crossed paths with Jorginho courtesy of a mutual contact in South America but it was Hellas Verona’s masseur who first alerted him to the midfielder’s quality.

‘Even then he was thin and small,’ said Prisciantelli. ‘But as a player from an early age he was fantastic.’

To help Jorginho add bulk Prisciantelli set up a makeshift gym. ‘He would arrive at dawn and continue until we forced him to leave,’ he said recently.

Helping the midfielder’s football develop required more clandestine methods. ‘Every now and then I secretly took him to train with the first team,’ the Italian explained.

‘As he was not yet registered, he could not train and I risked my career if they did some checks. But the boy had to play — I understood that he would become a great footballer.’

Jorginho stuck it out at Verona on his mother's advice despite some trials and tribulations

Jorginho stuck it out at Verona on his mother’s advice despite some trials and tribulations

He then linked up with Maurizio Sarri at Napoli before joining his countryman for Chelsea

He then linked up with Maurizio Sarri at Napoli before joining his countryman for Chelsea

It was there, too, that Jorginho first met Maurizio Sarri, with whom his career has become tightly entwined.

‘He saw Jorginho and fell in love with him,’ Prisciantelli has said.

Come 2010, however, the midfielder was struggling for game time. He went on loan to the fourth tier and then, after returning to Verona, was shunted around — right-back, centre-back, No 10. 

Eventually, Jorginho told his agent he wanted to leave. A return to fourth-tier football beckoned until a team-mate picked up an injury and the door swung back open. ‘Everything changed after that,’ Jorginho recently told the Telegraph.

In 2014, Napoli came calling. That led to a reunion with Sarri, who later brought him to Chelsea. 

For a while at Stamford Bridge, Jorginho was considered the stooge for Sarri’s turgid football. 

Jorginho has established himself under Thomas Tuchel after a tough few years at the club

Jorginho has established himself under Thomas Tuchel after a tough few years at the club

Last season, however, he grew into one of Thomas Tuchel’s trusted lieutenants and now, in his first major international tournament, he has become a cog in Roberto Mancini’s revolution.

A few years back, the Italy coach said players born outside the country did not ‘deserve’ to play for the Azzurri. 

Mancini eventually changed his mind, while Prisciantelli’s opinion of Jorginho has never wavered — ‘I am very proud of the player, but above all of the man.’

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