The striker makes his tournament debut
7 June ~ Among their former players heading to Euro 2012, West Ham fans will be interested to see how one familiar face in particular performs in the Ukraine and Poland – if he is given the game time. At 29, Italy’s Alessandro Diamanti has left it late to make his international tournament debut. But the forward, who spent little more than a solitary season with the Hammers, remains a popular cult figure in east London. Signed by his compatriot Gianfranco Zola for around £6 million from Livorno, he was runner-up to Scott Parker as Hammer of the Year for 2009–10, with seven goals in 27 appearances.
A modest return, but in only 13 of those games did Diamanti play the full 90 minutes. And it was not so much what he did for West Ham but the way he did it. Diamanti was in the Paolo Di Canio mould as a player who could change a game with his flair, tenacity and technique.
He was doing the same thing last season in Serie A for Bologna, for whom he scored seven goals and contributed seven assists in 30 games. Now having featured for only 45 minutes in a friendly against Romania in November 2010, Diamanti is part of Italy's final 23-man squad. In his own words, it is “better late than never”. “I did everything I could to deserve this call up,” he said when quizzed over his inclusion. “I had a great season; the coach gave me this chance and now I am doing my all.”
Curiously, he is listed – wearing No 22 – as a midfielder, when West Ham fans will remember him as anything but. To say he is a wildcard in a selection that contains Mario Balotelli is testament to his ability to be what Zola called “crazy and unpredictable”. Maybe that is what Italy coach Cesare Prandelli hopes Diamanti will offer – primarily from the bench. Given his penalty record (he scored four and missed one from the spot for the Hammers) and confidence with a dead ball, don’t be surprised to see him if Italy require a change of momentum and there will certainly be few more willing to take a penalty.
“I always play with passion,” said Diamanti in one interview in his time in London. “I am a passionate man. Not just about the goals, but about the football. I try to put everything on to the field.” Anyone who saw him rip his shirt open during a 1-0 defeat to Birmingham, after seeing another free-kick edge inches over the bar, won’t argue.
Playing with passion is how he is most fondly remembered at Upton Park. In perhaps his finest hour for the team, he rose from the bench with West Ham 2-0 down at home to a Robin van Persie-inspired Arsenal to ignite an outstanding fightback. Having forced West Ham’s first when Vito Mannone could only palm a trademark free-kick onto Carlton Cole’s head, Diamanti’s sheer energy and exuberance drove his team forward with every touch, pass and fist-pumping gesture – arguing every decision with anyone who crossed his path along the way.
Diamanti ultimately sealed a euphoric comeback with a wickedly struck penalty under enormous pressure. When it was awarded, he was the first to grab the ball. Cesc Fabregas ate up minutes arguing with the referee. Then Mannone was booked for walking up to Diamanti with the intention of slowing things down further. West Ham’s No 32 was having none of the gamesmanship, though, and celebrated in typical style: proudly saluting the Bobby Moore stand up on the advertising hoardings, arms aloft.
This Italy side is supposedly a team in transition. They are largely well organised, having conceded only twice in qualification. But the 3-0 friendly loss to Russia shows just how exposed Italy can still be. How they could do with a similar performance from the man with the long blond locks when they kick-off their campaign against Spain on Sunday. Those who demanded Diamanti’s inclusion in claret and blue will certainly hope he gets the chance to prove he can be more important to his country than his shirt number suggests. Graham Willgoss