He made the local news on 15 July 1985. Weighing in at a mammoth 5.1 kilos (11.2 pounds), the new born baby was the centre of attention for quite some time in the pretty Puglia town of San Cesario di Lecce.  Less than two decades on, Graziano Pelle, 1.94 metres and growing, is making world headlines after his goals helped secure Italy's U-20 team a spot in the quarter-final of the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005.

Thanks to Pelle's strikes, two in the decisive third group match against Canada and the second in the 3-1 Round of 16 victory versus USA, the Azzurrini will face Morocco for a historic place in the semi-finals on Friday.

"This would be a huge achievement for us even if our journalists expect us to come first in every competition," says the Italian striker.

It all seems a world away from the dejected figures walking away from a disjointed performance to derisory headlines in Italy's unforgiving press after their second successive loss in the competition, 2-1 to Syria, just a week ago.

"There was a lot of criticism," he admits from the squad's Utrecht hotel. "They (Italian media) felt we had let our nation down but they didn't know the difficulties we had to face. Clubs wouldn't release players during the season for friendly games, so our coach couldn't test them. The squad met on Sunday evening 5 June and on the Monday morning we left for the Netherlands. If you compare that with other teams like Colombia, who had 40 days to prepare, it explains a few things."

Pressure
Italy did not make the semi-finals of the UEFA U-19 European Championship last year but, still, the Italians and many observers expected a better start. In the third game it all came together.

"In Italy there is always pressure," he answers philosophically. "But we were convinced of the individual ability of each player, and thought if we could gel, then the sky would be the limit.

"We got to know one anther and as the team improved, it became easier for me to know when and where to expect passes and to score goals."

Pelle used his head, twice, versus Canada to help his side to a 4-1 win and a spot, as one of the third place teams, in the Round of 16. Against their North American neighbours, it was his left foot that did the damage after Italy had successfully soaked up U.S. pressure.

"Our tactics are a bit more advanced than other countries," says the 89-kilo player. "If defenders defend well, we forwards grow in confidence. And if you're tactically well positioned, then it's easier for us to score goals. That's what happened against the Americans."

Played as a lone striker, it was a commanding and mature performance by the Lecce player. While the Americans were creating chances at one end, Pelle was responding by causing mayhem at the other, drifting intelligently between defenders, winning everything in the air and revealing a fine touch and fast feet.

"I'm comfortable with the ball on the ground. I don't consider myself just a tall striker," states Italy's number 9, whose father, a player himself, used to bring home videos of Marco van Basten to show his young son.

In the past at least, Italian strikers have tended to be on the short side. Coaches, notably Giovanni Trapattoni's choice of Marco Delvecchio at the last FIFA World Cup, have a weakness for a big striker, often used as an alternative tactical weapon.

But taller players is just one of a number of trends going on in Italian football. Another, perhaps even more significant, is the number of talents emerging from the poorer South. Lecce, where Pelle spearheaded successive junior teams to national championships, rely on the success of their youth system, while in Sicily, where the Puglian will play until the end of the year, football is undergoing a renaissance with Palermo and Messina performing well in the top flight.

"Most of our players (U-20) are from the South," the 19-year-old smiles. "Supporters are warm there and a great joy for football exists. It's no surprise that teams are doing well."

Home town
Such is the speed of change that Pelle himself believes the time is approaching when the region will cease to sell to the more fashionable clubs from the North.

"I'm from Lecce so for me it's important to play for my home town," he states of his future intentions. "Lecce is known for bringing players through the youth ranks so it's a good place to start for me. Football is improving a lot in the South so in a few years time maybe the standard will even up and I'll stay there."

For the moment though, Pelle is focused on success, something understood by all Italians.
 
"The most important thing is the result. If you don't win, you never feel good," he says semi-joking. "If we reach the final, I prefer to win it performing badly than lose it playing beautifully because if you don't win nobody will remember you."

Even if the old ladies of San Cesario have let recollection of the magic birth slip their memory, the skills and strengths of this Italian forward will take some forgetting - whatever the score on Friday.