Caught up in a midfield logjam during their 2010 FIFA World Cup™ opener against Paraguay, Italy were looking short of attacking ideas as time slowly ebbed away. It was only when Simone Pepe entered the fray that Gli Azzurri finally began to put consistent pressure on the South American side’s goal, and the midfielder ended the match as Italy’s brightest performer.
Pepe’s talent has never been in doubt, ever since he was tipped to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Francesco Totti, when still in the youth ranks at Roma. Yet despite being nicknamed ‘Tottino’ (Little Totti), the now 26-year-old slipped behind Daniele de Rossi in the Giallorossi pecking order and never represented the club at senior level. “Why didn’t Roma keep me?” he said recently. “Perhaps because Pepe hadn’t matured as much as De Rossi had at the time.” Clearly struggling to make the grade at the capital club, he was loaned out first to Lecco, where he contested four games, before a similar deal took him to third-tier Teramo in 2002. “I didn’t want to go to Serie C, but in the end it was one of the most important experiences in my life. It did me so much good.”
Keen to claw his way back to the elite, Pepe signed for Serie B outfit Palermo the following year, and his speed, dribbling skills and crossing ability quickly caught the eye. He nonetheless remained inconsistent and lacked physical presence, so his stay in Sardinia was interrupted by a loan stint with Piacenza in 2004/05. That proved to be his breakthrough campaign, and with 13 goals from 32 matches under his belt he returned to Palermo to find the club now installed in the top flight.
Pepe’s return proved fleeting and during the winter transfer window he swapped Palermo for Udinese, only to discover his new employers were far from lacking in attacking options. Restless and determined to prove his worth at the highest level, he joined Cagliari on loan and made an instant impression during the 2006/07 season.
Still as talented as ever, but now hardened by experience, he made his way back to Udinese with every intention of pursuing his route to glory. “When I came back from Cagliari, I was seventh choice up front, but I was still able to become a starter,” he said, adamant that desire played just as central a role in his success as skill. Now firmly back on the right track, he proved himself to be one of the finest midfielders in Italy, piling on goals and assists as the years went by and adding a physical dimension to his natural style based on speed and technique. In fact, the winger became known for racking up just as many kilometres running back to help out in defence as he did racing forward to look for openings.
Those qualities did not go unnoticed by Marcello Lippi, back in the Azzurri saddle after UEFA EURO 2008, and Pepe was soon able to celebrate his senior international debut, having earlier represented his country at every age group along the way. The Udinese man’s flexibility as a former striker converted into a winger was particularly attractive to a coach attempting to introduce new blood, and the newcomer quickly appreciated his new surroundings. “Lippi is able to pass his message on by using the words that will touch us the deepest,” he said. “Italy’s strength is having someone like him at the helm.”
Pepe went on to compete at the FIFA Confederations Cup and three qualifiers for South Africa 2010, while continuing to shine for his club as they discovered European club competition. As it turned out, the Stadio Friuli side only just about managed to stave off relegation on the domestic scene, but Pepe himself enjoyed a perfect end to the campaign with the news that he would be heading to the global showcase quickly followed by a deal taking him to one of the world’s most legendary outfits. “In the space of just a month, I’ve had two dreams come true – playing at a World Cup and signing for Juventus, the most prestigious team in Italy,” he explained.
After his fine display against Paraguay, he could yet fulfil a third dream by starting a match for his country on the greatest stage of all. Next up for the Group F favourites are New Zealand in Nelspruit on Sunday. “In a World Cup, every match is difficult,” he said. “Anyone who thinks it will be a stroll is kidding himself.” Never one to advance at walking pace, Pepe will be hoping to sustain his rapid rise as the competition unfolds, with zero plans to stop between now and 11 July.