As Italy revelled in their opening 2-1 victory against England, one question kept recurring among their vanquished Group D rivals: "Who is Matteo Darmian?" The full-back was one of the stars of the show, yet he had seemed to come out of nowhere to help La Squadra Azzurra kick off with a win. Perhaps the real question ought to be why such a versatile, gifted defender, and a rare gem in a tough position to fill, had been allowed to slip through so many nets since turning professional in 2007.
"If you'd told me eight months ago that I'd be playing in the World Cup, I would have burst out laughing," commented the quiet 24-year-old, who is almost the polar opposite of the stereotypical modern footballer. "It was a childhood dream, but, honestly, I didn't think I'd get here. Since getting my first call-up, though, I've given everything while staying humble. I want to make the most of this opportunity."
Born to a family with Armenian roots in the Lombardy town of Legnano, Darmian got his first taste of the game like so many local youngsters: by wearing his shoes out and putting holes in his trousers on the main square in Rescaldina, where his father coached the local football team. His first real break came when he was spotted by Beniamino Abate, a former goalkeeper tasked with scouting Lombardy for young talent by AC Milan. Coincidentally, Abate is also the father of Rossoneri defender Ignazio Abate, Darmian's direct rival for a starting berth with La Nazionale.
Long before Brazil 2014, Darmian entered Milan's youth academy at the age of 14. His Serie A debut followed three years later on 19 May 2007, when Carlo Ancelotti sent him on from the bench to replace Giuseppe Favalli against Udinese. The newcomer initially operated in the centre of defence before gradually being used more regularly on the right, and he soon displayed similar effectiveness at left-back as well. But while that versatility ought to have added to Darmian's value, his career was already beginning to unravel.
Nobody at Milan could fault Darmian, particularly given his excellent technique and impressive bursts of speed, but he simply did not fit into the club's plans. In five seasons between 2006 and July 2012, he made just 15 Serie A appearances, with much of that period spent on loan at Padova, Palermo and Torino. He refused to let his head drop, however, not least since he remained a regular for Italy at various youth levels until 2009, and he focused on redoubling his efforts. Further disappointment nonetheless lay in store, and in summer 2012 Milan decided to release him permanently to Palermo – who immediately passed him on to Torino.
"If I'm in Brazil now, it's largely thanks to Torino coach Giampiero Ventura and President [Urbano] Cairo, who really wanted me, and the exceptional atmosphere at the club," explained Darmian following the England match. "If that hadn't been the case, I never would have had a chance like this." As it was, he was able to find stability with I Granata and rapidly forged an understanding with his team-mates, especially fellow Italy internationals Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile. The conditions were right for him to blossom at last.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli duly took note and, keen to evaluate promising young players, he called Darmian up twice for a series of trials. "Not only did he show great enthusiasm, he quickly understood what I was looking for in that position," noted Prandelli. The praise has not abated since, though Darmian rejects the suggestion that he resembles a certain Paolo Maldini at the same age. "When I was younger, I got a chance to train with him. It's too flattering a comparison for me. It's too early." Neither is he letting his head be turned by bigger clubs, refusing to listen to several offers from prestigious outfits.
For now, Darmian is fully focused on the task at hand as he lives a dream-come-true experience in Brazil. And that dream could well continue yet if Italy secure at least a point against Uruguay.