LONDON (AP) — Matteo Pessina’s goal-scoring celebration — diving face-first on the turf with his arms nearly flat by his side — has become quite a sensation back home in Italy.
The 24-year-old midfielder, who only joined his national team for the European Championship after another player was injured, scored what turned out to be the winning goal in extra time against Austria in the round of 16.
“It was the most spontaneous thing in the world. It didn’t seem real to me that it had really happened and I did the stupidest thing I could think of,” Pessina said. “I get lots of videos of people imitating it, even on the beach. It’s really wonderful.”
Not bad for someone who was playing in Italy’s third division a little over four years ago — and at times struggling to even make the team.
“There was a time, when I was in Serie C and I wasn’t playing, that I even thought about quitting. But I continued because of the love for this sport,” Pessina said Monday. “Soccer is of course my job, but for me it’s more something that I adore doing.”
Pessina’s goal at Wembley Stadium in London in the 2-1 victory was his second at Euro 2020. He also scored in the previous match, a 1-0 victory over Wales in the group stage.
“When I scored against Wales, my grandparents were waiting to head off to Sardinia and they watched the game in a bar,” Pessina said. “My grandfather told everyone I was his grandson and they offered him drinks.”
Pessina, who plays for high-scoring Italian club Atalanta, was originally left out of Italy’s 26-man squad but was a late call up following an injury to Stefano Sensi. He earned the spot by scoring his first two goals for the national team in a Euro 2020 warmup match against San Marino.
“I started as the 27th man but I didn’t think about it that much because I always felt part of this group, even as a 27th man,” Pessina said. “The coach asked me to do him the favor of staying with the group for the first few days and see how things went. Then, as you know, Stefano got injured and I was included in the squad.
“But I always felt part of this group from the first call-up. The good thing about this group is that the coach manages to make everyone feel important.”
Pessina started in the much-changed lineup against Wales, with Italy already through to the knockout stage of the tournament, and he was brought on as a substitute against Austria.
His two goals in his past two games at Euro 2020 may very well have earned him a place in the starting lineup for Friday’s quarterfinal match against the top-ranked Belgium, which beat Portugal on Sunday.
“Against Belgium it will be another really difficult match, maybe even more so. Not so much because of their physicality but also because of their quality,” Pessina said. “If we want to continue, if we want to get right to the end, we have to face the strongest teams. And at this point there are only the strongest teams.”
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