Pietro Pellegri: The 'next Messi' who is breaking Serie A records
Marco Pellegri ran a hand through his hair and reached for the phone inside his jacket pocket.
The 53-year-old was doing everything possible not to cry. But it ended up being too much for him, and he slumped into his seat in the Genoa dugout and let the emotion pour out.
Pellegri, the team's administrator, had just seen his son, 16-year-old Pietro, score his and the side's second goal of the night in a Serie A game against Lazio after coming on for Ricardo Centurion in the first half.
A dream come true for the boy's father, Marco once said that if he ever got to see Pietro play for Genoa at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris he could die happy. Consider his life fulfilled then. The pictures of Marco's sobs made headlines around the world and caused Pietro to choke up when shown to him after the game, a 3-2 defeat that condemned Genoa to their worst start in 40 years.
Suddenly it all came back to Pietro. The hours spent in the car as his dad taxied him from one game to the next. The afternoons spent standing in the wind and rain to see his boy. The young striker was overcome with emotion too. After all, this is what they had talked about all along; Pietro scoring in front of the Gradinata Nord, the stand the Genoa fans congregate in. One of their own.
The Pellegris are from Genoa. They live in Pegli, the seaside town to the west of the city where Genoa have their training ground. Marco has worked at the club for years, initially in the academy, now as team manager for the first team. His wife Marzia is from a family of Sampdoria fans. But Pietro "only ever had eyes for Genoa".
When the club were relegated to the third division in a match-fixing scandal 12 years ago, Marco Rossi, the club's talismanic captain, used to come around for dinner and play Playstation with Pellegri's boy. Rossi made 286 appearances for Genoa and remains to this day an idol of the club's fans. Pietro was only ever going to support one club: Genoa, the Grifone.
What makes his story all the more remarkable though is that, despite being so young, the best clubs in the world have been knocking on his door for years.
He could have joined Man Utd
|Pellegri is the joint-youngest player to have featured in a Serie A game, with Amedeo Amadei (both 15 years 280 days)||Pellegri is the youngest player to score two goals in a Serie A match|
|Pellegri is the third-youngest scorer in Serie A after Amadei and Gianni Rivera||He has played in four consecutive Serie A games, starting the last three|
Beppe Marotta, the general manager of Juventus, claims he first tried to sign Pietro two years ago "when nobody" knew anything about him.
This summer Inter actually agreed to pay 60m euros (£53m) for Pietro and another of Genoa's 16-year-old stars, Eddie Salcedo, only for a mix of financial fair play and the capital controls introduced by China's government to scupper the plans of owners Suning.
And on transfer deadline day, AC Milan looked to immediately reinvest the money they got from Torino for M'Baye Niang with a move for Pietro. "But we were unsuccessful," lamented chief executive Marco Fassone.
They will all try again. Some say it is too soon to be sure of Pietro's talent and the watching world has to be cautious. But Italy's Big Three don't want to be too late in recognising it either.
Genoa owner Enrico Preziosi has been talking Pietro up for a while now. "We have the new Messi," the toy-maker boasted in 2015. "He's called Pellegri." That was the year Roma said they would send Marco Borriello Genoa's way and pay a big chunk of his wages as long as they got Pietro in return.
It was also the year Genoa participated in the Manchester United Premier Cup in Salford. Pietro starred in that tournament as Genoa knocked Real Madrid out and reached the final only to lose 4-3 on penalties to Right to Dream, the African football academy, at the AJ Bell Stadium. Shortly afterwards father and son were invited by United to visit the club's Carrington training ground and watch the Reds play Chelsea at Old Trafford.
The Pellegris declined, adjudging Genoa to be the best place for Pietro's development, perhaps with the cases of Federico Macheda, Pierluigi Gollini and Davide Petrucci - who all arrived at Old Trafford with big reputations but did not make a lasting impression - still fresh in their mind.
Besides, Pietro always wished to play for Genoa and knew that sooner or later he might get his chance. The Grifone have produced 96 professionals over the past 12 years, giving debuts to players like Mattia Perin, Domenico Criscito, Stefano Sturaro, Rolando Mandragora and Stephan El Shaarawy.
What Pellegri could not have predicted, despite the belief of everybody at Genoa's academy, is the speed at which it would come.
P for precocious
Pietro made his debut in the final moments against Torino last December. Another defeat, it was the Grifone's last game before the winter break. Marco called it "a wonderful Christmas present". But it was more than that.
Pietro made history, matching a record that has stood unchallenged for almost eight decades. At 15 years and 280 days, he became the youngest player to play in Serie A, equalling Amadeo Amadei, whose first top-flight appearance came at the exact same age for AS Roma in 1937.
Pietro did not let it go to his head. The next morning he was on the phone with Rocco Manganaro [the Under-19s fitness coach] to ask if he could come to Pegli and train with them.
He would have to wait until May, and the final game of the season, for his first start. It too was a day he will not forget in a hurry because it came at a sold-out Stadio Olimpico against Roma, with the home side needing a win to be absolutely sure of automatic qualification for the Champions League. It also just so happened to be Francesco Totti's farewell game.
Three minutes in, Pietro scored and, not content with almost ruining the party, the tall, powerful centre-forward with notable acceleration, etched his name into the history books once more as Serie A's youngest goalscorer after Amadei and Gianni Rivera.
In the mixed zone afterwards, Pietro's thoughts understandably turned to Totti. Twenty five years at one club, which was the team he supported as a boy. Just imagine history repeating…
Ibra is his idol
Pietro dedicated his first goal last weekend to the Genoani. "Because I am Genoano," he reasoned. A Genoa supporter. The second was for Marco. Being Pietro, he of course broke another record. In 1931, Silvio Piola became the youngest player to score a brace in the top flight. Pellegri holds that honour now.
Who knows? Maybe one day he'll do what Totti ultimately could not and replace Piola as Serie A's all-time top scorer. His advantage is that he is a striker now at 16 - not 30, which is when Totti changed position from a deeper-lying playmaker - and, as with Gigio Donnarumma, Milan's goalkeeping wunderkind, his size and build are remarkable for his age. Pietro is already 6ft 2ins and looks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic for inspiration for his style of play.
For now, Pietro is keeping his big feet firmly on the ground. He seems very level-headed and getting carried away isn't his style. When it was put to him last Sunday that he'd be the coolest kid in school on Monday morning and could expect girls to throw themselves at him, Pietro gave the impression of having little time for the idea. "My lessons are in the afternoon and I have a private tutor… I've already got a girlfriend."
Pietro preferred to talk about his father instead, whose birth year 1964, is behind the number 64 shirt he wears. "Let's hope I make him cry again," he smiled.