No Chelsea player will understand how far Emerson Palmieri has come better than Marcos Alonso, the very man he will fight against for a place in the starting lineup on the left flank.
Few would have imagined that Alonso wpuld become such an important star at Stamford Bridge when was struggling to get a game at the beginning of his Bolton career, or sat on the bench for Fiorentina in 2013. Emerson has also had to overcome significant doubts regarding his quality before finally getting an opportunity to prove his worth.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) January 30, 2018
In fact, 2016-17 was the first season in the 23-year-old’s career where he was considered a starter. For many years Emerson was underrated, underappreciated, and simply discarded most of the time. Expectations had always been outrageously low, which is quite surprising when you consider he was a star the Brazilian under-17 national team in 2011 alongside the likes of Lucas Piazon.
Piazon had already been signed by Chelsea at the time (though his career never developed after a series of disappointing loan spells) but Emerson was not linked to any European clubs back then. For some reason, he was not seen as a legitimate option, even at his beloved hometown club Santos.
Emerson’s route to the top shows that pure luck, or lack thereof, is often the difference between success and failure for a footballer. Sometimes, everything is left to chance. Take his first European adventure on loan at Palermo, for example: it only happened because he managed to catch an eye of a scout who had come to Brazil for entirely another reason in 2013.
Santos had put the left-back in the shop window but didn’t intend to let him play; local legend Leo was way ahead of him in the pecking order even before Chile international Eugenio Mena was signed. When Franco Ceravolo, the chief scout for Guangzhou Evergrande, arrived to sign Rene Junior for his club, he was casually advised to take a look at Emerson too. Ceravolo then advised his old friend, Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini, to sign him.
The season in Sicily in 2014-15 proved to be disastrous, however. The Brazilian was limited to nine substitute appearances, and was eventually discarded by Zamparini, who refused to make the move permanent, stating: “Emerson never liked me, and we didn’t trust him. He lacks personality.”
Remarkably, though, the last of those nine games turned out to be vital for the player’s future.
On the final day of the season in May 2015, Emerson overcame injury and used painkillers to play 31 minutes of a 2-1 win at the Olimpico against Roma. He may have only managed a small part of the match, but his dribbles against Radja Nainggolan and Alessandro Florenzi impressed Roma sporting director Walter Sabatini in the stands.
“I liked the way he moves, got a great offer from his agent and decided to take it,” Sabatini remembered.
Without that, Emerson may have disappeared but that fixture got him a loan to a top club, even if fans and pundits failed to understand the reasons behind the deal.
It was easy to ask how a bench-warmer for Palermo would be relevant at Roma. That question remained unanswered, as Emerson barely featured during 2015-16. He managed to come on a few times as a substitute after Luciano Spalletti replaced Rudi Garcia as a coach in February 2016 — and even scored in the 3-1 win at Milan — but hardly made an impression.
He got his share of headlines in August, but not in the circumstances he would have liked. After a 1-1 draw away against Porto in the Champions League qualifying playoffs, Roma were considered clear favourites ahead of the return leg at home.
But, after the visitors took an early lead, Daniele De Rossi was sent off in the first half and Spalletti gambled on Emerson as a defensive substitution. The decision backfired spectacularly because the youngster put in a terrible foul on Jesus Corona, nearly breaking his leg. A deserved red card followed; Roma had no chance to come back with nine men and were thrashed 3-0.
That mistake cost Roma a fortune, and it was obvious that Emerson had no future at the club after such a catastrophe. Obvious to everyone but Spalletti, that is.
The coach held talks with Emerson and stunned everyone by keeping faith in him. When Mario Rui and Thomas Vermaelen were injured and Juan Jesus was out of form, the unwanted and disliked Brazilian suddenly became the best option in the starting lineup. Not only that — he was a revelation. It was a true fairytale, as Emerson turned into one of the best left-backs in Serie A.
One of his first games came in the 2-0 derby win against Lazio, when he outplayed his former Santos teammate Felipe Anderson and dedicated the achievement to his friends at Chapecoense who were killed in the plane crash a week earlier.
“He is a boy who wasn’t given a chance in the past, but took responsibility in a complicated game,” Spalletti said afterwards.
From then on there was no stopping Emerson, who was soon signed permanently. Dedicated and disciplined in defence and flamboyant going forward like his idol Marcelo, he resembled Alex Sandro of Juventus. Emerson even scored a long-range screamer at Villarreal in Europa League with his weaker right foot. Such was his impact that Italy coach Giampiero Ventura used the player’s Italian origins and called him up to the national team in May.
The defender made a tough choice and abandoned his hopes of representing Brazil, but luck was not on his side again. Just before joining up with the Azzurri, Emerson tore knee ligaments in the last Serie A fixture — the dramatic 3-2 win over Genoa was the farewell game of Francesco Totti, and Emerson was on crutches when he said goodbye before being consoled by the legendary captain.
This season didn’t start well, either. Spalletti left for Inter, and new coach Eusebio Di Francesco put faith in veteran defender Aleksandar Kolarov, signed from Manchester City, while Emerson recovered from injury. The Brazilian has been healthy for two months but has only played 15 minutes of Serie A football because the Serbian is doing such an outstanding job.
That is where Chelsea come in. Emerson’s hard work, never-say-die attitude and tactical nous make him a good fit for Antonio Conte, and that is why Chelsea are have paid around £22 million for his services.
A few eyebrows will be raised, but that was the case when Alonso arrived from Fiorentina as well. The Spaniard silenced his critics very quickly, and Emerson will be looking to do exactly that. He is used to doubters.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.