Italy's Michael Folorunsho walks on the pitch at the end...

Italy's Michael Folorunsho walks on the pitch at the end of a Group B match between Italy and Albania at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament in Dortmund, Germany, Saturday, June 15, 2024. Credit: AP/Andreea Alexandru

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — Late bloomer Michael Folorunsho hadn’t even played in Italy’s top division this time last year. Now he’s representing Italy at the European Championship.

The 26-year-old Folorunsho made his tournament debut Saturday as a stoppage-time substitute in Italy’s opening 2-1 win over Albania.

It's a dream turned reality for the player who only made his Serie A debut last August.

“I think it was inconceivable 12 months ago,” Folorunsho said Wednesday. “I don’t think I could have ever imagined that a year on, I’d be playing at the European Championship.”

Folorunsho, an attack-minded midfielder, scored five goals for Hella Verona last season after joining the team on loan from Napoli. He played more league games, 34, than any other outfield player on the team.

Physically strong, combative and versatile, Folorunsho has a powerful strike and is good in the air, too.

“I never stopped dreaming. But that now drives me forward because once you get to a certain level, that’s when the going gets really tough. You have to work even harder to make sure you stay there,” said Folorunsho, who spent previous loan spells at Serie B teams Bari, Reggina and Pordenone. Bari was in Serie C when Napoli initially sent him there in 2019.

Folorunsho was speaking beside Italy coach Luciano Spalletti before the team’s Euro 2024 clash with Spain in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday. Spalletti was familiar with Folorunsho from their time together at Napoli and it was Spalletti who called him to the Italy squad for the first time in March, though the player had to wait until June before making his debut in a friendly win over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Though born in Rome, Folorunsho could also have played for Nigeria. He was reportedly overlooked by then-Nigeria coach José Peseiro for his Africa Cup of Nations squad.

Folorunsho said he’d be willing to play in goal if it meant helping Italy, the defending champion, win the European Championship again.

As for his relatively late ascent to Italy’s top division and international soccer, Folorunsho said he felt it was “only right” that he had made it at 26.

“Every footballer has their own path. I’ve had my own route in the game and I wouldn’t swap it with anyone’s. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved,” Folorunsho said. “A number of people thought that I wasn’t ready. I accepted their decision and I got my head down and kept grafting to make it here today. I feel ready now. I feel ready to embark on challenges which appeared too great for me in the past. So, I’d like to dedicate this to my mum and my family because they’ve always supported me.”

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