“Either you do things seriously, or you don’t do them at all.” – Gennaro Gattuso
In Italian it is translated to “indossare il cuore sulla tua manica”. A bit long-winding and not really among the cliché foreign language phrases that are shoved into articles about someone notable and of high regard, but all the same, back in a language universally spoken, it means “wear your heart on your sleeve”. Something A.C. Milan legend Gennaro Gattuso does not fail in adhering to. If fighting for a cause means putting everything on the line, then be sure that this stout, rugged-faced bearded soldier will be one of the first on the front line to lead. Gennaro Gattuso defines the term ‘destroyer’ when talking about Italian football, and is synonymous with the club he has cried, sweated and bled for within the past 13 years that he has had the stitched badge emblazoned on the famous black and red stripes. His retirement is impending, but undoubtedly he is one of the most highly regarded defensive midfielders to have ever graced, or rather lunged into, the beautiful game.
Born and raised in the small town and commune of Corigliano Calabro, almost thirty miles northeast of Cosenza, Gennaro Ivan Gattuso took a while to get his football career off the ground. His long journey started in Umbria, further north than his birthplace and with A.C. Perugia Calcio who reside in the fourth tier of Italian football. He spent roughly five years with the club from 1990 until 1995 as the club continued their campaign in returning to the glorious days of the late 70’s where they finished runners-up in the Serie A to il Rossoneri, A.C. Milan. That was subsequently followed with a fall from the top flight as they found themselves relegated in 1981, second from bottom and several points adrift from safety with today’s more respectable Udinese Calcio surviving the drop. But during the mid-90’s Gattuso would slowly be integrated into the first team with cameo appearances over the course of two years giving him the opportunity to show what he is capable of. Within a short space of time he had made ten appearances altogether as they returned to Serie B, the second division in the professional Italian league system before slowly starting to slip back to where they came from due to a controversial decision by the chairman, Luciano Gaucci, to replace Giovanni Galeone with Nevio Scala – this led to a panic within the club ranks but still managed to get promoted via the playoffs system and spend the next six years in Serie A.
But it was in 1997 that Scotland would come calling in the form of Glasgow Rangers and joined the Gers on a free transfer. With his mother being Scottish herself, the decision was partly made easier as a result and the other being that he would be under the stewardship of legendary coach Walter Smith. In that season the blue Glaswegians finished runners-up to fierce rivals Celtic, reach the latter stages of both domestic cups in the Scottish Cup and the League Cup, whilst their furthest in Europe being the first round of the renamed UEFA Cup, losing 2-1 twice to Racing Club de Strasbourg whilst the Bhoys bowed out to Liverpool on away goals following a 2-2 draw at Celtic Park.
Within that season Gattuso would experience the departure of Walter Smith in mid-May as he stepped down from his role to then be followed up by a spell in the Premier League with Everton in Merseyside. Dick Advocaat steered the ship until accepting managerial duties of his nation’s national team, Holland, in the build-up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup being held in Japan and South Korea for the first time ever in the international competition’s history. During his spell in charge however, he found little space for a then 24-year-old Gennaro, consistently playing him out of his beloved holding midfield position and instead in the right back slot. Eventually he grew tiresome of the Italian and shipped him back off to Italy in the form of Salernitana, a newly promoted side that were looking to bolster their squad for the new season. He transferred to the Salernese for a fee of £4million, and played 25 times in the space of just under a year.
Nonetheless they were relegated with a point less than Gattuso’s former club Perugia and a poorer goal difference of just four, ironically enough. Moreover, they qualified for the second round of the now-extinct 1999 UEFA Intertoto Cup as well following the renounce of several teams and at that expense were able to garner extra financial income as a result. Regardless of such they were eliminated in the third round after emerging victorious over obscure Macedonian outfit Pobeda in a 1-0 win at home before being crushed by Turkish club Trabzonspor in spite of winning the first leg away from home 2-1. They were then defeated 3-1 by the Süper Lig at Stadio Renato Curio. Nice run though.
Then A.C. Milan turned their eye to the five-foot-nine Italian and poached him from Salernitana for £8million in a bid to strengthen the areas around prized asset Andrea Pirlo, who needed cover in the midfield, with the aging of Thomas Helveg, Leonardo Araújo, Zvonimir Boban and Demetrio Albertini obviously becoming a concern to then Alberto Zaccheroni (who would then be later replaced by Carlo Ancelotti not so long later). Reaching their thirties, their £8million buy was just 25 and looking to prove himself somewhere. Having not had the best of luck at clubs before and spending on average a season and a bit with his last three, this would hopefully be the one that would propel him into regular and first team football. Of course, being bought for such amount of money has it’s natural expectancy that one would perform, and so that tag was placed on Gennaro’s head.
And so Gattuso dutifully performed. The young boy from the south of Italy, already having been abroad before the age of 24 and having spent time at a club whose expectations are to topple their local rivals year in and year out, not only was a consistent and prominent player in Ancelotti’s plans, but also a great move tactically for a man that would be heading into a job having just managed his then-to-be employers Juventus F.C. as they finished second in the league to S.S. Lazio with a point to spare. Milan however finished third and wanted to continue the success that they had tasted from the season prior.
It provided tactical freedom to Ancelotti because the rarity of a good holding midfielder cannot be stressed further without one becoming tired and agitated by the lack of them. The system Ancelotti favourites is the diamond 4-4-2 formation, or better known as the 4-1-2-1-2. Gattuso played in the centre of that formation with the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Massimo Ambrosini and even David Beckham in his short spell with the Italians on loan, rotating with the regista Andrea Pirlo in the process.
Of course at the time Pirlo was regarded as one of, if not, the best in the world as a defensive midfielder and a deep-lying playmaker whose long range passes were so accurate and pinpoint that it would requires two players to charge him at one just to stop him from being able to ping these passes up to the forward who played in front of him – it was almost normal for that to be in the opposition’s game plan and probably still is today. But what was a concern was the fact that he lacked protection from his midfield. A player in a defensive midfield position doesn’t usually excel in passing, but as it is Andrea Pirlo, the tables turn. In their best years, the talismanic partnership of Pirlo and Gattuso would dominate the centre of the park on home soil, in Europe travelling around the continent and on the world stage for the Italy national team. Rotation of roles as Pirlo would roam forward as Gattuso held the fort in midfield, it would be significant in Milan’s quest for European silverware, something they had not won since 1994 and were seeking their sixth title.
Ancelotti’s superb managerial skills and tactical knowledge of the game combined with one of the strongest Milanese sides in the club’s history led to multiple titles and awards that now stand prestigiously in their trophy cabinet, in the cauldron known as San Siro. Maldini, Nesta, Shevchenko, Inzaghi and others, as well as that indispensable midfield in the period of 2001 to 2007, garnered two UEFA Champions League titles against Bianconeri, Juventus funnily enough, and in the re-match of that famous night in Istanbul, defeating Liverpool in the final to win their seventh European title, whilst clinching their seventeenth league title to proudly don the Scudetto emblem once more and win the Coppa Italiana, Italian equivalent of the FA Cup as we know it here in England. Glorious years that loyal Milan fans will never forget.
Then the next FIFA World Cup rolled around and following the heartbreak of 2002 where Italy lost in extra time to a golden goal in the 117th minute to the co-hosts themselves, South Korea, Azzuri were out for revenge, and they were back with a defining vengeance. Marcello Lippi lead his national squad to a near-perfect qualification campaign with seven wins, two draws and their only defeat coming away against Slovenia, and gaining passage to the 2006 FIFA World Cup hosted by Germany with a group consisting of Ghana, Czech Republic, and the United States. Italy won two out of three of their games and drew one against the U.S. to then be drawn against Australia in the round of sixteen. The Italians won by a goal to nil through a penalty in the ninety fifth minute of injury time, scored by Francesco Totti, and get past the hurdle they fell to four years prior. Australia were devastated, but Azzuri did not mind.
Next they were handed Ukraine to which they had little trouble in defeating as the boys in blue and yellow were brushed aside 3-0 through Gianluca Zambrotta and a Totti double. The semi finals crept around and it would be Germany, the hosts, that would face Lippi and his squad of silverware hungry players. At this point, Gattuso had appeared in almost every single game leading up to the big game at the Westfalenstadion. He appeared in a midfield consisting of club mate Andrea Pirlo, Mauro Camoranesi and Simone Perotta against a German midfield that had Michael Ballack, Sebastian Kehl, Tim Borowski and Bernd Schneider. Both had a playmaker and a destroyer, with Gattuso coming up against a Bayern Munich player that had already signed for Chelsea in May of that year on a free transfer.
As the Italian national anthem was blared out in a 56,000 capacity stadium, as you would expect, Gennaro sang passionately with his arms draped around team mates and was even on a caution for a suspension as the accumulation of bookings was slowly taking it’s toll. Overall he generally played well, showing his frustration, confusion and great ability to tackle throughout the entire two hours of the match as Germany were eventually eliminated following two very, very late goals from Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti in the 119th and 120th minutes respectively to book a date with France in the final of the grandest stage in the world of football, hosted in the modern arena of Olympiastadion, Berlin.
And as the final came two goals scored by both sides in the first twenty minutes of the game by Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi – who would infamously go onto have an incident with each other that forever scars the career of Zizou – meant that the game would not be able to find a winner through the full ninety minutes and the extra thirty added on. Yet again Italy would not be able to defeat their opponents during normal time and could not finish the job during the half an hour on top of that. It came down to penalties instead. Despite Gattuso never being given the opportunity to score from twelve yards out for his country in the World Cup final, his team mates converted all of their penalties whilst David Trezeguet crucially missed his against Gianluigi Buffon, thundering it onto the underside of the crossbar and out, resorting to a head-in-hands pose, knowing that he should have scored it. Everyone knew it. Fabio Grosso scored the winning penalty and Italy had become world champions for the fifth time in their history. Elated, Gattuso celebrated by taking off his shorts and parading around on the pitch until he was forced to either put them back on or leave the pitch – either way, it didn’t seem to matter as he had become a world champion with twenty two other men from the same country as him. He had served his nation well.
With it came individual accolades such as the annual FIFA World Cup Team of the Tournament with him being picked amongst fellow countrymen Pirlo and Totti, whilst former foes in Vieira, Zidane and Ballack to make up the nine-man midfield that were selected. With that also came the FIFA Top 10 Players and arriving back home to be rewarded for his service abroad with an Italian order as fourth officer. Gattuso has not been given many personal accolades through his career and in fact has never really been amongst the top tier of players in the world in accordance to UEFA or FIFA for things such as European and world midfielder or player of the year. Saddening, but regardless of such, some would argue that he did not really fully deserve to be spoken in the same breath as the elite players of the world stage. Others argue that he doesn’t need personal accolades such as European and world player of the year to justify his quality – as it is stated in taking up the role of a defensive midfielder. He will still be forever remembered.
And now that he has recently started to begin talks about retirement and hinting at current Milan boss Massimiliano Allegri that he must either be a part of his plans for the 2012-13 season or he will not renew his contract and consider retirement. Strong stance as usual from the little gladiator, 34 years old is still the new 28 in Italy, but not for him, it’s either stay in or get out. He is probably hoping that it is not the latter.
Sunrise, sunset. Gattuso has struggled to get to where he is, controversy has followed him throughout and his actions have smeared the badge of his club a number of times, for both club and country (notably the incident with Joe Jordan in the 2011 UEFA Champions League) but few can doubt his tenacity, bravery, grit and determination to demand the cause reaching no end other than victory. He is evidently a winner, the trophies, medals and accolades prove it. Forever lined up with the greats such as Maldini, Pirlo, Inzaghi and Nesta, among a hall of legends, and globally respected, Gattuso resides in no. 98 on The Tireless Midfielder’s library of the 100 greatest midfielders of all-time.
“There is little to say after that performance.” – Gennaro Gattuso