Gennaro Gattuso: Football’s great dog of war

Gennaro Gattuso: Football’s great dog of war

Artists, experts, inventors, composers, producers and virtuosos; few exist in isolation. Creative license, by design or by necessity, can camouflage or gloss over the painstaking hours of practise and relentless hard work required. The same is true for a concert pianist as it is a world-class footballer.

For over a decade, AC Milan’s lavishly staffed midfield and attack, one that propelled the club to the pinnacle of European football, rightfully graced centre stage. Agitatedly flitting around the backdrop and working tirelessly behind the scenes was one Gennaro Ivan ‘Gino’ Gattuso: mediano, terrone, and dog of war.

Behind the celebrated artistry of Andrea Pirlo was Gattuso’s graft. Each second of space for shooting or threading a killer through-ball? Gattuso’s hustle in the moments prior. Every sprayed, long-range pass to set-up wave after wave of eloquent attack? Gattuso’s incessant harrying and regaining of possession. Most stylishly successful penalties and free-kicks? Converted because Gattuso screamed at players at flood forward and make things happen. You get the picture.

Unlike successful defensive and strike partnerships, midfield partnerships, for various reasons, receive little in the way of concrete recognition. Though for the best part of a decade, for both club and country, Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo forged a partnership which yielded one World Cup, two Champions Leagues, one FIFA World Club Cup, two UEFA Super Cup, two Scudetti, one Coppa Italia and two Supercoppa Italia winners medals.

As highlighted by this photo, their differences were stark, but their collective qualities combined had a ruthlessly cunning allure.

Despite claiming the 1999 scudetto, Milan of the time were an ageing squad in need of freshening up. Having achieved notoriety for his tenacity and promise during short spells with Glasgow Rangers and Salernitana, Gattuso’s was a restless soul in need of a permanent home. Together with the signing of 23-year-old Andriy Shevchenko, Gattuso’s arrival at Milanello lowered the average age significantly, and raised just about everything else.

Pirlo signed, somewhat controversially, from city rivals Inter Milan in 2001. He and Gattuso, relatively slowly but so very surely, reaped the rewards of working with Carlo Ancelotti, who was appointed as Milan’s coach later the same year.

At Milan, Ancelotti was afforded that rarest of commodities in Italian football: a little bit of time to find the best formation and tactical approach to suit the players at his disposal. In the late autumn of 2002, it clicked.

Having flirted with the position while on-loan at Brescia, Pirlo was dropped into a deep-lying playmaker role, thus making room for a front two of Pippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko, with Rui Costa behind. The partnership of Gattuso and Pirlo, complimented by the close presence of Clarence Seedorf, was born, and Milan didn’t look back.

Whilst not quite as set in stone as their impressive back four – Cafu, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, and Alessandro Nesta – the midfield partnership in-front of them became a mainstay. In front of them, the attacking midfielders and forwards may have morphed and transitioned to include the likes of Kaká, Rivaldo, Hernán Crespo, Christian Vieri, and an ageing David Beckham and Ronaldo, but Gattuso and Pirlo stayed until they themselves became the elder statesmen in need of moving on.

Undoubtedly, the pinnacle of Gattuso’s career and his partnership with Pirlo came with Gli Azzurri and Italy’s World Cup win in 2006. With Marcello Lippi playing the pair as central midfielders they flourished, with Gattuso being named in the FIFA team of the tournament and topping charts for passes completed and interceptions made.

On and off the field that summer, Gattuso nominated himself as spokesperson and champion for the victory of Italy’s ‘workers’ team’. Behind the bearded face – which itself seemed a visual throwback to ordinary, working class, grit and grime – was an astute and considered ability to motivate those around him. Throughout the World Cup, Gattuso referenced the need to stamp out the diving and petulance associated with the Italian team, and ‘broke his team-mates’ balls’ to raise work ethic.

Despite his personal collection of trophies and accolades, and as probably pointed out by Joe Jordan and many other opponents, it should be said that Gattuso was far from a technically accomplished footballer. Readers of Andrea Pirlo’s 2014 autobiography, I Think, Therefore I Play, will be all too aware of the jovial contempt given to Gattuso’s technical and intellectual capacities.

Should Pirlo be invited to input on any potential Gattuso autobiography, ‘I play, I think?’ may be a mocking and self-doubting title. While Pirlo and other team-mates may have caused Gattuso to doubt his hold of basic Italian grammar, general knowledge and common sense, his drive and determination were never in doubt.

During a Serie A match against Crotone in December 2008, Gattuso went to ground clutching his ankle. Following a few minutes of treatment and grimacing, he returned to the field and oversaw a 1-0 win. Medical examinations after the final whistle revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. After corrective surgery by renowned Belgian doctor, Mark Martens, he was back on the field within five months.

In his final campaign for Milan – 2011-12 – Gattuso overcame another career threatening injury. Enduring a torrid opening 20 minutes of the season against Lazio, Gattuso had to be substituted after inextricably clattering into team-mate Alessandro Nesta at full tilt. Tests later confirmed a diagnosis of sixth nerve palsy, a rare disorder of the cranial nerve responsible for eye movement. Fears were temporarily heightened when Doctors informed Gattuso 75 percent of occurrences are a consequence of cancer. Thankfully, these concerns were soon alleviated.

Of the Lazio match, Gattuso later commented: “The 20 minutes I played against Lazio were a nightmare. I felt drunk. I could see Zlatan Ibrahimović in four different positions. Unfortunately, I always listen to that voice telling me to keep going. I was lucky to have good reason to stop after I ran into Nesta.” Though Gattuso did indeed come back – again sooner than doctors advised and predicted – his days in the engine room were numbered.

In football as in life, nothing lasts forever. After winning the 2010-11 title, Pirlo confirmed that he had played his last match for Milan. A mutual agreement not to renew his contract proved Milan’s loss and Juventus’s gain. Gattuso departed for Switzerland’s FC Sion in 2012, his body, aged 34, eventually showing signs of slowing down after a career of combat. Arguably more than Pirlo in a Milan shirt, Gattuso left a screaming legacy.

If Milan made the man who left a legacy, for Gennaro Gattuso, Glasgow probably made the man.

Hailing from a discarded town in Calabria, one of Italy’s poorest regions, Gattuso did what many of his peers and friends aspired to do and sought opportunity abroad. Though unlike 85 percent of Italian males aged between 18 and 30, Gattuso’s potential as a footballer saw that he didn’t stay at home with his parents After a stint with Umbrian club Perugia, Walter Smith took 19-year-old Gattuso to Glasgow in the summer of 1997.

In contrast to Rangers’ other Italian recruits – Marco Negri, Lorenzo Amoruso and Sergio Porrini – Gattuso didn’t saunter around the city in expensive suits. Rather, he sided with those quintessentially British values of training hard, working hard, playing hard and lounging around in tracksuits during down time. Jovial antics of another madcap midfielder, a certain Paul Gascoigne, must also have served to captivate and entice.

Within a matter of weeks, life in Scotland had Gattuso dropping phrases such as, “British players tackle like men. In Italy if you tackle, then players moan to the referee.”

In addition to Gascoigne and his fellow countrymen, Gattuso could count on some deeply gifted and influential characters. Steely defenders Joachim Björklund and Jörg Albertz, the classy Brian Laudrup, and the Australian duo of Tony Vidmar and Craig Moore, complimented the Scottish core of club captain Richard Gough, Alec Cleland, Ian Durie, Ally McCoist, Stuart McCall and Andy Goram. If ever there was a setting and a squad to learn about the values of comradeship, commitment and team spirit, this was it. Though come what May and the season’s climax, Rangers were pipped to the post in Scottish football’s predictable two-horse race.

Things started well enough. Negri became an instant hero and went on to score 37 goals in 40 appearances. Gattuso quickly established himself at the heart of the Rangers midfield and registered 37 appearances and five goals in the process. Playing with a measured tenacity, boundless commitment beyond his tender years, and enough technical poise to stand out in the Scottish Premier League, Gattuso became something of a cult hero in Glasgow.

Having taken the unusual decision to announce his end-of-season departure, Walter Smith then watched his side’s colourful season unravel. First, Gascoigne headed south. Lured by Bryan Robson and another chance in England’s Premier League, Gazza left Rangers in March 1998. Shortly after, Rangers lost two of their last four league games to effectively hand the title to rivals Celtic.

Dick Advocaat, never a manager to spurn opportunity represented by an open chequebook, replaced Smith, and immediately oversaw a summer of significant transformation. Out went McCoist, McCall, Goram, Gough, Durrant, Cleland, Laudrup, Moore and Björklund. Gattuso, being played out of position at right-back since the arrival of Giovanni van Bronckhorst, remained until October 1998. For Gattuso and his Scottish/Italian girlfriend (whose father owned Gattuso’s favourite Glaswegian pizzeria), Salernitana was the next stop.

Under the astute Delio Rossi, newly promoted Salernitana battled bravely but were sent straight back down to Serie B as the 1998-99 season came to a close. Though having exposed Serie A to his uniquely destructive brand of drudgery and promise, Gattuso’s summer was a happy one. Thge Subject of an €8 million bid by Milan, his days in Serie A were to continue.

For the diminutive Gattuso, or Il Terrone as he was known in Milan, the move probably provided a bigger culture shock than Glasgow. Often lauded to extremes for his southern background, sarcastically cheered in training for playing passes longer than five yards, and mocked for his penchant of tracksuits over designer suits, Gattuso and Milan would appreciate the character building in the long run.

In currently filling various Serie B technical areas with the angrily frantic air of a Hollywood mob boss thrust in charge of a football team, Gattuso the coach isn’t resting on his laurels. In fitted black shirts, perhaps fitted a few years ago, mind, with sleeves rolled up in readiness for tattoo-adorned gesticulation and the occasional slapping of assistant coaches, Gattuso remains just as passionate, just as committed, and just as controversial.

In little over three years, Gattuso has taken charge of four teams in three countries, got the sack three times, and most recently resigned only to rejoin current employers, A.S Pisa.

Gattuso’s coaching career began in February 2013 as player/manager of FC Sion. In becoming their fifth manager of the campaign, his appointment demoted the previous incumbent, Víctor Muñoz, to the role of scout. Initially showing promise and an upturn in results, Sion ended the season poorly. Gattuso was sacked by an impulsive chairman, Christian Constantin.

Continuing dancing with the devils of famously impulsive club owners, Palermo’s Maurizio Zamparini provided Gattuso his famous kiss of death by confirming his appointment in June 2013. Freshly relegated to Serie B, Gattuso lost three of his first six matches of the season and was given his marching orders.

A six-month stint in the Greek league with OFI Crete followed a year later. With the club already in widely reported financial turmoil, Gattuso repeatedly refuted that he cares only for the game and not for money, and that his players should do the same. An expletive-laden, fist-banging press conference encapsulated the tension in a memorable nutshell. Wages went unpaid, results yo-yoed, and Gattuso tended a resignation before being persuaded otherwise by fans and board members. He eventually did resign on 30 December 2014.

Following a failed application for the Hamilton Academicals hot seat, Gattuso spent eight months out of work before joining Pisa in the third tier of Italian football. After achieving an unlikely promotion in his debut season, Gattuso surprised many by resigning in June 2016. Citing problematic working conditions and a lack of passion from the club, he then showed characteristic impulsiveness and promise and u-turned on his resignation just a month later. 

Love him or loath him – and again both viewpoints come with strong cases – his commitment, desire and leadership should be admired. Modern football’s globally intertwining nature and shifting sands dictate there are few players like Il Ringhio left.

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