Strange as it may seem, numbers in football jerseys were not used in the beginning. The first time they were used was in a game played between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. The year was 1928. However, numbers at that time did not signify anything, but were more related to the position in which a player played in the field. In England, the number 8 was a midfielder, whereas in Brazil, they had a more specific position for it – Meia Dirieta or right midfielder.
If one casts a glance at the current number 8’s in club football, then he would be presented with a who’s who of players who have not only lit up the football stage with their playmaking, but have enthralled fans worldwide with their technique. Chelsea have Frank Lampard, Arsenal have Samir Nasri, Liverpool have Steven Gerrard, Barcelona have Andres Iniesta and Real Madrid have arguably the most gifted and the last of his playmaking breed, Kaka. With such glitterati associated with the jersey number 8, it is quite natural to assume that any number 8 will be a replica of them. Even looking in the international scene, the erstwhile Bulgaria legend, Hristo Stoichkov, wore number 8.
And then there is another number 8. A number 8, who calls San Siro to be his home. A number 8, who has not only been an integral part of the Milan set up for more than a decade, but also has been a cornerstone in Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph. This number 8 has no technique. This number 8 is not a play-maker. This number 8 is not a good passer of the ball. But in spite of all this, this number 8 is one such player, that every coach wishes could be in his team. This number 8 is none other than our hero, Gennaro Ivan Gattuso. And this is his story.
Days at Perugia and Rangers
Born and brought up in Corigliano Calabro, the start to his football career was not an auspicious one. At Perugia, where he stayed for five years, he barely got a chance to play regularly. He was increasingly used as a “last 10 minutes” substitute in the matches he played back then. Frustrated by the limited opportunities, he agreed to move to Rangers when they approached him in the summer of 1997. Only 19, and still nowhere in the footballing arena, he knew he had to work very hard to get to the top. Under the guidance of Walter Smith, his manager at Rangers at that time, Gattuso saw regular action in the Scottish League. That single season he spent there marked the beginning of his warrior spirit, for which he is renowned nowadays.
When Walter Smith was replaced at Rangers, Gattuso immediately moved back to Italy, this time signing for Salernitana. The club had just returned to Serie A at that time and it was the perfect stage for Gattuso to show off his new-earned spirit and better tactical knowhow. One season later, Milan came knocking and Gattuso grabbed that opportunity with both hands.
The Milan Love Story
Operating in the right of midfield, Gattuso often drops deep to support the back four. His ability to read the game a fraction of a second earlier than his opponents allows him to go for that gut-wrenching tackle and win the ball. The ideal pairing for such a hard-tackling, ball-winning midfielder is a playmaker, who can then effectively make a goal-scoring pass or simply hold-up play for the others to regain their position. Ancelotti recognized this very early during his days at Milan and till last season, the pairing of Gattuso and Pirlo was a treat for everyone to watch. Whereas Gattuso was the aggressor, Pirlo was the docile playmaker. Whenever Gattuso made any ball-winning tackles, there was Pirlo to receive that ball. Gattuso was nicknamed “Genarinho” after his then teammate, Ronaldinho, as he was the exact opposite of him. The name was furthur modified to “Ringhio“, which is Italian for “The Snarler“.
His outspoken nature had landed him in trouble more than once, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. His policy of “no-holds-barred” football although takes us back to the era when there was no rules in football, but it beautifully brings out the physical nature of the sport we love – football. Cards are a specialty for Gattuso, with him earning 108 yellows and 4 reds so far. But that does not deter him from playing his brand of football and doing his job the only way he could. Gattuso and controversies go hand in hand. From the first slap to Ibrahimovic, to his incessant jumping up and down in front of Christian Poulsen; from running in his underwear after the victory in the 2006 World Cup, to the more recent throat-pushing of Joe Jordan, Gattuso has never missed an opportunity to taunt an opponent or let others know his feelings.
Gattuso – Operating Methodology
His ability to bulldoze playmakers is the reason why he is so successful both at the club level as well as at the international arena. Who can forget Gattuso owning Cristiano in the Champions League fixtures in 2007 and how the Portuguese was kept in his pocket in both the legs, when supposedly Cristiano was the best player from England? Who can forget the World Cup final of 2006, when even the great Zizou could not find a way around this Italian bulldog? If Gattuso sets out to mark a player, be very sure that no matter what happens, that player will not get to see a single ball in the entire match. And even if he gets that rare opportunity, he will be chased and hacked down within few seconds. Just as playmakers are required to enthrall a worldwide audience of the beauty of football, destroyers like Gattuso are also required to obliterate whatever strategy the opposition plans of scoring any goals.
But what is so special about Gattuso that makes us feel proud to have him as a Rossoneri? Surely, it can’t be technique, as there has been players who will make him look like a dwarf with their technical nuances. And it can’t be the goals he scored. I mean, he scored only 10 goals since 1999! No, it is the heart, the passion, the fervor with which he goes on doing his business that endears him so much to us. It is his courage to look the enemy in the eye, stand face to face, take a slap, fall down, get up and hit him twice as hard that we love to watch. Never one to hide his emotions, Gattuso wears his heart on his sleeves – be it for Milan or for Italy.
A player like Gattuso comes once in a generation. And when he does, all we can do is sit back and watch him destroy opponents one after another. The zeal which he shows on and off the field rubs off on all his team mates and often the crowd. Now almost at the twilight of his career, young players at Milan can look up at the great man and learn a thing or two about giving 110% every time they put on the red and black stripes of the great club. He has been a superb player for the Rossoneri and undoubtedly, one of the legends of the game.