He was supposed to be a fisherman. In his village in Calabria, that’s what everybody did. And it’s what he was helping with, too, until he managed to convince his poor mamma to let him go for a football trial. It wasn’t ever his skills that kept him on the football path, it was always his sheer determination and his heart of a champion. Those are things that can’t be taught, which is what makes him so irreplaceable at Milan.
Gattuso has said that he knew early on he lacked the skills that other boys had. And so he knew he had to work twice as hard to keep up. And so he did. Every second of every training, every second of every match, and then some. He would later find that this determination actually made him a better tackler at times than those who were naturally skilled, as it was sheer will that won him the ball, not finesse or skill.
His nicknames are many, most of them involving some sort of animalistic reference because of his lionheart and passionate style of play. He is remembered for his physicality and a few incidents where perhaps his physical nature and passion exceeded normal limits. One was in 2003, when he was playing Ajax, he slapped future teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. How many people can say that they did that… and survived? Or in the 2010-11 Champions League campaign when Joe Jordan’s repeated xenophobic comments drove him to headbutt the Tottenham assistant and former Milan player. It’s truly hard to blame someone for something like that, but he still managed to get a 5 match UEFA ban. Still, he was usually a gentleman. Tackle hard, offer a friendly smile and a hand up after.
|The snarl, then the smile|
Sometimes he was a bit more cattivo (naughty/mischievous.) Like when Milan won the Scudetto last year, he jumped up into the Curva and sang songs disparaging former Milan coach and player, Leonardo. He was sanctioned for this behavior (and heralded by many fans,) but while saying goodbye, apologized again to Leonardo publicly, even if it was simply his passion in the moment (and maybe a little too much champagne) that caused him to behave this way. He was always the intense, passionate warrior, and even if that sometimes got the best of him, his gentleman side always shone through. Tough but classy.
|Please Lord, let that only be a yellow|
Many of his on the pitch exploits are the kinds of things that would seem to be lore. Like in 2008, playing vs. Catania, he sustained an injury early on in the match, but played the full 90 minutes. It later turned out to be an ACL tear, requiring surgery and a lengthy recovery. But even that was only 5 months instead of 6, that’s just how the man is. He is never one to sit on the sidelines, always wanting to be in the eye of the storm. And it was his determination that was so intense that he could play for 90 minutes and not notice the pain.
And so it was heartbreaking when this year, he fell victim to the only kind of injury that could keep him off the pitch, a bizarre optic nerve problem that caused him to see four Ibras and zero Nestas, the collision with the latter sparking the diagnosis that kept him out for so much of the season. Yet even though he couldn’t play, nothing could keep him from being on the sidelines, supporting his teammates, not even looking completely ridiculous wearing those glasses with the patch on one side. He did everything he could to hurry back, but this was one thing that his determination couldn’t hurry along.
It is not his later career that he will be remembered by, though. Nor will it necessarily be the short years at Perugia, Rangers, or Salernitana that paint his image in our hearts. It was the glory years at Milan, 335 appearances strong. Most especially, he will be remembered for his unlikely partnership with his polar opposite: Andrea Pirlo. He played Batman to Pirlo’s Robin, a snarling defensive midfielder to the elegant and refined skills of the boy wonder, Pirlo.
|Not just the heart of a Champion|
It was this partnership that extended to the Italian National Team that helped to win the 2006 World Cup, too. Gattuso represented gli Azzurrri as one of the world’s most feared defensive midfielders from the U-18 level on until he retired from International duty in 2010 from the senior team. In fact, as a senior team member, he racked up an impressive 73 appearances over 10 years. And unlike his teammates, he didn’t just parade in his underwear for the annual Dolce & Gabbana underwear ads, when Italy won the World Cup, he ran around in his underwear for all the world to see. And somehow, because it was him, it was not in the least bit disturbing. Passionate.
|He makes Braveheart look like a girl|
But it is the Rossoneri colors that he will be remembered in the most. His passion for the team knows no bounds. In fact, it was for the good of the team that he chose to step aside. And still some were shocked to see the passion come out in a very tearful farewell last week as he said goodbye to 13 years of bleeding red and black (and bruising everyone else black and blue.) It’s hard to watch a grown man cry, harder to watch someone so seemingly tough completely lose it. But I would expect nothing less from a man who, when given a few seconds with the microphone, said “Milanista fino alla morte” (“Milanista till death!”)
Gratefully, he has sworn that it is only goodbye for now, and that he would return in one year, but not as a player. Rumors are that while he was out with his eye problem, he began his coaching classes at Coverciano, and this week, he began a special coaching course only offered to the 2006 World Cup winners (alongside fellow Milan legend Pippo Inzaghi.) And while he is looking to play one more year somewhere to end his career on the pitch instead of sidelined, I have no doubts that he will make good on his promise.
|Best. Teammate. Ever.|
If we thought that his passion and desire were effective with his teammates on the pitch, I cannot wait to see what he can do as a manager someday. Sure, he will have to work his way up, and likely work for other teams along the way. But I would love to see him managing Milan one day. From perhaps one of the most feared, yet mostly gentleman-like midfielders to a formidable and passionate manager… The world is your oyster, Rino. Go do what your Calabrian fisherman roots tell you to. Grazie.
This post inspired by the music of Filter