The destroyer, the gladiator, the warrior, the marauder – Gennaro Gattuso is all this and more, and for the last few years, only his teammate Andrea Pirlo could stake a claim to international notoriety which rivaled with his own. A mediano by vocation, forged in the bear-pits of Scottish football with the Rangers, Gattuso is known for his tenacity, his fighting spirit, his extraordinary man-marking skills and his stamina. His nickname was and still is ‘Ringhio,’ meaning ‘the growl.’ In 2006, with the triumph at the World Cup and some voices in the media whispering that he was more useful on the field than stars like Ronaldinho, the man had reached the top. Today, plagued by injury and inconsistency, subsisting at the margins of a team that is reaping continuous success without him, what kind of future can we envisage for him?
At the age of 31, it is not a stretch to say that Gattuso’s moment is past. When Coach Marcello Lippi took him to the World Cup, Ringhio’s career and physical conditions made for a lethal cocktail of experience and power which turned him into one of the protagonists of the tournament. His return to Milan saw him slowly fade from prominence. The string of injuries that he suffered, most recently the one to his knee which almost made him miss out on the Confederations Cup last June, took his process of entropy to a turning point. Only a few days ago, Milan executive Adriano Galliani started building the frost. “Milan is not an hotel,” he declared, drily. “Gattuso cannot walk in and out however he pleases.” The comment was a reference to the fact that the player has done little for the team, this season, and spent much of his time healing at Milanello. More recently, the player’s agent, Davide Pasqualin, saw it fit to quote James Bond. Even though he could never imagine Gattuso away from Milan, he said, people should remember “never to say never.”
Pasqualin touched on the tension that most bystanders are perceiving. On one hand, Gattuso is such a faithful and iconic player for the Rossoneri that it seems inconceivable to see him leaving. The ideal situation sees Gattuso closing his career on the bench at Milan and everyone living happily ever after. On the other hand, it is undeniable that the player’s use is becoming increasingly limited within a team that has sworn an oath to play the most offensive and daring football in Serie A. Even if Gattuso recovers his fitness, what use could he find other than occasionally coming off the bench to defend a result? Coach Leonardo has defended his qualities and claimed that he hopes to have the player back, but the evidence goes to the contrary. Gattuso’s inadequacy gives off such a strong impression that sources are discussing his departure already in January.
Let us not dance around the question – should Gattuso leave or not? The crux of the question is the national side. Lippi is an admirer and a friend of Gattuso, and ‘the growl’ has consistently growled in the national side since 2008. Free of injury and at the best of his form, even allowing for the margin of difference between his speed and strength in 2006 and his current conditions, he would be on the team (not necessarily as a starter, but on the team). Without playing time, it seems unlikely. Lippi is building a four-man midfield with one trequartista, one mediano and two versatile players at their sides – an offensive and a defensive one. The mediano is a role that Gattuso could take up, but Roma’s Daniele De Rossi has entrenched himself in the position and there is no way of threatening his spot. This leaves one spot as a defensive midfield player – the one role where Lippi has the greatest number of options. A place as a starter is unlikely, especially given the form of Juve starlet Claudio Marchisio, but what about a place on the bench? Sampdoria’s Angelo Palombo fulfils the same tasks as Gattuso and has been comparatively reliable, and even outsiders like Roma’s Matteo Brighi can turn out to be useful. The competition is as fierce as it gets. No, Gattuso is not getting into the national team unless he plays consistently. And like it or not, he is three times as likely to play consistently if he leaves the Rossoneri.
So the question becomes – does Gattuso care enough about the national team to compromise what is left of his career in order to pursue the Azzurri shirt? The World Cup would be his last potential moment of glory, assuming that Lippi needs him. For the rest, Gattuso is no Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero – he does not possess the amaranthine vision and talent which keeps going deep into a player’s 30s. His future offers nothing but a gentle decline into anonymity and, eventually, retirement. If he stays with Milan, he will remain with family and walk out gently. He will be rich and cuddled – the Rossoneri have a history of being kind to their old stars. If he sacrifices that position for the benefit of the national team, he will have a dire, tiring, vertical descent after the imminent World Cup, a way into solitude and a breathless conclusion with some mid-table team. It does not even assure him a starter’s place with the Azzurri – that’s just a gamble, really, and one which requires terrific courage.
The choice is one between the best for himself and the best for the national team – that is to say, for all of the Italians. What should he do? Alas, for obvious reasons we would like him to leave in January and find a team that assures him some playing time. But our statement would be selfish. It is his own career and his own good that is on the line, and he has the right to think of himself first. Most likely he will stay with Milan, and in that case we may rather wish for than hope after his inclusion in the World Cup squad. It would be nice to see one of Italy’s greatest mediani have his hour of glory again, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that everything must end. To the immortal words of Alan Moore, then, we leave our own conclusion: I have been climbing, all my life, towards a single peak. Now I have reached it. I have stood and felt the wind. I have seen all the world beneath me. Now there is only descent. Only the valley. Would that I had died there, in that light above the cloud line. I’m cold. Take me home.