Claudio Gentile is, without a doubt, one of the toughest defenders to grace Italian football throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Nicknamed ‘Qaddafi’ – since he was born in Libya – Gentile was a hard, uncompromising man. Several famous attackers during that era have fallen prey to his ruthless defending style, which was anything but gentle.
After playing two years of his senior career with Serie B sides, his talent was spotted by Juventus scouts and was subsequently brought to Turin. Initially, Gentile was assigned the position of mediano, and was used as an alternative to the legendary Giuseppe Furino. The first year was not an excellent one as Gentile could not adapt easily to the new role and the competition in defense was intense. Giovanni Trappatoni took over the reins of the Old Lady in 1976 and was convinced of Gentile’s abilities right away. Trap employed Gentile in the left-back position in spite of him being naturally right-footed. Gentile had no problem adapting as he became adept with his left foot as well. Few years later, Antonio Cabrini was introduced into the Juventus squad. Cabrini took over the left-back spot and Gentile slotted into the right-back position with utmost ease. In those days, full-backs did not assume much attacking duties and used to mark the players entering their zone. Even then, Gentile would sometimes venture forward to successfully take part in attack. He played in that position for several years before shifting to center-back position where he truly shone.
Juventus circa 1980-1984
During the years that Gentile played, Italian football was undergoing a slight transformation. The zonal defense system was being introduced along with the man-marking system that characterized Catenaccio. Gentile was adept at both systems, but was feared for his man-marking skills. In fact, Gentile was a Coach’s delight. He always did the job that he was asked of meticulously and very often, his job was to mark an opposition player. Gentile would then study the player beforehand and come up with a strategy to neutralize him in the game. He was noted for his hard tackles directed at the ball. He is said to pioneer the technique of kicking the ball from between opponent’s legs, leaving them bruised, battered and frustrated. Gentile followed his opponent like a shadow, remaining very close to him throughout the game. He used to go in for a tackle as the forward was about to receive a pass, dispossessing even before completing the pass and never letting the opponent play. As English footballer Gordon Hill once put: “Claudio Gentile would stand on his grandmother’s head to get the ball.” Gentile knew the importance of mental aspects of the game and often got on the nerves of the player he was marking. During set-plays, he was not afraid of committing niggling fouls on the opposition to unsettle them.
Gentile’s defensive performances were on showcase in the 1982 World Cup. Along with the elegant Gaetano Scirea, he forged a contrasting defensive partnership which went down in history as one of the best ever. In the second round of matches, Gentile was assigned the unenviable task of marking the emerging Argentine star Diego Maradona. Gentile studied Maradona for two days, watching videos of his play and concluded that the Argentine needed to be so well marked that he does not get any time on ball. During the match, Gentile produced a number of violent tackles on Maradona on and off the ball, committing a record 23 fouls on him alone. Maradona was denied the right to play and was visibly frustrated towards the end of the game. Just minutes before the kick-off against Brazil, Coach Enzo Bearzot told Gentile to mark the dangerous Zico out of the game. Gentile was never further than a meter from Zico and dished out the same punishment to him. After getting a booking for a violent tackle on Zico, he ripped the Brazilian’s shirt in pieces during a tussle. In the final against Germany, Gentile not only marked the dangerous Pierre Littbarski, but also provided the cross that led to Italy’s first goal.
Gentile was widely criticised for his style of play and many have branded his on-the-pitch behavior as unsporting. However, according to Gentile, he was simply a hard tackler. In fact, he stressed the importance of not committing nasty fouls so as to avoid sending off. In his entire career, Gentile was never sent off for a hard tackle on the pitch. Gentile’s retort to Maradona’s complaints after their 1982 tussle sums up the image of the fearsome defender: “Football is not for ballerinas.”
Name – Claudio Gentile
Age – 56 (September 27, 1953)
Position – Centre-back
Clubs (Appearances/Goals) – Arona (34/4), Varese (34/1), Juventus (283/9), Fiorentina (70/0), Piacenza (20/0)
Club Honours – Serie A (1975,1977,1978,1981,1982), Coppa Italia (1979,1983), UEFA Cup (1977), Cup Winners’ Cup (1984), European Supercup (1984)
Nationality – Italian
Caps/Goals – (71/1)
National Honours – FIFA World Cup (1982)
Past Lessons in Calcio
Alessandro Del Piero
Marco van Basten