Listen to this article
It was one of the images of last year’s World Cup, though few people saw it – the bearded Italian midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, cavorting around Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in skimpy white underpants. Italy had won the final and Gattuso was celebrating. Horrified Fifa officials soon stopped him.
Underpants are seldom just underpants, and Gattuso’s symbolised his transformation from peasant to king. For years, his role in football teams was as servant to the stars. On Tuesday, when Milan visit Manchester United for the Champions League semi-final, he will be the team’s spiritual leader.
But more than that, the square-shaped Gattuso has become revered as an “anti-superstar”: the antidote to everything glossy in modern football.
Central to the Gattuso myth are his simple origins. He comes from a small town in Calabria, in Italy’s poor south, where he grew up playing football on the beach. Many of his relatives, like so many Calabrians, sought better lives abroad.
At 19, Gattuso did too.
He joined Rangers in Glasgow, and fitted right in. British players, he says, “tackle like men. In Italy, if you tackle a player they moan to the referee”.
Gattuso likes burying someone and then shaking his hand – though a Gattuso handshake can be scary too.
While other Italian players in Glasgow went about in beautiful suits, he hung around in tracksuits with Scottish players, notes Gabriele Marcotti, co-author of The Italian Job.
Gattuso left Scotland after only a year, but with a souvenir: his future wife Monica, whose father owned his favourite Glaswegian pizzeria.
Gattuso has promised to rejoin Rangers while still in his prime, but then he has also said he will never leave Milan, and has flirted with Manchester United, so it’s hard to know his future intentions for certain.
At 21 he joined Milan. It seemed an odd match. If Milanese men are the best-dressed men in the world, and Milan’s players are the best-dressed men in Milan, then what was Gattuso doing there?
At 1.77m and 77kg he is an unusually heavy footballer, who calls himself “as ugly as debts”. As the Italian saying goes, “Man descends from Gattuso.” Furthermore, in a club famed for its passing, he received ironic applause at training whenever he completed a pass over five metres.
But he knew his place. “I’m just a stealer of balls,” he says. Italians call his type a mediano, the guy who procures the ball for someone else who can play – in Milan’s case, the great Kaka.
Gattuso reveres Kaka: “He is so perfect that sometimes I have to touch him to make sure he really exists.” Indeed, Gattuso’s most famous spat, the frantic bouncing up and down and shrieking at Christian Poulsen of Schalke, was prompted by Poulsen taunting Kaka.
“He behaved like a child,” said Poulsen afterwards. In fact Gattuso had behaved like Rumpelstiltskin, the evil bearded dwarf in the fairy tale.
Nonetheless, says Marcotti, Gattuso improves Milan’s brand. A peasant among dandies, he helps the club appear rooted.
At last summer’s World Cup he went from being an Italian to a global brand. This was thanks only partly to his appearance with several teammates in an underwear advertisement. Gattuso helped marshal perhaps the best defence ever assembled.
In the final, when Fabio Grosso cut out a French attack at the expense of a corner, something that would have won him applause in any other side, Gattuso beetled across to scold him: Italy didn’t concede corners.
During the tournament Gattuso burnished his peasant’s image. He called Italy’s triumph “the victory of a workers’ team. We have shown we have balls as big as houses” (just in case anyone had missed the underwear ads).
Gattuso became lionised as an “anti-galactico”. Even his beard seemed a throwback to an age when footballers were ordinary blokes. In fact, Gattuso is far more glamorous than he admits. This Calabrian migrant is a globalised multimillionaire who recently adorned the cover of the Italian Vanity Fair. Many women adore him. Yes, he is a mediano, but in recent years mediani have staged a sort of peasants’ revolt, upstaging the Kakas to become football’s main men. Gattuso’s rustic image, though it fits his personality, is also a carefully managed brand.
A gifted speaker, he is his own best brand manager.
Still, he deserves the acclaim. The season after winning the world cup is the hardest (we’ve all been there), and here is Gattuso, a step away from his third Champions League final in five seasons.
Officials planning for next month’s match in Athens had better pack some spare shorts.
Get alerts on News when a new story is published