x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The ugly side of Gattuso

One day, when AC Milan say their farewells to Gennaro Gattuso, a special DVD will presumably be commissioned, putting together the moments that epitomise what this unusual footballer came to mean to milanisti, to Serie A and to Italian football during the first decade of the new millennium.

Gennaro Gattuso was sent off for two bookings against Inter on Saturday night.
Gennaro Gattuso was sent off for two bookings against Inter on Saturday night.

One day, when AC Milan say their farewells to Gennaro Gattuso, a special DVD will presumably be commissioned, putting together the moments that epitomise what this unusual footballer came to mean to milanisti, to Serie A and to Italian football during the first decade of the new millennium. It will doubtless contain footage of him wheeling his arms around like a swimmer doing a reverse butterfly stroke, to gee up the crowd at San Siro. It will have him nose-to-nose in confrontations with rivals.

It should also feature him snarling and then grinning, sometimes shifting from a grimace to a giggle within seconds, just to remind that Gattuso knows he plays up to his own caricature, the pantomime villain who adds a necessary aggression, even vulgarity to a club that boasts its commitment to flair. Milan, equally, have always prized competitiveness, which is why Gattuso, the man from Italy's south whose career took him to Lombardy via Glasgow Rangers in Scotland's top-tier, earned a place in milanisti hearts. Gattuso can be genuinely funny about his image. He cultivates his difference, his otherness at Italy's most snooty club, wears his regional identity as a badge of pride, does not tame his accent or his mince his words.

He likes playing the heavy-jawed gargoyle at the door of the Milan cathedral and can be charmingly self-deprecating about it all. To this reporter he once laughed off Steven Gerrard's snipe, after the dramatic Liverpool-Milan European Cup final of 2005 that Gattuso, for his growling, was a "kitten" rather than a tiger. Gattuso replied, off the cuff: "A kitten? Not a very pretty one, with this beard, eh?"

Gattuso had anything but a pretty Milan derby on Saturday. His team did try to compete against Inter, but the final result felt embarrassing. The scoreline humiliated them even by half-time, when they had fallen 3-0 behind. The final outcome was 4-0, after the majority of the contest had been played 10 versus 11, because Gattuso, the midfield aggressor, had been dismissed. He was angry at the red card, a consequence of a second caution but his fury was most conspicuously addressed at his own head coach, Leonardo, or at least at the Milan bench, for the circumstances that led to the second yellow card. He should never have been on the field at that stage, he argued, not because he was behaving intemperately and already had a booking, but because he was patently unfit for service by then.

Gattuso had started the match, and in fact, begun it well. He is, into his 30s, regarded as indispensable for these sorts of big, grudge games, in a way that two of Inter's in-your-face veterans, Marco Materazzi and Patrick Vieira were not at the weekend. Both had been dropped by Jose Mourinho, who would have been pleased with the level of feistiness and skill shown by his new signing Thiago Motta, scorer of the first goal.

Until that goal, things had gone OK for Gattuso, and not so badly for Milan. He set up Mathieu Flamini for his promising early salvo into the Inter box; Gattuso earned the free-kick, fouled by Motta, which Andrea Pirlo wasted after a quarter of an hour. Gattuso seemed at that stage to be giving Milan the edge they seek from a player like him. It all went wrong after that moment. Gattuso had been hurt by the Motta challenge, or by something soon afterwards. Before 20 minutes he was signalling as much to the Milan medical and coaching staff. By half an hour, Milan were a goal down and Gattuso have given away the penalty, for a foul on Eto'o, that made it 2-0. Gattuso, booked for the foul, had had enough.

Leonardo indicated he should now be replaced, but it seemed to take a while for that information to reach Clarence Seedorf, the designated replacement to prepare himself. In between times, Gattuso had seen red for a bad foul on Wesley Sneijder. Some blame might rightly be apportioned to the fouler, though as far as Gattuso was concerned, the delay in substituting him had caused the problems. "It was part of a series of events that caused problems for us," said Leonardo after the walloping. "When a player is injured, he can struggle to get to position. That's what happened with Gattuso [for the penalty]."

As for the delay over the substitution, Leonardo suggested there had also been concern over Seedorf's fitness as the staff decided whom to send on. "It was a chain reaction," added the Brazilian coach, before acknowledging that "we are a step behind the champions, because we are still building a side." But so are Inter, who were impressive. Sneijder, signed from Real Madrid a day earlier, made a lively debut and the goals for new recruits Motta and Diego Milito were as satisfying as the way the newcomers, with Eto'o busy, combined with one another. Inter played with width and speed, and their head coach Jose Mourinho was left beaming afterwards as he assessed the debris of Milan's challenge.

Stiffer threats lie ahead for the champions. Juventus, who beat Roma 3-1 with two goals from Diego to maintain their 100 per cent start, may provide one. Roma might not. The club from the capital sit bottom of Serie A after two games. Ian Hawkey is an expert on Italian football and has been covering Serie A for 15 years. ihawkey@thenational.ae