Gennaro Gattuso has never been known to shy from a battle. Whenever the going got tough, this famously combative midfielder would invariably get going, with few in world football able to match his tigerish tenacity.
Allied to energy, ability and tactical astuteness, this personality established Gattuso as an integral, even indispensable figure for a succession of Italy and AC Milan coaches. It also ensured that he ended a glittering playing career having won the UEFA Champions League on two occasions, earned 73 caps and conquered the world with both club and country.
Now, though, this scrapper supreme faces a different kind of battle. Establishing his credentials as a top-level coach is the challenge he faces and, so far at least, it has been tougher than even his most demanding midfield skirmishes. Spells in charge of Sion, Palermo and OFI Crete have been short and less than sweet, and there were some who wondered whether Gattuso would ever return to the dugout after resigning his post in Greece last December.
They should, of course, have remembered that this is a man not prone to meekly accepting defeat. Before long, the same determination that marked Gattuso’s playing career resulted in him grasping a post in Italy’s third tier, committing himself to reviving Pisa while proving himself as a coach of substance. That objective is discussed in this exclusive interview, in which Gattuso also reflects on his playing style, the midfielders he admires most and memories of Germany 2006.
FIFA.com: Gennaro, how are you enjoying life at Pisa?
Gennaro Gattuso: I’m getting on very well. I work for an illustrious club that had some fantastic times for so many years. The city is beautiful, and it lives and breathes football.
You’re unbeaten so far this season and sit third in the league. Are you happy with the way the team is taking shape?
Well, we started late. We’ve been working together for barely a couple of months but we hope to continue the way we’ve started. Ten players arrived in the final days before the transfer window closed: some weren’t regular starters, others had little or no pre-season under their belts. But I’m very pleased with the business we did.
We can remember Pisa, prior to its financial problems, featuring frequently in Serie A during the 80s and 90s. Do you believe those heights can be reached again?
I think we have everything it takes to do that. A lot of money has been spent in recent years, but to do well in football requires not just money but also the right expertise - people who know how to crunch the numbers, who know how to spend wisely and especially how to buy the best players. With Fabrizio Lucchesi as chairman I think all of this is achievable. The main objective is to grow and get as high [up the league pyramid] as possible. First and foremost, we have to become a group and I’d say that we’re on the right track. But we have to keep working.
How have you found the experience of overseeing a match from the dugout as coach, rather than being at the heart of it all as a midfield general?
They’re two completely different jobs. Having been a good player can help you, but a coach’s job is much more complex. I’m no longer a student now; it's my turn to teach football.
The key to our success was definitely Marcello Lippi: he was our leader, we relied on him, he had charisma and made us feel valued and protected.
You were a famously passionate, hard-working and determined player. Do those same characteristics mark you out as a coach? How would you describe your style of dealing with players?
I demand a lot from myself, I’m picky and, above all, I’m someone who goes about things with a lot of professionalism and wants to do them properly. I’m a tough nut too and this flaw, if you want to call it that, has stayed with me as a coach. But in recent years I’ve changed my attitude with the players. I used to be tough on them too, whereas now my priority is to prepare the team in the best way possible. Once all the work is done I let the players have their own space; I’m not breathing down their necks all day.
You played under some truly great coaches. Is there any in particular you feel you learned most from? Any closest to you in terms of style?
With my personality it’s difficult to copy someone or adopt certain approaches. I have my own way of doing things and I have to convey that to my players. As a footballer I was lucky enough to play for big clubs and, when I got there, I knew exactly how to behave and what to do. As a coach I’m now working with a lot of young people, some of whom are coming straight out of the youth ranks: with them I can’t behave in the same way that my coaches behaved with me. I have to make them understand the importance of the work and professionalism it takes to get to the top.
Many Italian players and coaches stay in Italy their whole careers, but you have moved abroad on several occasions – starting when you were just 19, signing for Rangers. Do you feel you’ve benefited from your experiences in Scotland, Switzerland and Greece?
Those experiences had a big and very positive influence on me. Whoever watches me working on the pitch immediately notices that my methods are slightly different from the Italian way - they’re closer to the English style. For example, I like to work at a very high tempo and on the day after a match I prefer to get straight back into training. Going abroad enriched me as a player, but also as a coach.
Please tell us about the 2006 World Cup. What do you remember most, and what was the key to Italy’s success?
I have so many memories of that experience. I mean, for me, wearing the national shirt was always something special. When I was there in the middle of the pitch and I heard the national anthem, I got goose-bumps and thought back to my beautiful childhood. But perhaps my biggest impression of that World Cup was on our arrival at the training camp in Duisburg. In my 12 years in the national side, that was the only time that our training camp hotel didn’t have five stars and maybe that was one of the most important factors. But the key to our success was definitely Marcello Lippi: he was our leader, we relied on him, he had charisma and made us feel valued and protected. The chief architect of that World Cup victory was him.
As part of an AC Milan team that won two Champions Leagues, do you see I Rossoneri and Italian teams in general winning this prize again in the near future?
To win major trophies like the Champions League you have to have champions in your team. At Milan in those years, we could afford to have the likes of [Alessandro] Costacurta, [Jaap] Stam, Rivaldo, Rui Costa and [Filippo] Inzaghi on the bench. We had a squad consisting of 22 to 23 top-level athletes. In order for Milan - and Italian football as a whole - to get back into contention, we have to start investing again. We need the economy to recover, new stadiums to be built and big personalities in the mould of [Silvio] Berlusconi, [Massimo] Moratti or [Andrea] Agnelli to make major new investments.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic said of you: “He gives everyone the motivation they need. On the field he is an animal - without him we cannot do it.” Do you feel Milan and Italy could do with such an animal these days?
I think that Daniele De Rossi can play this type of role in the national team. He’s a player who’s been in the frame for years, a champion who always puts his heart and soul into things and demands respect. At Milan, I like [Nigel] De Jong: he’s a silent leader, unlike me, but has all the qualities to become a key man.
You were seen as one of the greatest defensive midfielders of your era. Who do you admire playing your position these days?
I really like Radja Nainggolan. Although we aren’t that similar, because he’s definitely better than me technically, I consider him to be one of the strongest players in that role. He knows how to link up the defensive and attacking phases of the game in a balanced way.
Was there one central midfield partner in particular you feel you linked up with and complemented especially well?
I’d have to say Andrea Pirlo. I played with him for ten years at Milan, I went through the whole national set-up with him, from youth level to the senior side. We must have played more than 500 games together. In the last few years we only needed to look at each other to know what the other was thinking. He started out as an attacking playmaker, then [Carlo] Mazzone and later [Carlo] Ancelotti had the foresight to stick him [deeper] in midfield. I think I was important to him; in the same way, he made my own job in midfield that much easier.
Were you always happy providing a platform for the likes of [Andrea] Pirlo, [Paul] Gascoigne, Kaka and so on? Did you ever wish you were the man further forward, creating and scoring goals?
Honestly, no. From an early age I admired another type of player. The first poster I stuck up in my bedroom was of [former Napoli and Inter Milan midfielder] Salvatore Bagni. I liked him because he played without shin pads, with his socks rolled down, and he was a battler in midfield. Bear in mind that I come from a family where my dad was an AC Milan fan and adored [Gianni] Rivera. I think I disappointed him because he had a son who was totally different from Rivera! But personally, I've always liked a combative style.