Gattuso: The EURO is so tough

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Gennaro Gattuso, 30, is the snarling midfield hard man of reigning FIFA World Cup™ champions Italy. He will be leading the Azzurri into the upcoming UEFA EURO 2008 finals in Austria and Switzlerland, where the Italians will strive to become only the third side in history to hold both the world and European titles.

In this exclusive interview, the Calabria-born workhorse reveals how difficult a challenge he expects EURO 2008 to be, and describes his time in Scotland and his love affair with AC Milan.

FIFA magazine: Gennaro, are Italy the hot favourites to win EURO 2008?
Gennaro Gattuso: Of course! After all, we're the world champions and we qualified for EURO 2008 in style ahead of France, Scotland and Ukraine. However, we face a tough group with France, the Netherlands and Romania. Like us, France and the Netherlands will have aspirations to win the title, as will Germany, who rarely lose big matches, Spain, Portugal and, of course, defending champions Greece.

How have Italy changed since the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany?
Roberto Donadoni had an unenviable task taking over the reins from Marcello Lippi. However, he has succeeded in improving our tactical flexibility while also bringing outstanding players such as [Massimo] Ambrosini, [Alberto] Aquilani and [Antonio] Di Natale on board. Donadoni has enhanced our tactical variety, which has given us renewed impetus. We're as hungry as ever for success, and with our technical skills and our experience, we can go far in Austria and Switzerland if we arrive at the tournament fit and relaxed. But the European Championship is much more difficult than the World Cup. If you look at previous tournaments, you'll see that Italy have often struggled there.

Why is this?
Well, there are no easy opponents at the EURO. All of the teams play at an extremely high level and every single game is like a cup final. The teams are familiar with one another and often play in a similar manner. What's more, the rest periods between games are shorter - the tournament may not last long, but it's certainly intense. So it's vital to have a large, high-quality squad that can withstand the psychological pressures of competing for a title that calls for six top performances in 23 days. It's a question of all or nothing even in the group stages, as EURO 2004 in Portugal showed.

EURO 2004 was a bitter experience for Italy...
It certainly was. We were eliminated despite a win and two draws and, like Germany and Spain, we failed to qualify for the quarter finals. The players from these countries were burnt out after a lengthy season involving many domestic and international matches. That's why so many of the 16 teams have a chance of winning the EURO 2008 title.

Which players will rise to the fore at EURO 2008?
From our team, I'd pick out Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Luca Toni. I also expect Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, Spain's Fernando Torres and Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic to have an outstanding tournament because of their technical skills and athleticism. Experience is also vital at the European Championship. World-class players like France's Thierry Henry and Germany's Michael Ballack can drive their team towards the title by force of personality alone.

You're also capable of spurring your team on...
I'm no star, if that's what you mean. I'm a team player who always gives everything for the team. I don't have Pirlo's refined skills or understanding of the game, but I can contribute to the team's success by winning the ball back, battling, running and helping out my team-mates. I drive the whole team on and set an example.

Did you ever have an idol?
Salvatore Bagni, a team-mate of the great Diego Maradona at Napoli. Bagni later moved to Inter Milan, and my dad Franco, a Milan fan, wouldn't allow me to hang a poster of Bagni on my bedroom wall. Now the player I admire most is my team-mate Paolo Maldini. He's played in more than a thousand official games during his professional career, all of them at the highest level. He is the perfect role model in terms of professionalism and passion for football, still devoting the same energy to training at 40 as he did when he began his career.

Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of AC Milan, thinks you would be the ideal successor to Maldini as team captain...
I sincerely hope Paolo continues his fantastic career. It remains to be seen whether I'm handed the captain's armband in the future. Milan have had a special place in my heart since childhood. It would be a great honour for me to follow on from Franco Baresi and Maldini.

Despite your passion for AC Milan, you wanted to leave the club three years ago...
That was after the unbelievable loss against Liverpool in the final of the UEFA Champions League in Istanbul. We led 3-0 and eventually lost on penalties! I was ashamed and the experience left me feeling bruised for a long time. Fortunately, the trainer and my team-mates were able to get me motivated again. We recaptured our will to win and succeeded in avenging the defeat last year in Athens.

The Milan team is old and it looks as if its time may have passed...
The time cannot have passed on the Champions League winners and world club champions. All we need is one or two young players and then we'll once again be a match for any team at home or abroad. As for myself, I don't set any limits. I hope to be around for a long time yet. However, at the moment I'm completely focussed on the goals that lie ahead, namely qualification for next year's Champions League and a successful outcome to EURO 2008.

You moved to Scotland at an early stage in your career, and this helped you evolve tremendously as a person and a player...
I was 18 years old and I'll forever be grateful to my father for encouraging me to leave Perugia and join Rangers. He said I would be mad to give up the chance of earning 250,000 euros a year when he had to get by on 500 euros a month. I overcame my fears and found two magnificent mentors in Paul Gascoigne and Walter Smith. They taught me how to combine aggressiveness with loyalty. I remember my first Old Firm derby match, with me, a Catholic, playing for a Protestant team against their great Catholic rivals Celtic. I was booked in the first minute, and then sent off ten minutes later for another foul. The hairs still stand up on the back of my neck when I think of the fans chanting my name at Ibrox Park - 'Reenooo! Reenooo!' From then on my team-mates and the fans nicknamed me 'Brave Heart'. At first, they made fun of me because I didn't recognise the picture of the woman hanging in the changing room. It was Queen Elizabeth.

You were the first young Italian to move abroad, over ten years ago. Moves like this are common nowadays...
Whether you like it or not, it's a question of market forces. However, limits have to be set if you want to keep the national identity of football. Perhaps it would be a good idea to grant preferential treatment to the club that brought the young player through the ranks. If less well-off clubs were given first refusal on players they'd brought through, they'd have a vested interest in stepping up their training and youth development work. Without this guarantee, the pressure to succeed is too great. No club can afford to spend the necessary time developing its talented young players.

Thanks to your huge popularity, you've become a sought-after advertising icon in Italy...
It's great fun to shoot advertisements. I just try to be myself. Well-known companies improve my image and that of footballers generally. My hometown of Corigliano in the province of Cosenza is to be used as a backdrop for some adverts, which means I can allow my people to share in my success.

You've retained close links with your hometown...
I'm proud to be a Terrone, the derogatory name given in Italy to southern Italians, and I identify with the values of the region - family, friendship, generosity and compassion. I've set up a charity bearing my name in Corigliano to build football pitches and facilities for children from needy families. I've also set up a fish factory in the area that provides work for many young people. Calabria has a high rate of unemployment. By investing in my region, I can give back to the region some of what it's given me.

According to a poll taken after the 2006 World Cup, English women said you had greater sex appeal than David Beckham...
That's because of my spontaneous and natural personality. My wife Monica just laughs about it, just as she laughs about the photos of me in men's underwear that appear on billboards, in newspapers and on television. Although she was less amused at first. I don't see myself as another Beckham. I just want to be my own person. So I've never rubbed cream on my face!

Your nickname is Ringhio, which roughly translates as 'The Snarler'. You're seen as a player who bites away at players' ankles...
I don't like this name, but now everyone calls me it, even my friends. I've got used to the name because, ultimately, it's a compliment. In private, I'm not at all aggressive, but instead a quiet family man. My wife and my children Gabriela and Francesco are my real hobby, not to mention my dog Sam, a Golden Retriever with whom I go jogging to burn off the calories from all the chocolate I eat.

While other players embrace one another, you celebrate goals by giving Marcello Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti a slap.
I have an excellent relationship with both coaches. We respect one other greatly. I don't know why I behave that way with them, it just happens instinctively, and my manner of celebrating has now become something of a lucky charm. Who knows, I might even start giving Roberto Donadoni a slap during EURO 2008!