The brutality was as effective as it was violent. The claustrophobia inflicted on his opponents was stifling to the point of suffocation. Reputations were swept away as easily as a standing leg when receiving the ball. Such was its effectiveness and the relentlessness with which it was pursued, Claudio Gentile’s performances in the second round of the 1982 World Cup were a juxtaposition of exquisite barbarism.

Gentile: perhaps the most inappropriate name ever afforded to a professional footballer. The Italian defender wore his reputation as a tough, uncompromising defender, or as the more clickbait YouTube video titles would have you believe, ‘The Hardest Man in Soccer’, as a badge of honour. But there was nothing gentle about the man born in Libya and raised in Italy on a diet of Catenaccio and traditional Italian physicality. “My character was not to intimidate, it was to show I was the boss on the field. You have to be gritty and determined. At certain times you have to know ‘how’ to foul,” once said the Italian.

Claudio Gentile started his career with Arona in 1971. After one year and 34 league appearances, the defender moved to Serie B side Varese, where once again he stayed for one year and made 34 league appearances. Then came the big move; Juventus manager Čestmír Vycpálek recognised his tough uncompromising style of defending and brought the player to the Old Lady of Turin. Gentile would miss out on winning the Serie A title with the Czech coach, but a change in manager would bring about a change in fortune as Italian Carlo Parola was brought in for a second spell in charge of the Bianconeri.

When Gentile arrived at Juventus, goalkeeper Dino Zoff was already at the club having moved from Napoli in 1972 at the age of 30. Zoff and Gentile formed half of what would prove to be one of the greatest defences ever seen in Serie A, as well as on the international scene for Italy. A year after Gentile signed for Juventus another defender arrived, this time from Atalanta. Gaetano Scirea was the complete antithesis of Gentile. Known for his fair play and sportsmanship as well as being an intelligent defender who played with style and grace, Scirea was also adept at reading the game and had excellent technique on the ball.

The contrasting defensive pairing, which expertly combined silk and steel together with the experienced Zoff as the last line of defence, saw Juventus claim the 1974/75 title. Gentile played 29 of 30 league games and was integral to a Bianconeri side which only conceded three goals at home in the league all season.

In July 1976 Giovanni Trapattoni took over the reigns at Juventus from Parola. It was to be the beginning of a sustained period of success for the manager, the club, theBianconeri defence and Gentile. The arrival of left-back Antonio Cabrini, like Scirea also from Atalanta, was the final piece in Trapattoni’s defence. Zoff, Gentile, Scirea and Cabrini would form the bedrock of Juve’s defence for the next seven years. The four players would also be first choice starters for the national team from 1975 to 1983, competing in the 1978 and 1982 World Cups as well as Euro 80.

Trapattoni would revolutionise Juventus with astute tactical acumen as well as adapting the catenaccio style, using the zona mista – a combination of man-marking and zonal marking – to great effect. It was a tactic which saw the Juve defensive personnel thrive, in particular Gentile, who would elevate the art of man-marking to a different plane from all who had gone before him.

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Over those prolific seven years with the Serie A giants, Gentile and a revitalised Juventus team would win five Scudetti, two Coppa Italias, one UEFA Cup and one Cup Winners’ Cup. Gentile would narrowly miss out on the third UEFA trophy, the European Cup, when losing to Hamburg in the 1983 final. Ironically, they lost 1-0, a scoreline for which the Italian national team and their clubs had come to be renowned for.

Under Trapattoni’s tutelage, Gentile was becoming an effective defender who could play as either a right-back or as a centre half. His manager’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the opposition and his innate ability to manipulate situations on the pitch from the sidelines allowed Gentile and the rest of the Juventus defence to develop into a side which achieved unparalleled success in the 1970s and 80s.

During their five championship wins, the fabled black and white wall that was erected on a weekly basis in front of Zoff (later Stefano Tacconi by the 1983/84 season) became misers at the back, rarely conceding goals, especially at home. Any team or striker who dared steal a goal against them had effectively committed a personal affront or insult to what they were trying to achieve. The statistics bear out Gentile’s incredible consistency and contribution to domestic success.

The Bianconeri played 150 Serie A games during those five title-winning seasons, conceding just 95 goals, with Gentile playing in 135 of them. The home fans only witnessed 46 goals scored against their beloved Turin side during those success-laden seasons, with the Stadio Comunale Vittorio Pozzo conceding an average of just 9.2 goals per season; incredible statistics for a player who is portrayed by The Times newspaper as the eighth ‘Hardest Footballer In History’.

Gentile’s consistent selection for the Bianconeri saw him only miss 24 Serie A games out of 270 during a run of nine consecutive seasons between 1974/75 and 1982/83. For a player who was allegedly remembered as being one of the dirtiest in history, Gentile was only sent off once in his Juventus career and that was for two yellow card offences, the second one being a deliberate handball. This explains the lack of suspensions, which would have reduced his playing time for Juventus.

Gentile thrived under Trapattoni’s tactical innovations, especially when it came to man-marking his opponent. While the tactic can appear negative as its aim is to stifle or nullify the creative talent on the pitch, when played appropriately and within the laws of the game, it is an incredibly difficult tactic to implement. It requires constant concentration for the entire 90 minutes as well as having the physical capabilities to match your opponent. To be a man marker is physically and mentally draining and very few players in history have been able to play the role consistently.

Gentile’s ‘creative’ defensive talents would be called upon when opposition teams possessed a fantasista; the type of player who drifts around the pitch without really holding a position, but looking to play between the lines. The type of player who can dictate play by either putting their foot on the ball and slowing play down or using any part of the foot to flick, back-heel and caress the ball first time to keep play moving at pace. Essentially, the heartbeat of the team.

Read  |  A history of football’s dark arts

Such was the Bianconeri’s mutual understanding that the defensive personnel could rotate and adapt to any situation or tactic imposed upon them by Trapattoni. Gentile’s incredible powers of concentration, as well as his physicality and ability to intimidate opponents, meant that when he was required to ‘do a job’, Scirea and Cabrini just adapted the way they played.

While Gentile’s consistency and success at domestic level may not be fully appreciated beyond the boundaries of Turin, it was during his international performances where his demonstration of the dark arts gained a wider audience. Quotes from international opponents only served to strengthen the Machiavellian aura around the Italian defender. In the international set-up, his teammates nicknamed him ‘Gaddafi’.

Like with his club manager, Gentile found a kindred spirit in his international boss. The man from Tripoli would represent the Azzurri in 71 official international matches, 69 of those under the guidance of Enzo Bearzot. The former Italy under-23 manager had been in charge for Gentile’s two under-23 appearances and was fully aware of what the defender’s capabilities were when the two were reunited in the senior set-up.

Like Trapattoni, Bearzot was tactically astute and meticulous in his planning, studying the opposition for days in advance of the fixture. Bearzot was also a keen advocate of the zona mista version of catenaccio. The elevation to senior international football was seamless for Gentile, and when an opponent needed to be nullified, Bearzot had no hesitation in turning to the man who was beginning to fine-tune the dark arts of defending – Italian style. 

In 1977 Peter Barnes and Steve Coppell lined up against Gentile for the first time in their careers. The game was a 1978 World Cup qualifier, played at Wembley. England won the game 2-0, but the quotes that came out of the game were enough to make your eyes water. Steve Coppell recalls: “We put a cross in and we both slid, and he sort of put his hand on my testicles and I would say it was a playful squeeze, but it was little tighter than that. It made me yelp for a little bit.”

It is difficult to say if Peter Barnes got off lighter than Coppell that night: “Gentile was marking me that night. He used to spit in your face and call you ‘an English pig’. He got booked in the first half for pulling my shirt back and throwing me on the ground, and the ball rolled about five yards away from my head, so he came up to the ball and smashed it against the back of my head as I was lying on the floor. That’s the sort of player he was.”

England would fail to qualify for the finals in Argentina, but Claudio Gentile and the rest of the Azzurri would make it to South America a year later. During the 1978 World Cup, Italy secured fourth place having lost 2-1 to Brazil in that most pointless of fixtures, the third-place playoff. During the tournament, the Azzurri used the entire Juventus back four of Gentile, Cabrini, Scirea and Antonello Cuccureddu, all in front of their domestic team mate Dino Zoff.

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Such was Juventus’ dominance in the 1970s that eight of the starting 11 for that tournament played for them. A 2-1 defeat to the brilliant Dutch side in the second round group game prevented Italy from reaching the final, a game which uncharacteristically saw the Italians lose after leading 1-0 at half-time.

The 1980 European Championships were held in Gentile’s homeland and saw the frugal foursome from Juventus concede only one goal in the entire tournament. Unfortunately two 0-0 draws and a 1-0 win against England was not enough to progress to the final, as they had to settle for another pointless third-place playoff game. Italy conceded their only goal of the competition against Czechoslovakia while drawing 1-1, and eventually lost on penalties to finish their home tournament in fourth place.

The 1982 World Cup in Spain was to be a festival of attacking football, with arguably the three greatest playmakers in the world at that time all in attendance. Diego Maradona, Zico and Michel Platini all wore the fabled number 10 shirt, and with the World Cup returning to European shores, a more temperate climate would only facilitate the talent that was on display.

It was this tournament that would eventually introduce a mostly innocent and unsuspecting worldwide audience to Gentile. Where only glimpses through sporadic internationals against England and reduced highlights of UEFA competitions had hinted at the defender’s propensity for tough defending, four weeks of live football broadcast at Central European Time would be where Gentile’s legendary reputation as a football hard man would be forged and imprinted onto the watching world’s psyche. The imprint left by Gentile on Maradona and Zico would be of a more physical and painful nature.

As was the recent tradition for the Azzurri at major tournaments, the Italians got off to a slow and uninspiring start. Their opening group saw them draw 0-0 with Poland and 1-1 with Peru and Cameroon. The Juventus-manufactured defence were once again doing their job; it was at the opposite end that Bearzot’s men were struggling. Eventually finishing third in their group, the Italians were pitched into the original ‘Group of Death’ with Argentina and Brazil. The second round group format meant that only one team would progress to the semi-finals. Italian press and football officials were not remotely confident of Italian progression.

Up first for Italy were the defending champions Argentina and in their ranks the new young superstar of world football, Maradona. Gentile recalls how Bearzot spoke to him about the task of marking the Argentine number 10: “Bearzot was in a bit of a quandary, he wasn’t sure whom he should pick to mark Maradona. I was supposed to mark a striker not a midfielder. I was watching TV one night when Bearzot came and asked me ‘what would you say about marking Maradona?’ That wouldn’t be a problem I replied, being a bit boastful. As soon as he heard that he turned around and walked out the room without giving me the chance to say ‘no coach I was only kidding’. There was no going back at that point, so I grabbed some video tapes and watched them for two days. I wanted to study Maradona and his potential, and how I could limit it. I couldn’t stop him, but I could ‘limit’ him.”

The game has now passed into World Cup folklore. Gentile was brutally brilliant as Maradona could not shake the relentless attention afforded to him by his marker. As a watching nine-year-old, to me the Italian appeared as a terrifying, dark, brooding menace of a man, his Mediterranean heritage mixed with thick black hair and an even thicker blacker moustache to give him the appearance of an exaggerated pantomime villain. What followed should never have got past the 9pm watershed, such were the administered levels of on-field violence. 

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Maradona was fouled 11 times in the first half by Gentile alone. In total the Italian would foul the young Argentine 23 times in the game; it equates to a foul every four minutes. To Gentile’s credit, they weren’t all trips. Gentile had a vast repertoire and used them all in his pursuit of Maradona. Trips, kicks, shirt pulling, stamping, elbows and even a forearm across the throat. The coup de grâce was Gentile digging his fingernails into the back of Maradona’s hand as he tried to help him up. One can only assume that this visually apparent act of sportsmanship is what convinced the referee to only issue the Italian defender with a single yellow card.

When questioned about his merciless pursuit of the 21-year-old, Gentile retorted: “Football is not for ballerinas.” To be fair to Maradona, he is quick to exonerate Gentile in his autobiography: “Every time I tried to receive the ball he’d be snapping at my ankles. I could hardly move or turn around and he didn’t even get sent off. It wasn’t Gentile’s fault, that’s his job. It was the ref’s.” Gentile carried out his manager’s man-marking brief to perfection and laid the platform for a 2-1 win.

As an impressionable minor watching the World Cup, I had absolutely no inclination to emulate Gentile and his underhand tactics. To me, he was the destroyer of worlds, an anti-hero of the footballing sphere; a man who had single-handedly prevented the world from witnessing Maradona’s potential brilliance. Surely the sensational Seleção side containing the world’s greatest player, Zico, would prove to be too much for the one-man wrecking machine?

Italy versus Brazil in 1982 is regarded by many as the greatest World Cup match of all time. Italy had to win the game to secure progression to the semi-finals. Once again, Bearzot had formulated a plan to nullify the opposition. Gentile recalls: “Bearzot didn’t tell me I was going to mark Zico in the two days between the match with Argentina and the game with Brazil. So I was a bit surprised because I had been studying Éder. Fortunately I had remembered Zico’s style of play, and I did what I had to do. Luckily things went my way.”

Gentile was relentless in his pursuit of the Brazilian number 10. Zico was older and more experienced than Maradona and he tried to drag Gentile out of position by dropping deeper into the midfield. Zico escaped the attentions of the Italian number 6 only once in the entire game. The result was a quick back-heel by Zico, which wrong footed Gentile, a second touch followed by a flicked pass to Sócrates and the Brazilian captain scored. It would be the only time in 90 minutes of football that Zico made a telling contribution.

Such was the close attention being paid to the number 10 that Gentile practically ripped the shirt from Zico’s body as he tried to ghost into the Italian penalty area. Zico made a futile remonstration with the referee as he showed the official his torn shirt, which exposed half of his torso. But the man in the middle just waved away the protest. Again the lenient – or intimidated – referee only showed the Italian one yellow card during the game.

A Paolo Rossi hat-trick eventually did for Brazil as the Azzurri won a thrilling game 3-2. Claudio Gentile had nullified the two best players in the world over two consecutive games on the greatest stage and at the highest level. One can only imagine the mental and physical fatigue that went into two such decisive performances. In the space of 180 minutes, Gentile’s brand of defending had been exposed to the world and the world wept at its consequences. The flamboyant Brazilians had been dispatched back to South America and the zona mista brand of Catenaccio had replaced jogo bonito in the semi final.

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The two yellow cards meant that Gentile had to sit out the semi-final against first-round opponents Poland, but so do did their talisman, Zbigniew Boniek. Unbelievably both players had received the same amount of cautions in the tournament, yet their playing styles were miles apart. It would have been no surprise if Gentile had forced his way onto the Polish bench and sat down right next to Boniek, just to make sure.

Italy played Germany in the final, and a clean-shaven but no less angelic-looking Gentile and the rest of the Azzurri defence gave a master-class in the art of defending. This time it was the diminutive Pierre Littbarski who was to get the ‘special attention’ from Gentile, but the German was not in the same league as Zico or Maradona. Gentile nullified the German attacking midfielder to such an extent that he managed to venture up-field and supply the cross for Rossi’s opening goal in the final.

Gentile had not only achieved domination domestically with Juventus but now he had gone on to achieve domination on a global scale, all from an inauspicious beginning. The Italians scored 10 goals in their final four games in the 1982 World Cup and dispatched the favourites, the holders and the reigning European champions. Gentile’s ability to stifle and dominate the opposition had allowed the rest of the Italian team to grow in confidence and play with a freedom rarely seen by the Azzurri.

Gentile left the Bianconeri in 1984, the same year he retired from the international scene. A further three seasons with Fiorentina and a final season with Piacenza saw the consistent defender amass another 90 Serie A appearances, but the success achieved at Juventus could not be repeated. In 2000 Gentile was appointed as the Italian under-21 manager; an appropriate role model for the next generation? It mattered little as Gentile led the side to the 2004 Under-21 European Championship title.

All too often, the name Claudio Gentile is associated with terms such as intimidation, uncompromising, unsporting, and aggressive. Yet in 71 international appearances and over 400 league appearances he was only dismissed once. Contrast those adjectives with the level of success achieved by the often-demonised defender and perhaps the world has the wrong perception of Gentile. After all, he was named in the FIFA World Cup All-star Team for the 1982 finals.

A child has the luxury of being able to say what they see with complete innocence, their judgements made purely on the evidence in front of them. My nine-year-old eyes told me that Gentile was a cheat and a player who didn’t deserve to be on the same pitch as my footballing heroes. Adults have the luxury of hindsight and context. Looking back over Gentile’s career it is impossible not to admire the tenacity and discipline with which he played the game, as well as his innate ability to consistently play on the very precipice of what was acceptable over 90 minutes. I confess now that Gentile very much had a place in the game and the master of the dark arts is a player I now begrudgingly admire.

It is an age-old topic of discussion to try and hypothesise how players or teams would fair in the modern game. It is possible to question whether Gentile would survive in the modern day game. A better question is: would the modern-day player survive Gentile?

By Stuart Horsfield