Giorgio Chiellini: for the love of defending

Giorgio Chiellini: for the love of defending

Rarely has a single photograph encapsulated the quintessence of one footballer and, by extension, his team, nation and culture, with such spontaneity and artistry in equal measure. The picture in question was captured on the evening of 7 March 2018 by a photographer keenly poised on the Wembley sidelines. In its frame are two men: Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon.

The photo places the defensive duo in an emotive embrace, tossing their usual stoic reservations to the wind; their foreheads pressed firmly against one another’s and their mouths cast wide open, mid-roar. Buffon has two handfuls of Chiellini’s shirt clutched between his enormous mitts while Chiellini’s own hands are found by his side, balled into determined fists. The two players are wildly celebrating not a goal nor a victory – though the latter would arrive in due course – but a block; just one of so many crucial interventions performed by Chiellini on the night.

His Juventus team had journeyed to the English capital requiring a result against Tottenham as, at home in Turin three weeks earlier, the Old Lady had squandered an early two-goal salvo to allow the English side to depart on equal terms. The Londoners had struck first on home soil and held on firmly to their newfound aggregate-lead but a swift reshuffle of formation and personnel from Massimiliano Allegri turned the tie on its head.

Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala each breached the Tottenham back line in the space of just three minutes and now, with their own 4-3 advantage to maintain, the mission objective had reverted once more to the instruction Chiellini loved most. His manager’s single direction came like music to his ears: “Defend.”

Try as they might, Tottenham could find no way through, Juventus’ final barricades proved impenetrable, and so it was the Italians who departed the famous pitch as victors. Spurs crashed out of the Champions League, dejected. Juve marched on to the quarter-finals, triumphant.

For the Italians in attendance, the flight home afforded the ideal opportunity for the game’s most spectacular moments to be replayed once more, silently projected against closed eyelids. In Chiellini’s case, there would be no joyous recollection of the flicks and tricks or the goals that carried his team into the next round. His highlights would replay in the form of the tackles, blocks, challenges and clearances performed by he and his fellow gladiators. For Chiellini, these are the moments he always remembers most fondly.

Like lending an ear to a small child who knows nothing of the impossibility of longing to become a fire engine or an owl when they grow up, witnessing the innocent elation with which Chiellini makes every willing defensive sacrifice is deeply enamouring. The purity of the joy found in doing his job – a job made to seem comparatively foul and prosaic by the illustrious exploits crafted at the end of the pitch to which he often remains a stranger – is enchanting. Watching Giorgio Chiellini defend, on occasion, is akin to witnessing a religious act, proof of predestination, as it appears no man has ever been so clearly made to perform one job than he.

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True as that may be, however, Chiellini did not begin life as a defender. Having enrolled in the youth ranks of Livorno as a toothy-grinned six-year-old, Chiellini started out as a creative midfield player. A migration to the wing, to utilise his obvious athleticism, soon followed before a step backwards into full-back lead him into to his first permanent position.

As intrinsically entwined as Juventus and Chiellini are today, given the incalculable impact the club and player have had on the continuing lives of one another, it was a season spent amidst the artistic affluence of Florence that propelled a 20-year-old Chiellini into the mainstream.

In 2002, Chiellini had seen his rights purchased and subsequently co-owned by Roma but had still spent the first four seasons of his burgeoning career at his boyhood club. Juventus entered the scene in 2004, eager to acquire the promising defender, but wished to see how he fared under the close inspection of a club with far loftier ambitions than Livorno, and so they secured his signature and swiftly sent him south, to Tuscany, to play for La Viola. There, though undeniably raw, Chiellini thrived.

Fiorentina mustered only a 16th-place finish in Serie A but Chiellini provided one of the few silver-linings to be found among the ruins of a forgettable campaign. Sadly for those of a decidedly purple persuasion, Chiellini’s season proved a little too good to ignore and Juve wasted no time in flying their new recruit back to Turin. His future appeared black and white.

Installed in the Juventus defence by the studious hands of Fabio Capello, Chiellini aided his parent club in securing a second consecutive league title – a vital cog in the meanest defence in all of Italy. The medal wouldn’t hang around his neck for long, though, as the Calciopoli scandal soon hit and snatched it from him. Along with their latest Coppa Campioni d’Italia, and the league trophy that preceded it, the Italian Football Federation robbed Chiellini and his club of their top-flight status.

With relegation forced upon them, and an indeterminable stay in Serie B awaiting them, many departed Juve fearing for their careers. After the club’s board resigned, manager Capello led the exodus and the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, and Zlatan Ibrahimović quickly followed him out of the Stadio delle Alpi.

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In contrast, club mainstays such as Gianluigi Buffon, Mauro Camoranesi, Pavel Nedvěd, David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero remained. Chiellini faced a difficult decision as he approached the very same fork in the road: stick or twist? Not yet did he boast anything like the history or romance shared by those who need not question their desire to stay in Turin, while others fled, but that was exactly what he longed for and so Chiellini devoted himself to Juventus.

To say that their season in Serie B quickly proved to be a solitary one does little to elucidate the various struggles Juve experienced while below deck. Their road back to the top was pitted with vocal fan animosity, periods of indifferent form, and resignations owing to internal power struggles. But, as their faithful tifosi hoped, the team came out on top of their new domestic contemporaries and returned to Serie A at the first time of asking.

The season would, for Chiellini, prove particularly formative as the experimentation of Didier Deschamps, during the Frenchman’s fleeting spell in charge of i Bianconeri, would see him shifted from the left of defence to its centre. There, absorbing many of the position’s finer subtleties from the tutelage of experienced stopper Nicola Legrottaglie, Chiellini would take his first steps in mastering the role.

The club had undergone a necessitated restructuring following their enforced demotion, on and off the field, but now, just 12 months on, they were back and seemed not to know how to tread even though to them it was familiar ground. Frustratingly for the Juventini, their team’s grand return was unveiled to reveal the rot of uncertainty burrowing deep beneath the club’s smiling facade. From the boardroom to the pitch, few at Juventus could decide exactly how big they could afford to dream or how to seed an appropriate level of ambition for the impending season.

For some time Juventus wrestled with their dilemma; opt for an adagio rebuild or plump for an immediate return to the big time. Chiellini, meanwhile, seemingly reserved no intentions of aiming for anywhere other than the top and appeared to have rarely felt more comfortable in black and white. The centre-back set about establishing himself as not just one of the most highly rated defenders in his country but across the world.

Celebrated as “a brutish centre-half with the positional sense and clout to shut down the best any opponent has to offer,” by Italian Football Daily senior editor Matthew Santangelo, “a guardian and protector, cut from the same cloth as those of traditional Italian ilk,” approval of Chiellini’s contributions to both club and country were by now ubiquitous, yet still the defender sought to improve.

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A keen student of the game and all its traditions, Chiellini was fast becoming the head of his defensive class. However, it would take until 2011, a period that coincided with the pivotal appointment of former Juve captain Antonio Conte as club manager, for his team to reclaim their own place among Europe’s elite.

Third, second, seventh, seventh. In the four years immediately following Juve’s return to Serie A, under a procession of fugacious supervisors in Claudio Ranieri, Ciro Ferrara, Alberto Zaccheroni and Luigi Delneri, the Old Lady flirted flagrantly with the promise of a rapid rise back to the country’s summit before slipping down the table towards mediocrity. Then, in strode Antonio Conte.

When the curtain fell on Juventus’ home game against Atalanta on the final day of the 2011/12 season, Conte’s first campaign as Juve boss, history was made. The 3-1 victory it drew to a close was of relatively minor importance but the season it also called time upon was unprecedented. Conte’s Juventus had not only won Serie A for the first time in nine years but they had done so while remaining unbeaten, with 23 wins, 15 draws, zero losses. Hardly a unique concept in the context of an Italian team, the key to their immense success lay at the feet of their assiduous defence.

With his manager initially favouring two disparate defensive systems, on any given day Chiellini could find himself marshalling a three or four-man defence. Soon, Conte would come to depend on the former. The 3-5-2 formation, equipped with three centre-backs and two full-backs, would place Chiellini alongside Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, both of whom had arrived in the previous season, and together the three Italian stoppers would form one of the most revered defences to be found anywhere in world football.

Chiellini’s continued collaboration with Barzagli and Bonucci would form the spine of the team that would dominate Italian football for the foreseeable future. After their first title together in 2012 came subsequent Scudetti in each of the following five seasons. In the final three of those – 2015, 2016 and 2017 – their league titles were to be further embellished with Coppa Italia triumphs on each occasion – further proof of Juve’s, and Chiellini’s, domestic dominance.

Throughout this time, i Bianconeri could regularly be found plotting supplementary coups on the continent, posturing before foreign audiences, though they would experience nothing like the same kind of fortune come the final hurdle. Two Champions League final appearances in three years would represent prodigious progress, but tragic losses to Spanish opposition on both occasions would remind the Old Lady of her pesky mortality. Whether Chiellini is able to right the wrongs of yesteryear and finally lift a European trophy before being claimed by father time is a tale to be told many seasons from now.

A similar scenario would sadly grace the majority of Chiellini’s time spent adorned in the national colours of Gli Azzurri. Immensely proud and deeply privileged though each of his caps made him, to announce his international retirement just four short of a century of appearances, after failing to qualify for what would have been his final World Cup and having never lifted silverware alongside his compatriots, would leave behind just a single blot on an otherwise masterful portrait of a born winner. But, as Chiellini himself would surely decree, such is life. 

For some players, their legacies begin and end within the white lines, products of their prominent profession and no more. For Chiellini, the story extends far beyond the field of play.

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In every player, in every man, there exists a dichotomy. Yet even knowing this makes it hard to believe Chiellini is not the solo anomaly; the one-dimensional athlete who lives only to win. To those who watch him on the field bullying and brutalising his opponents, patiently prowling the back line before hurling his immense frame at the feet of attackers in precise search of destruction and throwing his body in the firing line without caution or care for self-preservation, there can be no hunch or suspicion of an alternative characterisation. But, of course, there is and what is most interesting in the case of Giorgio Chiellini is the extreme juxtaposition his so-called hidden side reveals.

The Chiellini we rarely see – the one with passions aside from leaping for headers, stuffing padding up his bloodied and elbow-battered nose, screaming instructions at his monochrome-clad comrades – he loves to read. He is a polite, soft-spoken intellectual, who utilises his time away from the pitch to study, most notably for a bachelor’s degree in economics and commerce at the University of Turin before graduating cum laude with a master’s in business administration shortly thereafter.

He is the son of an orthopaedic surgeon and an international navigation company’s vice-president. He is a footballer who once was forced to turn his back on a dream of pursuing a career in medicine in order to focus on his sporting endeavours. He is a husband, a twin, a father, and, only after all of these things, is he one of the greatest defenders in the game today.

In the words of The Gentleman Ultra managing editor Luca Hodges-Ramon, “Chiello is one of the last bastions of a dying breed, a leader of the old guard; a defender who preoccupies himself first and foremost with defending and, more importantly, loves every minute of it. But to describe him as a warrior is reductive when, in fact, he is so much more. This really shines through in interviews, where the bruising stopper becomes a gentle giant, and it is this combination of professionalism and passion, brawn and brains, that makes Giorgio Chiellini one of the modern defensive greats.”

If an alien were to crash land on earth and, inspired by a startling desire to understand the nuances of our planet’s favourite pastime, requested telepathically to be shown evidence of this sporting discipline we call defending, it would take a fool not to scramble to find footage of Chiellini in an instant. But even if that alien could watch every interception the Italian had made, every clean sheet ever masterminded or every trophy he’d strived to lift, it’d still only scratch the surface should it wish to know exactly what makes Giorgio Chiellini so special.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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