The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Gennaro Gattuso

Keep your Maldinis, your Pirlos, your tailored trousers, your Gucci shades, your magazine cologne, your jackets with the collars turned up. To me, AC Milan is Gennaro Gattuso, the world’s smallest ton of bricks.

Without Gattuso, the Milan squad is civilization itself, or at least civilization as filtered through the late-90s archive of Esquire. It’s spicy, cozy, soft, and sociable, it smells like Vento Canale, it has leather driving gloves, it knows the difference between Caraceni (A., please) and Gianni Campagna (certainly). It exudes—and exudes is the word—a wry, self-seductive confidence that also implies Saint-Loupian patience before the excesses of arrivistes.

With Gattuso, the Milan squad allows at least a hint of bloody-mindedness to penetrate its irradiating suavity. It ceases to be merely cosmopolitan and approaches a revanchist enlightenment, which is to say it imagines killing its rebel colonies rather than only taxing them. Gattuso influences high policy by low example; he looks like the gardener and plays like the gardener’s shovel.

If the rest of the team moves on the pitch like Yeats’s description of the thoughts of Michelangelo (“Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His mind moves upon silence“), Gattuso always reminds me of one of those nature films that open on an overhead shot of a wolverine in the snow. There’s something shocked about the wolverine’s relationship to its own ferocity; nothing about it is essentially as violent and relentless as its behavior, but it moves in a field that hasn’t been corrupted by mercy, and it uses the tools it’s been given.

Aside from Pippo Inzaghi, who never looks very alive, and possibly Ronaldinho, Gattuso is the only Milan player who consistently looks more alive when he’s playing than when he’s not. He brings a certain joy to the role of impressing himself on the shins of his opponents, probably because the game seems to have stakes for him that aren’t dulled by the tapestries at the family manor. He laughs while he snarls, and while he does everything he can to intimidate his opponents, he genuinely seems to enjoy playing against the ones he doesn’t intimidate. (His happy embrace with Levezzi near the end of the Milan-Napoli match last week was a characteristic moment.)

He moves the club, in his way, and disappears into it, too, as if all the bloodlust of a city emanated from an alligator that lived in the sewers. There’s nothing about Gattuso’s game that I love, especially, but I love watching the effect he has on the players he plays with and the players he plays against. He makes the idea clearer, in a way. He sharpens the teeth in all those beautiful smiles.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Gennaro Gattuso

by Brian Phillips · November 4, 2008

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