Many things come to mind when watching 26 year old Giorgio Chiellini in the distinctive black and white stripes of Juventus or the proud blue of the Italian national team. Yet, even in this age of instant media and overused superlatives, first impressions still count for much and perhaps in this case that snapshot proves unerringly accurate.
With his shaven head, robust tackling and constant yelling – at opponents, team-mates and even himself – it is hard not to describe Chiellini in exactly the way we initially view him; a typically uncompromising Italian defender. He is something of a throwback, bringing images of the man markers – ‘stoppers’ as they are called in Italy – of yesteryear, a modern take on the old school type of player the peninsula became synonymous with thanks to the rugged displays of men like Giorgio Ferrini, Pasquale Bruno and of course Juve’s own Claudio (not so) Gentile.
Chiellini then is walking proof that they do indeed still ‘make them like that’ today if you know where to find them. Looking back over his career, it is an assessment that is only ever reinforced by what he has done, from his choice of clubs to his style on the pitch. His view of football gives a great insight into the reasons behind this as he said in a 2009 interview where he told La Gazzetta dello Sport;
“I believe the most important thing for a defender is to take the ball away from the opposing team no matter what and never allow any space for those opponents to score goals.”
He made his Juventus debut as long ago as October 15, 2005, but it is obvious he made some incredibly difficult decisions before ever arriving in Turin. A native of Pisa, he began playing for hated local rivals Livorno at just six years of age, making his first team debut for the then Serie C1 club at just sixteen years of age. He impressed immediately, helping the Amaranto earn promotion two years later. Here his career became complicated due to Italy’s co-ownership rules but, if a man truly is a product of his environment, then it is worth closer examination in order to fully understand just where he has been.
It is not widely known that, back in 2002, Roma bought a share of Chiellini’s playing rights but left the player at Livorno to develop. Two years later the Giallorossi would sell that same share back to the Tuscan side, only to see the player sold in full – and at a substantial profit – to Juventus. With Luciano Moggi in the process of building a team to win instantly under Fabio Capello, the defender was in turn moved on in co-ownership to Fiorentina, where he played a full Serie A season, again looking instantly at home, although still a very raw prospect. The following summer, in perhaps one of the only good deals of his last few seasons at the club, Moggi took advantage of the Viola’s perilous financial state to steal back Chiellini (among others) for an incredibly low fee.
In keeping with his character it would be a tough beginning for him. Being brought on as a substitute for Pavel Nedved in a home game against Messina would be tough enough, but not for Chiellini. Juve were not only in the midst of a record equalling string of victories during that fateful 2005-06 campaign, but the game was also played out in an almost empty stadium as a protest by Bianconeri fans against a number of club policies and decisions. The Ultras would only enter the Curva at the half-time interval but, in something of an aside, the Bianconeri would triumph thanks to Alessandro Del Piero scoring the only goal of the game past none other than Marco Storari!
It is obviously well documented that that summer would end with Juventus relegated to Serie B, but Chiellini once again took the difficult option and, at a key stage of his career he followed the example of the team’s leaders and stayed to help restore the Old Lady to her rightful place. It would prove to be a move that would be the making of the player as Didier Deschamps moved him from his then usual left-back slot into central defence. Chiellini looked more comfortable immediately and began building an outstanding partnership with Nicola Legrottaglie, who he credits with teaching him to play this new role.
That pairing would serve Juve well upon returning to Serie A and during that season another uncompromising first impression of Chiellini would come for British fans, most probably seeing him for the first time. He would captain the Italian Under-21 side in the opening match at the newly rebuilt Wembley Stadium where he received an accidental kick to the head yet, like Terry Butcher and Paul Ince before him, Chiellini played on, blood-stained and bandaged, but still winning countless headers. Could he try any harder to impress football watchers in the UK?
2008 would be another busy year for Chiellini, now a fundamental piece of the Juventus team and playing a key role in the pursuit of Champions League football. An inspired performance against Inter at San Siro saw him come close to fighting with Ibrahimovic in the first showing of a now expected but uncanny ability to keep the Swede at bay, something few others are able to do so comprehensively.
He would also score two goals in a 5-2 demolition of Lazio which finally did secure third place and entry to European football’s elite competition. His rugged, no-holds-barred style would raise its head again as a fully committed challenge in training would see him put Captain Fabio Cannavaro out of the European Championships that same summer. Undaunted, the Juve man filled the role brilliantly, in particular against Fernando Torres and Spain in the quarter final as Italy came closer than anyone to halting what has now become an utterly dominant side.
But to label him as nothing more than a physical central defender does a great disservice to the player he is today. Chiellini has a good range of passing and excellent crossing ability, both testaments to the time he spent at full back and central midfield earlier in his career. He is also a threat to the opposition on set-pieces, capable of weighing in with more than his fair share of goals, 23 in his time at Juventus. He possesses a great long throw as well, a weapon the Turin club have taken advantage on a number of occasions.
His qualities have seen him named Serie A’s ‘Defender of the Year’ three times already with those awards largely vindication for his continued excellence in an era where the rest of the Juventus defence collectively gave up before they ate Panettone. It is this clear display of the ‘non mollare mai’ (never give up) mindset that endears Chiellini to Juventini the world over and combined with his great defensive capabilities, should be winning him many admirers elsewhere too.
When discussing the world’s best defenders, names like Nemanja Vidic, Gerard Pique and Thiago Silva are often – quite rightly – at the forefront of the conversation. Looking for other names to join that elite group is a far more difficult proposition but one name that perhaps should now be counted among their number is that of Giorgio Chiellini.
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