The jaw dropping sight of Garrincha’s bent legs outpacing, outfoxing and tormenting defenders, or the genius of Maradona in its pomp, casting its spell upon oppositions are picturesque moments that still leave a glitter in the eye of the football fan. The sport down the years has been graced by many ambassadors like Maradona and Zidane, players who promote its status as the ‘beautiful game.’ And alongside these mavericks have co-existed a few ‘devils’, who have tarnished the image of the game by choosing to play it in the hard way. Described by purists as an ‘eye-sore’, these thugs have been categorized as agents of ‘anti-football.’
As Kevin Keegan walked towards the podium to collect his award for the Best European player in a black tie dinner hosted by UEFA, he was tripped over by the outstretched leg of a man named Claudio Gentile. Keegan picked himself up and looked at him, only to see a mischievous glare mixed with a stern expression appear on the face of the soon-to-be-nemesis of probably the greatest player the world has ever seen. As Keegan was about to walk away, Gentile, in a low voice uttered:
“You wouldn’t have won any award, if I had been marking you.”
The imposing figure of Claudio Gentile wearing the black and white of the Bianconeri and standing in the tunnel with his hair slid backwards and chest puffed out would probably represent an intimidating picture for any player who came up against him, till date. Coming from a country which had become synonymous with churning out a host of cultured defenders who had a touch of elegance in whatever they did, Gentile was among the not-so-elegant men of the game. Unlike his compatriots, who would clear any impending danger like a gracious wolf, Gentile was an an explosive character who liked getting stuck into the opposition and harrying and hassling them into submission.
As he once famously proclaimed -
“A defender needs to find a way to let his presence be known”
Add to this, the tenacious defender was a master at the art of deception. Quietly and unnoticed, Gentile would go about his work of man-marking the most dangerous player of the opposition into anonymity without getting himself into the eyes of the referee. To ruffle some feathers, he would leave no stone unturned – be it a kick to the backside, the slightest of nudges or the niggling fouls, Gentile was a master at unsettling his opposite number to the crux. The hard-natured man he was,the fact that he wasn’t sent off once in 71 games for his country pays ample testimony to Gentile’s art of deceiving the officials.
After making his name at Turin, Gentile introduced himself to the rest of the world in the year 1982. En route to the final, Italy scalped some of the biggest names of the tournament – most notably a Zico-led Brazil and a Maradona-led Argentina. Both play-makers were at the peak of their powers and were expected to have a major say in scripting the fate of their respective countries. In the second round, the Azzurri were placed alongside Brazil and Argentina. Chances seamed bleak for Bearzot and co, given the firepower of both the Latin American teams.
In the build-up to the game against Argentina, Bearzot entrusted Gentile with the job of keeping Maradona in check. He carefully studied the Argentine star by watching videos of his game and came to a conclusion that the midfielder could be kept quiet by not allowing him any time on the ball. And so it happened. During the game, Gentile was right on Maradona as soon as he received possession. El Diego was choked and was battered and bruised by Gentile, being subject to a number of thundering tackles as well as small niggles, which in total added up to an astonishing 23 fouls on him. At the end, frustration got the better of Maradona and he was booked for excessive complaining. Post the game, Gentile uttered four words, the impact of which echoes till date.
“Football isn’t for Ballerinas.”
Zico too was subjected to a similar fate as Maradona. Just minutes before kick-off, Gentile was informed by his manager that he was to keep Zico in check. The Brazilian could not handle the ferocity of the Italian defender, and had his shirt ripped in pieces after Gentile was booked for a dangerous challenge on him. The punishment dished out remained the same, only this time, the target wore yellow instead of blue and white. In the final, it was German midfielder Pierre Littbarski who bore the brunt of Gentile’s rancor. And this time, Gentile’s contribution was not only limited to the defensive side – the hardman provided the cross for his team’s opening goal.
English footballer Gordon Hill perfectly sums up the appetite Gentile had for the game -
“Claudio Gentile would stand on his grandmother’s head to get the ball.”
Gentile’s fierce tackling and uncompromising attitude became synonymous with the Azzurri of those years. Along with the Gentle Giant, he formed one of the most contrasting defensive partnerships which has gone down in history as one of the best to have played the game. Though his no-nonsense approach to the game has drawn criticism from different quarters, there remains little doubt that Gentile remains one of the most culturally uncultured defenders to have graced the sport.
Gentile – forever etched in Azzurri hearts, and in Maradona’s nightmares.