If you ever kicked a hornet’s nest you know the wrath of the insects flying after you in retaliation.
If you ever kicked or double-crossed Gennaro Gattuso on a soccer field, you are going to only wish you knocked over that hornet’s nest.
Gattuso, known as “Rino” (Italian for Rhino) to his teammates and managers, was a forceful, intense, and ruthless player who graduated with honors from The School of Hard Knocks.
Having played in Italy, Scotland, and Switzerland, the former Italian international was as feared as he was revered.
Start A Fire
Gattuso began playing when he was 17 with Perugia and after two seasons, the defensive midfielder went to Scotland where he cut his teeth with the Glasgow Rangers.
A Catholic in the famously Protestant side, he didn’t need the help of God because he was holding the hand of the devil.
Gattuso was a hooligan who managed to make it to the professional leagues and everyone around him knew it. He ran around the field like a psychopath protecting his teammates who had the ball like a blocker would in the NFL as a player ran to the end zone.
The Scottish loved him. His attitude, his bravado, his passion, and most of all his toughness was watch they admired. Gattuso had brass cojones and in Scotland he was just starting to get them polished.
Following one year in the Scottish Premiership, he was sold to newly promoted Serie A side Salernitana in Italy. After a stellar personal performance, the team was regulated to Serie B and he left joining A.C. Milan where he would spend the next 13 years and become an icon.
Stoking the Flame
Joining a club like A.C. Milan in the late 90s would be like joining Barcelona, Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid today. They were one of the best in the world and they carried themselves in such a way that their respect among other clubs was just as important as their trophies.
His first two matches were against Chelsea in a Champions League match in September 1999, a month later he played against Inter in the coveted Derby Della Madonnina where he captured the attention of the Milan faithful.
At the time of the Derby, Brazil’s Ronaldo who played for Inter was hailed as the best player in the world, and Gattuso made him regret that title. The Italian player made everything –including breathing — difficult for Ronaldo that game and took him down any way he could; however he could.
Gattuso solidified himself as the type of guy who would punch you in the face and you would apologize to him after because your nose got in the way of his fist. If the myth of the Chuck Norris facts could play applied to a soccer star – it would be Gattuso.
He was like a dog with rabies that went loose in a park or a bull coming out of the cage going after the matador.
While Gattuso would become a fan favorite and a headache for rivals, when he put on the national team jersey, it was a physical passion that cannot be described.
The players who would be his Serie A rivals would be his teammates and they all found ways to mess around with him.
In his book, I Think Therefore I Play, Andrea Pirlo, who was Gattuso’s teammate for 10 years at A.C. Milan and close friend, wrote about how everyone, including “Il Maestro” would mess around with him on the Azzurri squad.
Pirlo wrote: “Before Italy games, Daniele De Rossi would hide under Rino’s bed and wait. He’d be there for anything up to half an hour. Gattuso would come in, brush his teeth, stick on his leopard-print pajamas, get into bed, take out a book and look at the pictures. Just as he was about to fall asleep, Daniele would reach up from under the bed and grab his sides, while I’d burst out of the wardrobe like the worst kind of lover, making horrendous noises. Rino took it really well, despite risking a massive heart attack. First he’d beat up Daniele and then he’d do the same to me. Just to prove he was even handed.”
Pirlo also wrote of instances where Roma’s De Rossi once opened a fire extinguisher on Gattuso in the middle of the night inside a hotel room. During team dinners when his fellow Azzurri would chastise or poke fun of him just to get the midfielder wound up, he would threaten his own teammates, often sticking them in the sides with a fork. Many of which were hurt so bad by his fork stabbings, the physical trainers and team doctors would not permit them to train for a day.
“But even when he was angry, he was one of the good guys,” Pirlo wrote. “Amongst other things, I’ve seen Rino catch and eat live snails for a bet. He really does belong in a film.”
The World Cup victor, two-time Serie A champ, and two-time Champions League winner would rough up as many guys as Van Damme would in any of his movies.
By 2012, he had won it all and started slowing down. He left A.C. Milan in a tearful goodbye. It was the same season where Milan would see the retirement of Filippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf.
Gattuso would move to Switzerland where he played for Super League team Sion as a player / manager.
Fanning the Flames of Discontent
In 2013, Gattuso officially stopped playing and left Switzerland to head back to Italy to manage Sicilian side Palermo.
Palermo had been relegated to Serie B for the first time in over a decade and the former Milan midfielder was going to bring his fire to a team that included a young Paulo Dybala, Franco Vazquez, Kyle Lafferty, and Abel Hernandez.
Gattuso, who has a firebrand reputation as much as the Palermo owner, Maurizo Zamparini, didn’t last very long. He lasted six games as coach before getting sacked.
In June 2014, he went to manage the Greek side OFI Crete. The club had struggled to pay players and managers due to the countries economic crisis that caused Gattuso to lash out – not at the club – but to the players for being lazy. In a famous press conference, he slammed his fists against a table and screamed like a lunatic saying he “demands 100 percent from his players” even if they are not getting paid. He also said he needed his team to “play with balls” when they took the field.
Four months on the job, he quit the team, citing the clubs financial crisis as one of the reasons for leaving. The next day after he announced his resignation, he decided he was going to stay. In December 2014, he resigned again, this time officially, still citing the clubs financial issues as a reason for going.
He may not be running around like a crazy person on the field but now he does it with a suit and tie.
In the summer of 2015, he signed on to manage third-tier Italian side Pisa, he took the club from Lega Pro to Serie B and stayed for a full season. It was the manager’s first taste of success.
A month after the club gained promotion, the 38-year-old quit in July 2016 citing “serious, constant and unacceptable” issues as the reason for leaving. A month later, he was back on the touchline managing the team again.
Pisa are currently in the bottom third of the Serie B table.
While the caustic manager continues to have a career in soccer in some form, his legacy lives on. It is seen in players like Juraj Kucka and Stefano Pioli of A.C. Milan, Diego Costa of Chelsea, and Gary Medel of Inter.
He grew up in a poor town with little education and made something from nothing. For Gattuso, it is almost as if he constantly has to prove his worth despite his success. Like a fire, he burns the ground and bridges around him to light his way.