Gennaro Gattuso: The day Gazza tricked me at Rangers – but not in the way you'd expect
Illustration: Alexander Wells
The first time I remember someone losing their temper, it was my mother and I was maybe eight or nine. I’d stuck a poster of the Italy midfielder Salvatore Bagni to my bedroom wall. It was an advert – he was wearing the latest line of Dr Martens flip-flops. He was a big hero of mine.
The thing that struck me the most about him was that he always played with his socks rolled down to the ankle, not pulled right up to the knee like all the other players. It may seem like a weird thing for a young boy to focus on, but I loved the fact that he played unprotected with those stocky legs exposed.
My mother said I had to take the poster down. As I tried to remove it, half the paint came off the wall, too. She slapped me.
I do it my way
I don’t ever want to lose at anything, not even a game of cards with my friends. It’s a big part of my character and I’ve always been driven to succeed in everything I do. It’s a part of my DNA, without a doubt. It’s a trait I’d inherited from my father – him and my uncles. Actually, everybody in my family... they’re all the same.
As a player, I had my own way of doing things. I didn’t always follow the advice of others – I played the game my way. I would weigh myself every day and eat the same food every day – white rice and a chicken breast. I didn’t touch a glass of wine or anything other than water for years. I would go running on my own every night.
I’ve always been driven to succeed in everything I do. It’s a part of my DNA, without a doubt. It’s a trait I’d inherited from everybody in my family... they’re all the same
Before games I was a maniac. I’d be up all night watching television or movies, then I would sleep in the afternoon before kick-off. Maybe that’s why I never had a room-mate, as I was too intense to have one. I actually remember, when Milan played Inter in the Champions League semi-finals in 2003, I had to sleep on the sofa for two weeks beforehand. I was so pumped up.
I’ve recently decided not to play football with my friends any more, because I found myself getting into silly arguments with them all the time. It’s the same with the Milan staff or my former team-mates. I’ll try to avoid competing with them, because when I put on my boots and my jersey, I don’t see the faces of the opposition. And I don’t realise what I’m doing. Then afterwards I think, ‘I did this, I said that,’ and I feel so embarrassed.
So it’s better that I stay out of it, and maybe go for a run on my own instead. Whenever there’s a ball in play, the animal inside me will come out.
Fuel-carriers for goalposts
From the moment I first represented a team on a pitch – when I was 12 – football became the outlet. Until then I’d only been able to play with fuel-carriers from boats as the goalposts – we would play on the beach, surrounded by fishermen, with all the stones and shells under our feet. That definitely added something extra to my game.
It was such a beautiful childhood. I would play at San Siro, Wembley, the Maracana and La Bombonera every day, because we’d named the beaches and streets after the most famous stadiums.
Now priorities have changed. Kids have to stay at school until 5pm because their parents are still working, so they aren’t able to play as much as we did. In the north of Italy it’s even harder to play any street football, and if you don’t sign up for a football school there’s not really very much to do.
But last year, something beautiful happened. I sent Francesco, my 10-year-old son, to Calabria. When he came back six weeks later, he was so pumped up, excitedly telling me all these stories about things he’d done – the same stories I’d lived myself at his age. It was like I’d gone back in time – I couldn’t help but well up.
In times of difficulty, I simply have to shut my eyes and I’m taken all the way back to that time; those beaches, those memories. I lived on the streets until I was 11-and-a-half, not because I didn’t have a family or home but because it was the only way to practise sports and make friends. We had very few possessions – people would work all day for very little money. All us kids could do was go outside, play football and have some fun. We had nothing else, but it didn’t matter. So I guess, as much as anything else, this drive to succeed could be borne out of how little I had when I was a child.
Glasgow was the place where I first started to think like a professional footballer. When I played for Perugia, deep down I thought I lacked the mental strength to go out on the pitch and play without the fear of making a mistake
When I was 12 I joined the Perugia academy, where I’d spend the next five years. The first few months there were terrible – I felt really alone, but I suffered in silence because deep down I was convinced it was the right place for me. We won almost every youth tournament we entered and I felt I was improving a lot as a player. I could feel the hunger for success growing every day.
However, this was an era when it wasn’t particularly common for a youngster to play regularly in Serie A. Some of the coaches thought I was special and that I had talent, but I didn’t think of anything other than hard work – running, pedalling, working in the gym and battling to make it in football.
Soon I was being picked for the Italy U18 side. I played in a tournament in France that was attended by scouts from several clubs across Europe. One from Rangers had watched me play and liked what he saw. It wasn’t long before I was on my to Glasgow, aged just 19.
Glasgow was the place where I first started to think like a professional footballer. When I played for Perugia, deep down I thought I lacked the mental strength to go out on the pitch and play without the fear of making a mistake. My legs would be shaking, my emotions getting the better of me. But when I arrived in Scotland, it was all completely different. I understood that I could do this job at a very high level and was lucky to play alongside some great players such as Brian Laudrup, Jonas Thern and Paul Gascoigne.
Even if from a behavioural point of view he wasn’t exemplary all the time, Gascoigne would often offer me advice and really helped me to settle in Glasgow. That’s the thing about Gascoigne; he’s famous for those pranks – for example, he welcomed me to Rangers by doing his business in my socks – but there were also so many kind gestures not many people know about.