Giorgio Chiellini – The Friendly Face of Football’s Dark Arts
Battle-hardened and brutish, Giorgio Chiellini cast a personable figure as Italy lifted the Euro 2020 title. Jack Donnelly profiles the veteran defender in an attempt to discover what makes him so likeable.
As full time in the 2020 European Championships was called, both England and Italy knew that a penalty shootout separated them from glory. For England, victory would see 55 years of hurt be forgotten, while for Italy, lifting the trophy would be the perfect culmination of a 34-game unbeaten run. Despite the pressures, the media presence and the voice of over 60,000 English fans, a playful smile graced the scarred and battered face of Giorgio Chiellini as he faced Harry Kane for the coin toss. He knew something that his opponent did not. He knew victory was coming.
Going on 37, many were hesitant to consider that Chiellini would have a major involvement in Italy’s Euro 2020 campaign. Pundits were expecting Juventus teammate Leonardo Bonucci to fill Chiellini’s shoes as the defacto leader of Gli Azzurri, while a younger defender like Alessandro Bastoni would fill the vacancy in Italy’s backline. Despite that, and barring an injury that kept the 36-year-old sidelined for two matches, Chiellini remained as the battle-ready bastion of Italy’s backline and his presence boosted both his teammates and his country as Roberto Mancini’s side lifted the trophy on Sunday evening.
Chiellini himself needs no real introduction – starting his professional career with Livorno in Serie B in 2000, the defender had spells with both Roma and Fiorentina before joining Juventus in 2005. After being made a regular under Fabio Capello in his maiden season in Turin, Chiellini remained loyal to the club following the Calciopoli scandal of 2006, which saw the club’s expunged to Serie B and bestowed their 2005 Serie A title to Inter Milan. Having played left-back in Serie B, Chiellini was moved to the centre of defence after numerous injuries left The Old Lady short of options. This proved to be a beneficial decision for both club and player, as Chiellini became Juventus’ first-choice centre back, regardless of the fact that he hadn’t even been considered as a prime central defender coming into the season.
Funnily enough, Chiellini’s first Scudetto didn’t come until 2012, when manager Antonio Conte crafted a nigh-penetrable defensive trio of Chiellini, Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli – football’s first “BBC” before Real Madrid’s front line tried the same a couple years later. Domestic dominance followed – eight consecutive league titles came after Chiellini’s first, with the defender also obtained winner’s medals from five Coppa Italias, five Supercoppa Italias, while also appearing in two Champions League finals. Chiellini has made over 400 appearances for Juventus, with his ability and prowess bringing many individual accolades, including Ballon d’Or nominations and World XI involvements.
Chiellini would also see his reputation as one of the world’s best defenders grow on a global stage. With an international career spanning almost two decades, Chiellini has amassed over 100 appearances for his national team, standing as the joint sixth most capped player in Italian history, alongside Dino Zoff. After a number of near-misses at various competitions, coupled with persistent injury struggles, Chiellini announced his retirement from international football in November of 2017, but would return to an Italy camp less than six months later, before an injury kept him sidelined from making another international appearance until September 2018, where he was officially named as captain following Gianluigi Buffon’s retirement from international football. Having first worn the captain’s armband for his country in 2012, the defender was the clear choice to fill Buffon’s trophy-laden boots.
Over his lengthy, successful career, Chiellini has built up a reputation as a classic no-nonsense defender – someone willing to throw their body on the line, bleed for their team and celebrate every block, tackle and clearance. Despite this warrior mentality, he entered Euro 2020 as a doubt. Over the years, Chiellini had had various injury struggles and would have missed the tournament entirely if it had been played as scheduled in 2020, coming off the back of a cruciate ligament injury. With this, some began to question whether his inclusion in Roberto Mancini’s squad for the delayed tournament was simply to provide a senior voice in the dressing room – how wrong those people were.
From the first whistle of the tournament, it was obvious that Chiellini was on top of his game. An unshaken beast, the audience grinned as the defender roared and pounded his chest after a last-ditch challenge denied Turkey’s Burak Yilmaz from scoring in Italy’s first match – this visceral reaction came while Italy were 3-0 up and coasting, but it came across as though Chiellini had provided a tournament-saving block. No matter the opposition, no matter the scoreline, no matter the stage – Chiellini would not give an inch.
While the scars and tackles portray Chiellini as a hardened soldier, he comes across as nothing short of a genuinely lovely guy. One of the first players to join Juan Mata’s Common Goal project, Chiellini is an academic, wanting to pursue a degree in medicine alongside his football – instead, the defender would achieve a master’s in business administration. He shares a passion with other footballing nerds in studying players on Wyscout before every match, committing everything he sees to memory. To Chiellini, defending is art, it’s beauty – and his approach to this fundamental facet of football branches into his teammates. Chest-bumping Gianluigi Donnarumma after a save, bellowing in unison with Bonucci whenever the ball is met with one of their thighs – if you have Chiellini in your team, you adopt his do-or-die mentality.
That intelligence translates onto the pitch, where Chiellini knows exactly when and where to call upon football’s dark arts. Despite coming across as jovial and carefree when meeting Jordi Alba ahead of the semi-final penalty shootout, Chiellini knew his friendly and affectionate antics would unnerve his opposing captain, as he – and his teammates – came across as blasé and unbothered by the pressures of penalties. Then, in the final, Bukayo Saka burst up the right-hand side, looking to have gotten the better of the veteran defender, but Chiellini had no qualms about grabbing the 19-year-old’s collar and hauling him to the ground – unsurprisingly, he took his resulting yellow card with no argument. While England fans lambasted Chiellini for the act, others saw it as the intelligent decision – Saka’s pace would have taken him miles clear of the veteran, creating an excellent scoring opportunity. Chiellini nipped that blossoming attack in the bud before anything had sprouted.
By the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around, Chiellini will be 38 years of age, but should Italy qualify, it would be hard to expect anything less than the battered body of Juventus’ best ever defender leading Gli Azzuri out onto the pitch. Following every rousing rendition of Fratelli d’Italia, Chiellini turns to his team to proclaim “siamo pronti alla morte,” or, “we’re ready to die” – after his showings at Euro 2020, many would take that approach when it comes to Chiellini. Un guerriero. Un vincitore. Una leggenda.