Claudio Gentile: The art of Italian defending

The Italian national team currently plays host to a wide variety of exceptional talents all across the pitch, but perhaps the famous Azzurri are most commonly noted for their bare-faced defensive prowess above all else – with centre-backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci taking most of the acclaim among Italy’s dependable backline.

Prior to that, however, stood the equally resolute and widely celebrated Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta with similar top flight success – and even before them, each of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and the great Franco Baresi would play defining roles for their nation with consummate levels of efficiency and class.

It’s clear that the Italians really know what they’re doing when it comes to defending for their lives upon the grandest stage of all. Yet before any of the aforementioned defensive commandants were able to showcase their natural stopping powers among the wider footballing community as a whole, there was one player who arguably mastered the art of safeguarding his fellow backline far more fluently than any of his predecessors.

One player who could make even the most highly coveted attacking talents turn around and wish they’d never given up on the day job. One player who still ranks among the most accomplished and proficient defensive talents the beautiful game has ever seen. One player, by the name of Claudio Gentile.

Claudio Gentile – sometimes referred to as one of the toughest, hard-nosed defenders to ever grace the football field with his presence – was nicknamed ‘Qaddafi’ for his Libyan-born routes and remarkably imposing demeanour. Even his stern 70s inspired moustache had a certain touch of terror about it. The man was a truly colossal force when he needed to be.

The acclaimed Serie A stalwart has been described as everything from uncompromising and profoundly professional, to something of a relentless tyrant at the back – whose shrewd tactics would often be deemed as somewhat spoiling and unsporting in their approach. After winning six league titles and implementing himself as a resounding fan favourite with the Old Lady of Juventus, however, those who seek to diminish the Italian’s contribution and all-round effectiveness have little in place to keep their arguments afloat.

Yet it is for his performances among the 1982 World Cup that Claudio Gentile is arguably remembered most fondly. The Italians were forced to see off reigning world champions Argentina midway through the competition of course – and although the likes of Diego Maradona and co. would likely prove enough to worry even the most idolised international defenders at the time – the man known as ‘Qaddafi’ would undoubtedly prove his worth in the end.

“Football is not for ballerinas!”

Claudio Gentile

Maradona was ultimately unable to shine when pitted up against the Italians in 1982, with Gentile himself proving the source of much of the South American’s burgeoning frustration. The Italian defenders stayed tight to their men, never allowing Argentina’s main attacking threats much time on the ball to effectively make something happen inside the final third.

It was a trend that would see Italy all the way through to the final, after putting a Socrates-inspired Brazil outfit to the sword in equally impressive fashion. This time it was the infamous Zico who was forced to battle it out with Italy’s most ardent and determined centre-back – and once again, the moustache-wielding Claudio Gentile would successfully come out on top.

In a game defined by the notion of attack vs. defence, Brazil simply failed to deal with Italy’s ongoing defensive prowess and tactical discipline. The Azzurri eventually went on to claim the 1982 World Cup for themselves, in a crowning achievement that is still passionately remembered by Italian football fans today.

“If you went to the toilet, Gentile would follow you there.”

Mario Kempes

Gentile’s assured man-marking capabilities denied his opponents the right to go about their business unscathed and unchallenged. Sometimes he could prove ruthless, adopting all kinds of fraudulent tactics in order to see his side through to the very end. Yet he mostly applied himself under an umbrella of fairness and professionalism, relying on his tenacious defensive qualities more than any other aspect of his game.

Although his belligerent approach could often prove somewhat combative and highly physical at times, Gentile orchestrated a certain sense of unruly beauty within his outwardly destructive tactics. He embodied the art of Italian defending arguably more than any other, getting up close and personal with his attacking counterparts whilst never allowing them time or space on the ball. He was a destroyer, something of an enforcer, a symbol of just what it means to play among the famed Azzurri backline.

Only the Italians could make such a staunch, unrelenting role seem like something of an undervalued art-form – and whilst he may never have represented the most technically gifted international figurehead with the ball at his feet, Claudio Gentile was certainly capable of turning gruelling no-nonsense defensive work into an enticing and charming craft. Sometimes its players like Gentile, who ultimately give real meaning and substance to the beautiful game as we know it.