Giorgio Chiellini is not a modern footballer – not if we consider a modern footballer to be an all-singing, all-dancing, multi-tool. A modern footballer should be able to play center-back, wing-back, central midfield, winger, number 10 and probably make the half time snacks as well. Technically proficient, ultra-fit, super strong and mega quick, the modern elite footballer is exhilarating, if slightly characterless.
Chiellini really isn’t that. He showed against Belgium in the Euros that he’s very much not that. But what he does do, he does very, very well.
If you get sport, you really get it. And you get its transcendental nature, how you can draw inspiration and ideas from performances and teams. Football, of all sports, is probably best attuned for prompting these reflections, due to the idiosyncratic figures who can carve out a niche within it.
Zdenek Zeman is a romantic hero in a world of pragmatism; Mourinho’s 2010 Inter is the ultimate example of the heady cocktail of pragmatism meets grit; Totti is a symbol of ultimate devotion; Vieri the symbol of the shifting loyalties we all experience. 2020 Atalanta, with it’s verve and reckless abandon, was a much-needed counter to the misery and horror Bergamo experienced.
Chiellini is another that can be added to the list of players who’ve caused me to reflect on matters beyond 90 minutes. Belgium and Italy was a truly great game, the first half an end-to-end spectacle which you always hope tournament football can produce. It was modern football for modern footballers. De Bryune, Lukaku, Doku, Insigne, Chiesa, Verratti.
If anything signifies the ‘new Italy’ it was that first half. Indeed, if anything signifies ‘modern football’ it was this game. The passing triangles, the pressing, the fluidity and the speed. And coming out of it, this is an Italy that look likely to win the tournament – but even if they don’t, will live long in the memory.
Then there was Chiellini. Around him was constant movement. Belgium were like angry bees swarming at him as if he was an old bear eating their honey. He wasn’t particularly quick when he was 26; now he’s 36, he really isn’t. He doesn’t produce a spectacular array of passing for this Italy side, either long or short. It’s ok, but it’s functional – an increasing rarity in modern defenders.
But what he can do, he can still do better than almost anyone. Heading, tackling and covering. Just the right side of physical. Seeing him face up to the human cannonball that is Lukaku was the kind of mini-duel that makes football. Lukaku had his moments, but Chiellini managed it, just about.
And that’s how he’s caused me to reflect on life off the field. Some people are naturally good as something, so good it appears effortless, despite how they’ve worked on skills they naturally have. We all know someone like that. They work hard with what they’ve got, but they’ve already got a lot.
But I suspect most of us can identify with a Chiellini. You can do great things, but it’s all predicated on a foundation of hard work, resilience and doing the basics well. Even when the modern world is buzzing around you, maybe giving you the odd sting or three, you can face up to it and repel it, and live to play on. Considering the last 18 months we’ve had, we’ve all got that.
Italy will start as favourites against Spain, and rightly so. People will be drawn to the spectacle of the Locatellis, Barellas and Berardis running box to box at an unbelievable speed. The pressing. The triangles. The Armani suits pitch side. The national anthem boomed out.
But keep your eye on the captain, the one singing with an awareness that the game is getting quicker and quicker but he can keep up, just about. Chiellini, the ultimate captain. The ultimate embodiment that no matter who or what is running at you, you can beat it.