A touch of Scottish in the terrier snapping at Zizou

Gattuso will dog the Frenchman all night, thanks to skills he learned at Ibrox. Steve Tongue talks to him
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The Independent Football

He is ostensibly in the great tradition of Italian hatchet-men, from Romeo Benetti through Claudio Gentile. Below average height, with a piratical black beard, Gennaro "Rino" Gattuso looks the part. These days, however, taking opponents out at knee- or thigh-level tends to have referees scribbling on the back of coloured cards and does not ultimately help the team.

Swinging elbows are more likely to be punished as well, as was Daniele De Rossi's crude assault on the United States forward Brian McBride. That is where Gattuso came in; or, more accurately, came on. Missing from Italy's opening game against Ghana with a thigh strain, he was hurried back into the second match as a substitute once his fellow midfielder De Rossi had rightly been banished. "Gennaro supplies my bite," the Italian coach, Marcello Lippi, had said at the start of the tournament. "I want him back."

Czechs, Australians, Ukrainians and Germans have all been bitten since, though the street-wise Gattuso, who received four bookings in eight qualifying games, was sharp enough to collect only one in the group stage and one in the knockout matches, leaving him eligible for the biggest game of his 28-year-old life in Berlin tonight. As a Milan regular, he has not been short of momentous matches, albeit in a slightly different role, a little wider on the right of a diamond.

With the Azzurri, he tends to play closer in the centre to his clubmate Andrea Pirlo, his task being to hound the opposition playmaker, which is bad news for the great Zinedine Zidane in his farewell match. A hounding from Lippi's snapping midfielder is rarely a pleasant experience.

That said, those who have followed Gattuso's career from his days in Glasgow with Rangers appreciate that he has grown up; a fact he acknowledges himself. "Eight or nine years ago I never thought I would play a semi-final of a World Cup and two Champions' League finals," he said. "I have to thank Rangers. They installed belief in me.

"My experience abroad was crucial. It shaped me as a player, made me mature as a man and gave me an international approach to sport and life."

Only 19 when taken to Scotland from Perugia, he was understandably raw, but became more popular with supporters than critics. Craig Brown, who was Scotland's manager at the time, recalls: "He was young and enthusiastic and the type the Rangers fans love. A bundle of energy with great enthusiasm, not particularly skilled on the ball at that time, though he's improved since."

Gattuso's one full season in Glasgow, 1997-98, was an unfortunate one in the club's history in that they finally surrendered the Scottish title to Celtic while chasing a record 10th championship in succession. But no blame was attached to the whole-hearted little Calabrian charging round the pitch and clattering opponents with a gusto that brought more than the occasional yellow card. If professional observers were less impressed, it was probably because he was better at winning the ball than distributing it afterwards.

Dick Advocaat, taking over from Walter Smith at Ibrox, preferred to use the more constructive Barry Ferguson, and in October 1998 Gattuso returned to Italy with Salernitana, one game short of a half-century of appearances. The move earned Rangers £3.5 million for a player they had signed on a free transfer, and there was another healthy chunk of income as part of a sell-on deal when Milan doubled that fee to secure him only nine months later. By that time his reputation was blossoming as the captain of Italy's Under-21 side, whom he led to the European Championship title in 2000. He has hardly missed a Serie A game since. Milan frequently substitute him, though Brown, who watched a lot of Italian football last season as a television pundit, says: "It was not a reflection on his play but because he was exhausted. He's also less reckless."

Settling down in marriage to a Scottish-Italian from Glasgow may have helped, though the family is a far-flung one, Gattuso also having three aunts living in Germany who enjoyed seeing him eject the hosts in Tuesday's classic semi-final. Officially named man of the match against Ukraine and deserving the title against Australia, when it was bizarrely given to Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, he was again outstanding against the Germans. There was no yellow card this time, which would have put him out of the final, the gesticulating confined to his colleagues and on one notable occasion to Michael Ballack, who he felt had been violent in an aerial challenge; yet almost immediately a hand of friendship was offered.

Gattuso is one of those players uncertain of their club's immediate future in the wake of the Italian refereeing scandal, yet he believes the squad have, in a grim sort of way, benefited: "We are more united. This allows us to achieve results, even when we don't play 100 per cent."

Whatever the result today, Lippi knows there will be maximum effort as well as bite from his midfield rottweiler.

Replay 1982: What happened to Paolo Rossi?

Italy arrived in Spain against a backdrop of match-fixing scandals back home, and the similarities with this summer did not end there. They were less than convincing in the first group phase, drawing all three games and scoring only two goals to finish second to Poland, qualifying only on goal difference. The Perugia striker Paolo Rossi had completed a two-year ban for match-fixing just in time to be picked for the national squad, and had looked lost in the opening games. So when Italy were drawn in the same group as Brazil and the defending champions, Argentina, in the second group phase, even the most die-hard Italian fans thought they would need a miracle to progress. But they beatArgentina 2-1, and against Brazil Rossi burst into form, scoring a hat-trick in a memorable 3-2 win. He went on to score both goals in the 2-0 semi-final victory over Poland, and the first in the final against West Germany. Despite missing an early penalty, the quality of Italy's defence meant they were rarely threatened, triumphing 3-1 with plenty to spare. Rossi's six goals won him the Golden Boot. After 1982 Rossi played for Juventus and Milan, but had a disappointing 1986 World Cup before ending his career at Verona the following year. He then started a construction company with a former team-mate, indulging his love of deep-sea diving in his spare time.

Alastair Williams