Chiellini: the key to defence of Italy's crown

Amir Rashid meets the Italian centre back who heads the post-World Cup shopping lists of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, who insists he’s staying with Juventus for another year, but still names Nemanja Vidic and John Terry as the players he most admires
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The Independent Online

The impression one would instantly get after watching Giorgio Chiellini play for the first time, as he sticks his head in where boots fly and dives into challenges like a Roman warrior into enemy ranks, would be that he is all brawn and no brain, football’s equivalent of a battered boxer with more heart than sense.

And as he enters the media room in Juventus’ secluded Vinovo training ground for our interview his drawn out look, wry assassin like smile and misshaped nose, after having broken it on previous occasions, does little to dampen this assertion - but looks can be deceiving.

The Juventus centre-back, who will be standing guard in the heart of Italy’s defence at this summer’s World Cup, is a footballer with just as much brain as brawn.

His father is an orthopaedic surgeon who graduated from the University in Pisa, the city Giorgio was born in. The 25-year-old is himself currently studying Business Administration at the University of Torino, when free from footballing duties, and has mentioned in the past that he would have followed in his father’s footsteps had he not made it as a professional footballer.

So why then, when he steps on the pitch is he ready to sacrifice himself for the cause, not giving rivals an inch, even if it is at the expense of his own wellbeing?

“I believe the most important thing for the defender is to take the ball away from the opposing team, no matter what, and not to allow any space or give any occasions for opponents to score goals,” says the imposing centre half.

“I don’t think my determination has ever put me into trouble because of this, in fact, I think it is one of my main strengths and makes me the player that I am - without it I wouldn’t be the same.”

It nearly did get him into trouble during Italy’s friendly against Holland last November, when Robin van Persie was on the end of a challenge that effectively ruled him out for most of the season.

Opposition fans were incensed and quick to point the finger, but Chiellini has long been known as an honest player - one who is hard but fair. Van Persie recognised this and absolved the Italian of any blame.

And if Premiership clubs get their way, Chiellini could well be plying his trade in the same league as the Dutchman.

With Juventus having failed to qualify for next year’s Champions League and issues over his contract, Chiellini has been linked with a move away from the Turin club.

Both Manchester United and nouveau riche Manchester City have been linked with a move for a player who has twice won the Serie A defender of Year award, and is regarded as one of the finest in his position.

Chiellini open about his future, refuses to rule out a move to the blue half of Manchester, insisting that when the time comes he will look at the overall aims of the interested clubs.

“I like English football so much - it is very strong. At the moment I stay very well in Juventus, but I can’t say what will happen in the future and I think I will remain here for the next year.

“The most important thing when deciding on a club are the traditions of the team and the project of the club - what it is they want to do in the future,” he says.

With Florentino Perez’s operation in full swing, after having captured his latest galactico - Jose Mourinho - Chiellini’s name has crept up as a new addition to the star-studded side which has been dramatically assembled over the last year.

Yet, he insists, he does not have an inclination for one country over another should he leave Italy.

“Florentino Perez tried to sign the best players but this year he had the bad luck of meeting Barcelona who are probably the best team in Europe at the moment,” he says.

“I don’t know what the future holds for me. I am happy at Juventus. But surely Barcelona and Real Madrid are among the best clubs in the history of football. All players would say they would like to play in Barcelona, Real Madrid or Juventus in Italy.

“But I don’t know what will happen in the future because I am staying well here in Juventus and think I will stay here in the next year,” says Chiellini.

“I don’t have preference between England and Spain, it’s the same. When you speak about Manchester United, or Real Madrid or Barcelona you can’t have a preference,” he declares.

It was while playing for Livorno that Chiellini caught the attention of Italy’s biggest sides.

Having made his debut for them at just 16 and being a bit part player in helping the team reach Serie B, it was the 2003-2004 season that earmarked the young stopper as player of genuine quality.

Livorno finished third and won promotion to the top flight but the summer saw the then 19-year-old snapped up by Juventus for €6.5million. He was then immediately sold to Fiorentina in a co-ownership deal, a practice common in Italy, for €3.5million where he spent the season getting accustomed to the rigors of Serie A football before being recalled by Juventus after an impressive season.

Chiellini is thankful for the playing time he got in Italy’s lower divisions, instead of being pampered in a multi-million pound academy, he thinks the lessons he learned at Livorno helped turn him into the top class defender he has now become and is eager for his development to continue.

“In the third division I only played a part in ten matches but then I played a big role in one championship in Serie B, this was important for me, because I was not ready for Serie A - there is a big step up between the two divisions,” says Chiellini.

“I think at the beginning it is better for young players to start out in the lower divisions. As you grow up you climb the ladder step by step and always look at the level above you.

“I don’t think you can reach the top immediately it has to happen gradually and I am doing this just now. I’ve not stopped growing since being at Juventus - I’m still growing as a player, and have to grow so much in the next few years,” he says.

A winning mentality perhaps forged after spending time in Juventus’ backline with one of Italy’s greatest ever defenders, their current captain Fabio Cannavaro.

Cannavaro led Italy to the World Cup in 2006, voted the second best player in the tournament behind France’s Zinedine Zidane, but playing regularly together has allowed Chiellini and Cannavaro to strike up a solid defensive partnership for both club and country.

“When I was child I liked Baresi a lot but in particular Maldini. But now I have grown up I think Cannavaro is one of the best defenders in the world and the fact that he won the Ballon d’Or in 2006 shows how good he is.

“I have learned so much from Fabio because I played with him ever since arriving at Juventus. At the beginning I played left back and he played in the centre but now we play together in central defence. Surely we are different characters but I try to look at his game and improve myself,” says Chiellini.

One character more in line with the gladiatorial image the Italian hard man portrays on the field is Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic, a player it is clear he has huge admiration for as he talks excitedly about his likeness with the Serbian.

“I see similarities in my game with Vidic - I like him so much. I think he is one of the best defenders, if not the best in the world. In some attributes and style we are certainly similar. Of course John Terry is one of the best but I am more similar to Vidic than to Terry, and Vidic is more similar to me than Terry. I think Terry is a little bit different to us as a player,” he says.

Italy go into the World Cup in South Africa as champions, and will contest Group F alongside Paraguay, minnows New Zealand and a tough Slovakian side.

The Italians topped there qualifying group after seeing off the challenge from the Republic of Ireland.

However, despite being unfancied to win the World Cup for a record equalling five times, alongside Brazil, Chiellini is sure the Azzurri have the pedigree to show up on the big occasion.

“Certainly Italy aren’t one of the favourites to win the World Cup. I think Brazil, England and Spain will be the favourites at the start of the tournament because in the last two years they have played well and have consistently got good results.

“But despite this in the World Cup we don’t know what happens. Two nations like Italy and Germany didn’t play that well in the qualifications, but in every tournament in their history show up when it really matters. I think this year will be the same and Italy and Germany will be hard teams to beat,” he says.

One side that has impressed Chiellini during the qualifying campaign has been England.

After working with Fabio Capello during the Italian manager’s reign as Juventus boss in the 2005-2006 season, the big central defender understands what the England coach gives to a side and has been impressed by what he has seen so far.

“Capello has brought self assurance and confidence to the England team. The team is now more united on the field and this is one of the characteristics of how Fabio Capello builds his teams.

“England will be a threat and I think this self assurance that was probably missing from the England team before Capello arrived, could make the difference in crucial moments during the tournament,” he predicts.

No one will forget the final in 2006 following Zidane’s infamous headbutt on Marco Materazzi - not least an Italian defender, but Chiellini graciously admits watching the game through rose-tinted glasses and is confident this Italian side can be even stronger than the last.

“I don’t think the Zidane sending off tarnished the final. I saw the final as an Italian fan and when Zidane got sent off I was only happy because he was one of the best players in the world and his exit was maybe important for the Italian win,” he says chuckling.

“Perhaps the reason for the team in the last World Cup being so strong was because the players gave 200% of what they had, they were using all their energy to the full. I think this team can be even better than the 2006 team if we are able to play with the same kind of energy and give our all in every match.”

Throughout the interview Chiellini constantly emphasises the importance of teamwork, stressing they must defend as unit if they are to stop the world’s very best.

Football fans know the typical stereotypes, that Brazilians entertain, Germans never give in and that Italians, well, defend.

Chiellini is quick to accept them, admitting that performance is only secondary to the result and if they wish to be crowned winners on July 11th they must be prepared to play how they know best in order to stop the fearsome forwards that Italy may come across.

“Defending is something which is innate and spontaneous within Italian culture. You can probably find this same kind of tradition in the German or Argentinean footballing culture, than say other teams, like Brazil or Spain.

“Our football culture is geared towards stealing the ball from the opposition and stopping the attack rather than in Brazil and Spain where there is more concern on playing the ball and attacking. This is how we play and it is important to stick to that,” he emphasises.

“It is near impossible to stop players like Messi, Rooney and Ronaldo one to one. So all the team together has a responsibility to stop them. Of course the defender has a more important role in preventing these players from having an impact.

“But it is not believable to think you can stop these sorts of players on your own, we have to think as group and not as a single man,” he says.

On the field Chiellini is a player that belongs to a bygone era, the ultimate man’s man, but off it he is very much of the new age.

Through the internet he follows his passion for the LA Lakers and is trying to expand his profile, having joined all the latest social networking sites which are updated regularly by a friend, due to his time constraints.

“I have Twitter, Facebook and a YouTube channel, where I put up particular videos. I am a fan in general of new technology and the internet.

“I don’t tend to follow in first person but it is something I want because I want to extend my image all over the world because now the world is expanding and with the internet we can follow anything no matter where we are,” he says.

One picture that will extend his image quicker around the globe than any tweet or video upload will be him lifting the World Cup trophy in South Africa.

And what will that image mean to him?

“It will be the dream of a lifetime,” he grins.

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