'Life is beautiful' - Why under-pressure Napoli boss Gattuso won't fear the sack

Gennaro Gattuso Rafa Benitez Napoli GFXGetty/Goal

Many years before hiring Gennaro Gattuso as Napoli coach, club president and movie producer Aurelio De Laurentiis wanted to make a film with the former Italy international.

Gattuso would certainly make for a lovable underdog.

As a player, he was renowned for his tenacity rather than his talent, while Andrea Pirlo revealed in his autobiography that he and his Italy team-mates used to mercilessly mock the Calabrian's grammar during training camps.

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Yet there is arguably no better communicator in the Italian game today.

It was Gattuso who best articulated the challenge that comes with continuing to play professional football while the world is still being ravaged by a killer virus.

"Teams all over Europe and the world are participating in a different sport this season," Gattuso told reporters ahead of the Supercoppa Italiana last week. 

"There's fear in the air, tension in the dressing room, and at home, because Covid-19 is always lurking. It has killed a million people. Fear is inevitable."

And facing fear would undoubtedly be the theme of any movie about Gattuso. It is a topic that constantly crops up in his interviews. He believes that in football, just as in life, fear is the toughest possible opponent. Yet he fights it valiantly. And urges others to do likewise.

On December 23, after Napoli had narrowly avoided a third consecutive Serie A loss with a late leveller in a 1-1 draw with Torino, Gattuso addressed the speculation surrounding his struggles with an auto-immune disease called ocular myasthenia, which can cause chronic fatigue, severe double vision and weaken the eyelids.

"I admit I've not been myself for the last 12 days," Gattuso told Sky Sport Italia while wearing special glasses, and with his right eye visibly drooping.

"I want to make an appeal to all those, especially kids, who look in the mirror and see something that looks odd or not quite right: life is beautiful. And you need to face it without fear or hiding." 

Gennaro Gattuso Appeal Napoli GFXGetty/Goal

Unfortunately for Gattuso, while he possesses one of the strongest squads in Serie A on paper, his players presently look weak and inhibited on the pitch. And their coach is seemingly in trouble as a result.

On Tuesday morning, various Italian media outlets claimed that De Laurentiis had given Gattuso just three games to save his job, starting with Thursday night's Coppa Italia clash with Spezia, but had already spoken to former Napoli boss Rafael Benitez about potentially returning to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

However, on Wednesday evening, De Laurentiis, the vice-president, his son Edoardo, and sporting director Andrea Chiavelli held a meeting after which the club released a statement revealing that Gattuso retained the "full trust" of all three men.

That a vote of confidence was required is staggering in itself. 

It was Gattuso, after all, who arrived at a Napoli still dealing with the fallout from a bitter civil war between the players and the board in December 2019 and promptly led the club to Coppa Italia glory just six months later.

Juventus were the opponents that night, a winning machine on course for an unprecedented ninth consecutive Serie A title.  Yet there was no fear. Even when the game went to penalties, Napoli's players held their nerve. And were overcome with emotion when Arkadiusz Milik converted the decisive spot-kick.

The likes of Jose Callejon were in tears as Gattuso gathered his players in a huddle on the pitch and thanked them for their "passion" and "sense of togetherness" in a two-minute speech that prompted comparisons in the press with Al Pacino's famous monologue from the American football film 'Any Given Sunday'.

De Laurentiis, meanwhile, claimed he wasn't in the least bit surprised by the upset. 

"It was in the air," the Napoli supremo told RAI Sport. "Since Rino arrived, many things changed here and everyone came together around him, around the club, around the idea of Napoli."

Gattuso certainly understands 'the idea of Napoli'. As a self-confessed 'terrone' (a derogatory term for southerners in Italy), he just gets the club, the city and its people. He spoke beautifully when Naples' true patron saint, Maradona, passed away suddenly last November.

"He died, but will never die, because he was an extraordinary person. He made some mistakes in life, but so does everyone,” Gattuso told Sky.

“Even yesterday driving through the city, you could tell the atmosphere was completely different. Diego wasn’t just the man who won the Scudetto, he was the best player in the world who wore the Napoli jersey, represented this city and made a whole generation dream when the trophies all went to the northern clubs."

Gennaro Gattuso Fear Napoli GFXGetty/Goal

Gattuso's Coppa triumph, then, provoked hysteria in the streets of Naples and sparked hope of a long overdue Scudetto success this season.

Jose Callejon and Allan may have departed during the off-season but the feeling was that both were past their best. Furthermore, most Napoli fans were merely delighted that star centre-half Kalidou Koulibaly was still at the club despite incessant talk of a transfer to one of Europe's elite.

In addition, a huge amount of excitement was generated by the expensive addition of Victor Osimhen, a jeet-heeled forward signed to add a new dimension to the attack. And he did, just not for long. 

Osimhen was unlucky in that he suffered a shoulder injury after just six scintillating Serie A appearances, but he only had himself to blame after contracting Covid-19 while going mask-less at a birthday party in his native Nigeria.

With Dries Mertens still feeling the effects of an ankle injury that saw him miss six league games, Napoli have unsurprisingly lacked a focal point up front for the majority of the season.

Still, the Partenopei undeniably have the talent to compete for the Scudetto, particularly in this most competitive and balanced of seasons. For all their issues, only Inter and Atalanta have scored more goals in Serie A, while only Juventus and Verona have conceded fewer.

Sixth place is, therefore, not good enough for such a deep panel of players, and Gattuso must take his share of the blame for their patchy form. He accepts that, though, and he is acutely aware that Napoli's issues are more mental than tactical. And that's where fear rears its ugly head again. 

As Gattuso has argued, right now, his players don't sense fear in their opponents – they merely feel it themselves. He has repeatedly lamented the fact that Napoli don't seem to realise when their opponents are there for the taking. They don't "smell blood", as he puts it.

What's more, we are now seeing a worrying reluctance to take risks in possession, as if they are scared by the potential negative consequences of losing the ball – something we'd not seen since the last days of Carlo Ancelotti's reign.

Serie A table GFXGetty/Goal

“I make the decisions, so when we don’t win, it’s my responsibility,” Gattuso said after last weekend’s 3-1 loss in Verona. "All teams have ups and downs this season, so we need to clear our minds. 

"It’s not easy, you can’t just go to the supermarket and ask for €10 of determination. It can’t be brought out of the players just by saying it. It's not about systems at the moment, it’s how you cover the pitch, how you concede goals. We give the opponents gifts this season and we do it a lot. 

"Our ambition is to get back into the Champions League, but we cannot put in performances like this. We take the lead, then fall apart at the first sign of difficulty, it’s going to be tough to continue like that.”

All is not lost, though – far from it.

Whether he needs to win them or not, Gattuso's next three games are hardly daunting: Spezia and Parma at home, and Genoa away. Secondly, it's worth pointing out that Napoli have 10 points more at the halfway point of the Serie A season than last year. 

If they can replicate the way in which they finished the 2019-20 campaign, there's no reason why they can't achieve their most important goal, Champions League qualification – especially as Osimhen made his return to action as a substitute last weekend in Verona.

What's more, Napoli have played some sensational football this season, most notably in routing Atalanta, Roma and Fiorentina. What they need to learn is how to win when things aren't going their way, particularly against the likes of Juventus, AC Milan and Inter.

As Gattuso told Sky recently: "You can't always be Brad Pitt, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Sometimes you have to be a bit ugly, like me.  I look worse than usual now, as I'm all puffed up due to the cortisone shots, but I feel better."

He is clearly ready for this three-game test of his mental strength, then. He knows that this is no movie; there is no guarantee of a happy ending. 

But he wouldn't have it any other way. Facing fear is all he's ever known. That’s what life is all about as far as he’s concerned. And life is beautiful.