Giorgio Chiellini breaks into laughter. He is reminded of the time his former Juventus team-mate and current Chelsea forward Alvaro Morata compared training against him as akin to going ‘into a cage with a hungry gorilla and trying to take his food.’
Many strikers will share that view. Chiellini may now be 33 but he is part of a Juventus defence that has conceded only one goal in 15 games since November 20.
That period takes in over 22 hours of play and includes matches against Barcelona, Inter Milan, Roma and Napoli. Harry Kane appears to shatter a different record every week but breaking through the Juventus backline may be his most significant test yet when the Champions League resumes next week.
Chiellini, as ever, is at the heart of it all. A defender in the greatest Italian tradition, he is an uncompromising defender with a street-fighter mentality. He has broken his nose four times, celebrates his goals in the chest-beating manner of King Kong and, when reminded of the World Cup game where Luis Suarez bit a chunk out of his shoulder, Chiellini shrugs and says ‘no problem, no problem.’
‘It is still four nose breaks at the last count,’ he grins. ‘Until next week anyway! The problem is that if there is the tiniest chance of scoring a goal or stopping a goal, I can’t help myself.’
Yet in Chiellini’s case, his gladiatorial on-pitch image belies his true nature. There is real depth to Chiellini’s character and an hour in his company this week revealed the Italian to be among the sport’s most profound thinkers.
When Juan Mata made a global appeal for footballers to come together for the Common Goal charity, Chiellini was among the first to answer that call. In Italy, Chiellini has long been recognised as one of football’s most giving characters. In his hometown of Livorno, he provides financial support for a theatre company that promotes disabled actors.
He also co-founded the charity Insuperabili, which offers sporting opportunities for children with multiple disabilities. It started with one initiative in Turin and there are now 15 bases around Italy.
Chiellini says: ‘I saw Juan’s interviews and saw Mats Hummels signed up. I wrote to their website but at first, their worker thought I was a 15-year-old teenager winding them up. Then I had to do a Facetime call to show I am really Chiellini!
‘I don’t know if I can change things but I just want to put smiles on the faces of the children. I cannot put into words how it makes me feel. Our role, to be an idol, is very important. Kids follow everything we say and we do. I see too many children who have their lives decided for them from the moment they are born. I want to give them the power to decide their own lives.’
Mata spoke last year of reconciling social responsibility with football’s rabid commercialism and ‘silly’ wages. Chiellini has a Bachelor’s degree in economics and a Masters in business administration.
‘Unease is the wrong word to describe our wealth,’ Chiellini says. ‘I make my sacrifices and never think I am not allowed to earn so much. But I know I am lucky and I must use my platform to help those who need support.
‘It is not only money, it can be a short video, a little message, a visit. You, me, everyone. Just show you care. I have travelled to many parts of the world. I have seen the worst parts of South Africa and Brazil. And I stayed in Thailand and had the life of a five star hotel. Then you walk around the corner and you see people sleeping on the streets, very poor, and at the market, people sleep on stitched rugs. They wash their clothes in the river but that’s rain water. Common Goal is an international movement. I am the only Italian so far but I hope more players join up.’
Back home in Livorno, an old friend first came up with the King Kong comparison and much like the Merian C. Cooper character, Chiellini is a noble savage.
‘It’s a double personality. On the field, I had to be this way to make it to the top level. I was not born with many technical skills. I had to improve and work. Hundreds of players have physical and technical talents but very few make it. You need that desire.
‘I was never the best in my age group. I was like the Ugly Duckling because I am not beautiful to see but I always improved. That is my best skill. I am 33 but I am having my best ever season. There is no secret; just passion and work.’
Mention of passion turns the conversation towards his former Juventus and Italy coach Antonio Conte, who is under growing pressure at Chelsea.
‘Italian passion,’ Chiellini says, blowing his cheeks out. ‘It is not only in the match with Conte. It is all day, every training session. He is like a police sergeant. We felt something very special in his atmosphere, for three years with him at Juventus and two years in the national team.
‘When you finish training, you are dead. Not tired — dead. You can do it only because you believe in what he does. We had 40 days in France and it was like entering another world. You are 100% with him. He creates an atmosphere, everyone gives energy to each other. For sure he is one of the very best.’
After Conte’s departure from Italy, the national team suffered a steep decline and Chiellini was part of the team that missed out on this summer’s World Cup. Chiellini grimaces. ‘Honestly, it will be like a dagger in my stomach. It will not be a good month. I will see bits and check the scores but I can’t imagine sitting at the TV to watch the World Cup at home.’
Chiellini urges his compatriots to return to basics. ‘Pep Guardiola spoiled and ruined the Italian defender,’ he says.
‘He is a fantastic coach with a fantastic mind but Italian trainers have tried to copy him without the same knowledge and then in the last 10 years, we lost our identity.
‘We lost our identity of [Paolo] Maldini, [Franco] Baresi, [Fabio] Cannavaro, [Alessandro] Nesta, [Giuseppe] Bergomi, [Claudio] Gentile, [Gaetano] Scirea… between 1984 and 1995, we have only [Leonardo] Bonucci. In 10 years, we didn’t launch one good defender. I hope now we restart and relaunch Italian football. The World Cup result is the proof of our problem.’
Juventus, however, remain a major force. Massimiliano Allegri’s side have reached two Champions League finals in the last three years. They are pushing for a seventh Serie A title in a row. Chiellini has had English interest before and he speaks passionately about Mauricio Pochettino’s ‘exciting’ Tottenham team but ‘for an Italian, you only leave Juventus if Juventus want to sell you. It is simple.’
He smiles: ‘When we had [Leonardo] Bonucci, [Andrea] Barzagli, myself and Gigi Buffon at the back, what we had was special. It is not just technical…it is a feeling, emotion, a level of experience.’
He sees a similar spirit developing at Tottenham. ‘Strong team,’ he nods. ‘I like the Belgian couple at the back, (Jan) Vertonghen and (Toby) Alderweireld.
‘Harry Kane is a fantastic player. He played against us three years ago and he has really improved. Now he scores more than Messi in a calendar year…and that’s very different to scoring more than Chiellini!’
Interview courtesy of mailonline.com