Gennaro Gattuso turned to his left, put his fist on his hip and his eyes on the translator. On the pad in front of her was a handwritten record of everything that had been said in the past hour, scribbled down fast.
“I feel like I’m always being asked the same question,” he said, which meant that she said it too. Then he turned to the room, a hint of that look, recognisably Gattuso, and began. “I. Have. Not. Talked. About. That. I am not the one that should talk about it. I don’t know what problems there are. You ask me, ‘What debt do Valencia have?’ I don’t know.When I leave here, I’ll ask Sean [Bai, the president].”
When he had finished, he popped something in his mouth — a toothpick maybe or a pen lid perhaps, but either way, it completed the look — and then he did leave. He appeared a little tired of it already, ever so slightly edgy. And it was just his first day of it. It was Thursday and the Italian — in his playing days a midfielder who in his own words “sweated the shirt and ran, ran, ran and ran” but who “sees football differently now” — was sitting there in glasses having just been presented as the new coach of Valencia, one of the biggest clubs in Spain, even if their reality defies that right now.
His is the 15th managerial appointment since Peter Lim bought the club in May 2014, although in fairness five of those were eternal interim Voro briefly taking over as caretaker. First there was Juan Antonio Pizzi, but they inherited him and never really planned to keep him. Nuno Espirito Santo came next, successfully at least to start with. Then Gary Neville and Pako Ayesteran. Cesare Prandelli came and went, lasting just three months, leaving before the players he said they should leave.
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Marcelino seemed to have steadied things — there was Champions League qualification, a Copa del Rey win, stability, an idea — but his battle with the board became ever more public, almost daring them to sack him, which inevitably they did. They fired the sporting director and the CEO, too. Albert Celades followed quietly as the next coach, stepping into his first prematch news conference alone, the players refusing to join him. Next was Javi Gracia. Then Jose Bordalas, who had taken them to a cup final and connected with the fans but was nonetheless sacked earlier this month — five days after Gattuso set off for Singapore to see the owner.
“I like to always tell the truth,” Gattuso said, and so he did: He revealed that the first contacts had been in April, before the cup final, which Valencia then lost. Jorge Mendes, his agent, had set that up. I have set up a lot of things at Valencia. In Singapore, Gattuso said, he got out a big tactics board. He dictated, Lim drew out the lines and wrote it all down. Positions not names, he said.
“After an hour he liked the project, after two he liked it even more,” the Italian said. “What I liked was that Lim listened to everything I proposed. He asked why I wanted to play like that and we talked about the path we had to take.
“I found a president who knows the solution and the road map to follow. He asked me what kind of football I wanted to play and he was on top of everything.”
Gattuso was there for two days, discussing what they were going to do. What they didn’t talk about, or so he said, was all that other stuff. Which, in truth, might be the stuff that really matters most. It was certainly a big part of what everyone else wanted to know, and why wouldn’t they? Yes, the football comes first but … actually, does it even come first? Because all that other stuff conditions everything, including the football. The finances especially, which is what made this striking. At the end of his presentation, Gattuso said he would ask Bai about the debt and next time maybe he could talk about it. The surprise was that he hadn’t asked in Singapore, that they hadn’t talked about it at all.
They had, he suggested, talked about the institution, the environment into which he steps. It is not, he knows, an easy one. But then he doesn’t really do easy.
“I found my life balance 20 years ago in Marbella; it’s the only place I am at peace,” Gattuso said. “I love Spain, the life the Spaniards have. They don’t ‘eat’ their minds up.”
Valencia doesn’t look so far yet it’s almost 700 kilometers (435 miles) up and round the coast, and peace hasn’t been a defining feature of the club for a while. But it is Spain, and this is the first time he has been here professionally, a place where he wants to be.
Which doesn’t mean that Gattuso will be so different now, and he knows that the hope that he will be there a long time — he has signed for two years, plus an optional third — might well go unfulfilled. His last job, at Fiorentina, lasted 23 days. No Valencia coach has got much beyond two seasons under the current ownership. This is a volatile place, inside and out, which is one of the reasons why. Nor, though, would anyone want him to go timid all of a sudden; it wouldn’t be him and it wouldn’t be what the team needs. Or at least that’s what some think.
There was a moment in his presentation when Gattuso was asked what kind of character they could expect. “What do you think?” I have shot back. “In a month let’s have a coffee and we can talk about whether I am a lion or a sweet pussycat. I’ve got you memorized.”
There was blood in his eye, a directness that goes some way to winning people over. He was an unexpected choice but there’s certainly something about him that you can get behind, character.
“We wanted a change of direction,” Bai said. He talked about identity and DNA, wanting fans to be proud of the club. Some of it had been heard before. Last summer, they felt that Bordalas fitted the club’s historic identity. Valencia, bronco and cupbearer, was revived: the idea of Valencia as a feisty, fighting, tough cup team, which they largely were. Whether they had overachieved or underachieved — cup finalists, ninth in the league — was up for debate, and it is a debate at the heart of everything now: what exactly is Valencia’s natural place these days, their level? What can they truly aspire to? What can they expect?
“I know what’s happening, I know about the criticism of Lim, but if the team loses it makes no sense to criticize him; they have to criticize me,” Gattuso said. “The coach has to decide whether or not he accepts certain impositions, as happened at another club [Fiorentina] where I packed up and left.”
If that sounded tough-guy, most of what he said sounded like a realist, aware of the limitations he will face and accepting them — for now, at least. If that sounded like taking sole responsibility, he is aware, and so is everyone else, that it’s not just about him. Maybe not even about him at all.
Even if he doesn’t know the size of the debt, Gattuso knows some of the issues that Valencia faces. At their last home game, there were more fans outside the ground, protesting the way the club is run by Lim, than there were inside Mestalla. The social fracture is pretty much unfixable now, the lack of trust almost total. He knows that the former president, Anil Murthy, has just been sacked. He knows that plans for a new stadium are still on hold, almost 15 years after construction began, a great white elephant standing empty. He knows that the relationship between press and politicians is broken.
On Friday, the club released a statement, announcing that for the first time in 400 days, people would be able to respond to their posts on social media. The first responses all said the same thing: for Lim to leave.
Perhaps that eases the tension on Gattuso to begin with, maybe even becoming a shield behind which to stand: criticism will not be directed at him but at the owners. “I am not an accountant, I am a football manager,” he said, but the accounts condition his capacity for management. He surely knows that there is not the money for investment at the club, that but for the annual cash injections from the owner, there might not be a club at all, that there isn’t a team with talent that a club like this, and their fans, demand.
“Lim told me we will not be forced to sell,” Gattuso said. “I don’t have the feeling that he is going to con me or that we will have to sell players.” But at times Gracia and Bordalas did feel that way (the club would end up feeling that Bordalas had forced them into signing players they shouldn’t have), that they did consider that promises had been broken. And Gattuso knows that his best players may leave and that there is not the money to replace them. Or he certainly should; he is not naive enough not to.
The answer, by the way, is that Valencia’s debt is €400 million ($420m), €216m of it short term. They face a third consecutive season without European football. Their three best players are a year away from becoming free agents. They have to complete almost €40m worth of outgoing transfers just to meet this year’s budget — in other words, before anything else happens. “I will speak to [Goncalo] Guedes, [Carlos] Soler and [Jose] Gaya,” he said of those three stars, but talking is one thing, finding a solution another; so is having the authority and means to do so. It is virtually impossible that all of them start next season with the club, and unlikely that more than one of them does.
Gattuso knows that; he also knows that ultimately he won’t decide. “I don’t like talking about my money and even less about other people’s money,” he said. “Others will negotiate.” And then he can get to work, with whatever he has got. He’s here to manage, and that includes people’s expectations. “Time will show us,” he said.
“Sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe s—,” he said once. Valencia will be desperately hoping for the former, while fearing the latter.