FC Sion offer a new challenge
15 August ~ AC Milan have had the kind of summer where season ticket refunds are demanded. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva have both departed for Paris Saint-Germain, while the majority of their Serie A and Champions League winning veterans have been cut adrift. Alessandro Nesta has signed up for 18 months at Montreal Impact and Clarence Seedorf has agreed a two-year deal at Botafogo after a ten-year spell with the Rossoneri. Filippo Inzaghi has ended his 21-year playing career, including 11 seasons at Milan, to coach their Allievi Nazionali youth side.
Gennaro Gattuso played over 450 games for the club in a 13-year spell. Since leaving he has revealed: "I felt like the Milan shirt was sewn on me." He started only five games last season, due to a debilitating eye injury that developed at the start of the campaign. When the problem had subsided, Gattuso found first team opportunities scarce with Massimo Ambrosini, Mark van Bommel, Sulley Muntari and Antonio Nocerino preferred. He was released in May despite offering to play for free.
In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, Gattuso explained that he had no regrets in leaving Milan. "I no longer wanted to feel like a burden," he said. "I have an exceptional relationship with Adriano Galliani. The Milan board wanted to keep me but when the coach doesn't agree with that, then it becomes difficult." After considering offers from Italy, Russia and former club Rangers, the 34-year-old opted for Swiss Super League side FC Sion.
"The people here in Valais have passion running through their veins," Gattuso said at his unveiling. "They remind me of the people of Calabria, my home. It's not a question of money. One of the reasons why I chose FC Sion is because it's close to home. I've come here to FC Sion to win and to compete with FC Basel for the title."
Sion sporting director Marco Degennaro, delighted with the high-profile capture of Gattuso, is on record stating that "the new Sion will be built around him". He also wants to sign Alessandro Del Piero, who is a free agent. The signing can be regarded as a timely public relations boost after their previous campaign, which was shrouded in controversy. Sion qualified for the Europa League as a result of winning the 2011 Swiss Cup, but were excluded from the competition after fielding ineligible players in their play-off victory over Celtic.
A lengthy process of claim and counter-claim ensued between the club, the Swiss Football Association and UEFA, before FIFA threatened to suspend both their domestic and national sides if the association failed to penalise Sion. In December they docked the club 36 points, a figure based on the number of games involving the ineligible players.
The ruling left them rooted to the foot of the table, but they won an end-of-season relegation play-off to remain in the division. Without the penalty, they would have finished third and qualified for Europe again. Sion have made an unbeaten start to the current season, storming to the top of the table by winning four of their first five games, with Gattuso playing in every one.
Coming to terms with the culture shock, Gattuso is taking the opportunity to recharge his batteries and has embraced his new surroundings. "I've reset everything here at Sion. For 13 years I played a different sport because when you're at Milan, you're on another planet. Here at Sion I carry my own bag. I clean my own boots otherwise they remain dirty and I change the studs on my boots by myself. When I was at Milanello, I got angry with the storemen if something was missing from my bag. Here, I can only get angry at myself. And if you wrap your ankle with athletic tape here at Sion, then they look at you in a weird way because it costs them money."
With designs on a career in coaching when he stops playing, Gattuso is keen to experience a different culture. He remains a fierce competitor, but a longing for his former employer remains. "I miss Milan. I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't admit it. I'm happy with the choice that I made because here you need to fight." Scott Johnson