Gennaro Gattuso turned to his left, put his fist on his hip and his eyes on the translator. On the clipboard in front of her was a handwritten record of everything that had been said in the past hour, scribbled down quickly.
“I feel like I get asked the same question all the time,” he said, meaning she said it too. Then he turned to the room, a hint of that look, recognizable to Gattuso, and began. “I. Have. Not. Talked. About. This. I’m not the one who should talk about it. I don’t know what problems there are. You ask me, ‘What debt does Valencia have?’ I don’t know. When I leave here, I’ll ask Sean [Bai, the president].”
When he was done, he put something in his mouth – maybe a toothpick or a pen lid maybe, but either way, it completed the look – then he left. He already seemed a little tired, a tad pissed off. And it was only his first day. It was Thursday and the Italian – back 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” – sat there in glasses after being introduced as the new coach of Valencia, one of Spain’s biggest clubs, although their reality defies the current one.
It is the 15th managerial appointment since Peter Lim bought the club in May 2014, although in fairness five of them were perennial interim Voro briefly taking over as caretaker. First there was Juan Antonio Pizzi, but they inherited him and never really planned on keeping him. Nuno Espirito Santo came next, successful at least to start with. Then Gary Neville and Pako Ayesteran. Cesare Prandelli has come and gone, lasting just three months, leaving before the players he says left.
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Marcelino seemed to have stabilized things – there was a Champions League qualification, a Copa del Rey win, stability, an idea – but his battle with the board became increasingly public, challenging them almost to fire him, which they inevitably did. They also fired the sporting director and the CEO. Albert Celades quietly followed as the next manager, entering his first pre-match press conference alone, with the players refusing to join him. The next was Javi Gracia. Then Jose Bordalas, who had taken them to the cup final and bonded with the fans but was nonetheless sacked earlier this month – five days after Gattuso left for Singapore to see the owner.
‘I always like to tell the truth,’ said Gattuso, and that’s what he did: he revealed that the first contacts took place in April, before the cup final, which Valencia then lost . Jorge Mendes, his agent, had set this up. He sets up a lot of things in Valencia. In Singapore, Gattuso said, he pulled out a big tactical board. He dictated, Lim drew the lines and wrote everything down. Positions not names, he says.
“After an hour he liked the project, after two he liked it even more,” said the Italian. “What I liked was that Lim listened to everything I offered him. He asked me why I wanted to play like this and we talked about the path we had to take.
“I found a president who knows the solution and the roadmap to follow. He asked me what kind of football I wanted to play and he was above it all.”
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 what really matters most. Surely that was a big part of what everyone wanted to know, and why wouldn’t they? Yes, football comes first but… in fact, does it even come first? Because all these other things condition everything, including football. Finances especially, that’s what made it striking. At the end of his presentation, Gattuso said he would ask Bai about the debt and maybe next time he could talk about it. The surprise was that he hadn’t asked Singapore anything, that they hadn’t talked about it at all.
They had, he suggested, talked about the institution, the environment in which he was embedded. It is not, he knows, easy. But then it doesn’t really get easy.
“I found my life balance 20 years ago in Marbella, it’s the only place where I’m at peace,” Gattuso said. “I love Spain, the life of the Spaniards. They don’t ‘eat’ each other’s heads.”
Valencia doesn’t look that far away, but it’s nearly 700 kilometers (435 miles) along the coast, and peace hasn’t been a defining feature of the club for a while. But this is Spain, and this is the first time he has come here professionally, a place where he wants to be.
Which isn’t to say Gattuso will look so different now, and he knows the hope he’ll be around for long – he’s signed for two years, plus an optional third – may well not come true. His last job, at Fiorentina, lasted 23 days. No Valencia manager has gone beyond two seasons under the current owner. It’s an unstable place, inside and out, which is one of the reasons. However, no one would want him to suddenly become shy either; it wouldn’t be him and it wouldn’t be what the team needs. Or at least that’s what some people think.
There was a point in his presentation where Gattuso was asked what kind of character they could expect. “What do you think?” he retaliated. “In a month, let’s have coffee and we can chat about whether I’m a lion or a cute kitty. I’ve memorized you.”
There was blood in his eyes, a frankness that helps convince people. It was an unexpected choice, but there’s definitely something about him that you can pick up on, the 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 them had already been heard. Last summer, they felt Bordalas fit the club’s historical identity. Valence, bronco and copero, was revived: the idea of Valencia as a feisty, combative and tough cup team, which they largely were. Whether they overshot or underperformed – cup runners-up, ninth in the league – was up for debate, and it’s a debate at the heart of everything now: what exactly is Valencia’s natural place these days, their level ? What can they really aspire to? What can they expect?
“I know what’s going on, I’m aware of Lim’s criticism, but if the team loses, it doesn’t make 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 in another club [Fiorentina] where I packed my bags and left.”
While that sounded like a badass, most of what he said sounded like a realist, aware of the limits he will face and accepting them – for now, at least. If that felt like taking on the responsibility alone, he and everyone else are aware that it’s not just about him. Maybe not even about him at all.
Even though he doesn’t know the amount of debt, Gattuso knows some of the problems Valencia are facing. In their last home game, there were more fans outside the pitch, protesting the way the club is run by Lim, than there were inside Mestalla. The social divide is almost irreparable now, the lack of trust almost total. He knows that the former president, Anil Murthy, has just been sacked. He knows plans for a new stadium are still pending, nearly 15 years after construction began with a large white elephant standing empty. He knows that the relationship between the press and politicians is broken.
On Friday, the club issued a statement announcing that for the first time in 400 days people could respond to their social media posts. The first replies all said the same thing: let Lim go.
Maybe that eases the tension on Gattuso to begin with, maybe even becomes a shield to stand behind: the criticism won’t be directed at him but at the owners. “I’m not an accountant, I’m a football coach,” he said, but accounts condition his managerial ability. Surely he knows that there is no money to invest in the club, that without the annual injections of cash from the owner there might not be a club at all, that he there is no team with the talent that a club like this, and their fans, demand.
“Lim told me we wouldn’t have to sell,” Gattuso said. “I don’t have the feeling he’s going to scam me or that we’ll have to sell players.” But sometimes Gracia and Bordalas felt that (the club would eventually feel that Bordalas had forced them to sign players they shouldn’t have), that they considered the promises broken. And Gattuso knows his best players can leave and there’s no money to replace them. Or he certainly should; he’s not naive enough not to.
The answer, by the way, is that Valencia’s debt is €400m ($420m), €216m of which is short-term. They face a third consecutive season without European football. Their top three players are a year away from becoming free agents. They have to make almost €40m in outbound transfers just to stay on budget this year – in other words, before anything else happens. “I will speak to [Goncalo] Guedes, [Carlos] Soler and [Jose] Gaya”, he said of these three stars, but talking is one thing, finding a solution is another; having the authority and the means to do so is another. It’s virtually impossible for all of them to start next season with the club, and unlikely for more than one of them to do so.
Gattuso knows it; he also knows that in the end, he will not decide. “I don’t like talking about my money let alone other people’s money,” he said. “Others will negotiate. And then he can get to work with what he has. He’s there to manage, and that includes people’s expectations. “Time will tell,” he said.
“Sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe s—,” he once said. Valencia are desperately hoping for the former, while fearing the latter.