It took about a month for Gennaro Gattuso to become Swiss side Sion’s key player and at the same time demonstrate that he did not sign up with president Christian Constantin’s side for a long-term holiday amongst the vineyards and valleys of the Canton Valais. With his unmistakable style of play, marked by tough tackling and a never-say-die attitude, Gattuso is the undisputed leader of a pack aiming to break Basel’s dominance of Swiss football.
At the time of writing Sion are topping the Swiss Super League, having collected 16 points from seven games, with five of those clashes resulting in victories. Coach Sebastien Fournier has so far put substance over style, as Sion rarely play spectacular football. The team does not lack for technically gifted players though, such as attacking midfielder Xavier Margairaz and number 10 Oussama Darragi, the latter having been nicknamed the “Tunisian Riquelme”. However, Sion appear to have been created in Gattuso’s image – and that means a side with a tough, battling spirit founded on hard work.
“It is not easy to go from the Champions League to the Swiss championship”, said Fournier, speaking about Gattuso. “It is a question of motivation. A top player usually thinks that, as the level of football in Switzerland is 50% lower than in the top competitions, giving 50% could be enough to make the difference. It doesn’t work this way. Since the first day Gattuso joined us he has shown an extremely professional attitude.”
Team-mates quickly learned to recognise the famous “Ringhio” (growl in Italian). During the club’s training camp at Saint Prex, a small town along Lake Geneva, Sion were beaten 2-0 by Lausanne in a friendly, the first played with Gattuso in the starting eleven. “He went off the pitch looking so angry that in the dressing room nobody dared to say anything to him”, recalls Swiss journalist Pier Luigi Giganti. “He could not stand losing and he did not care that it was a simple friendly. The day after that match, all the supporters were mad about him.”
Gattuso himself is full of genuine enthusiasm when he speaks about his new adventure. “The only person who was upset when I chose to join Sion was my wife because that meant she had to go on holiday with the children by herself”, said the Italian midfielder. “Obviously, here in Switzerland it is a world apart from when I was at Milan. At Sion I have to clean my own football boots and switch the studs myself. And when I wear an ankle bandage, all eyes are on me because the bandages are expensive and Sion take care of their money. Every day there is a new challenge here. After 13 years with Milan the time was right to look for something new.”
The midfielder is the household name Sion president Constantin needed to push forward his ambition to make his team a top Swiss club. In the past the president has brought other internationals to the Canton Valais, such as Egyptian goalkeeper Essam El Hadary, Belgian striker Emile Mpenza and former Barcelona midfielder Gabri. But with Gattuso he has excelled himself, signing one of the finest defensive midfielders of the last decade and a World Cup winner to boot.
“Swiss football desperately needed to hit the headlines for positive reasons after seeing its credibility fall below zero last year due to Neuchatel Xamax and Sion”, said another Swiss journalist, Paolo Galli. “Xamax were led to bankruptcy by businessman Bulat Chagaev, while Sion were excluded from European competition for fielding ineligible players in a game and lost their legal battle against the Swiss FA and UEFA, with a 36-point deduction which almost led them to ruin. The Super League needed a breath of fresh air. This time Constantin has done something good for our football’s image abroad.”
Since architect Constantin bought Sion in 2003, the club have won the Swiss Cup three times, but always failed to collect what would be their third national title, after 1992 and 1997. Constantin chopped and changed coaches, appointing an astonishing 24 in ten years, but perhaps now he has settled on the right man to lead Sion back to the top. That man though does not sit on the bench, but directs the team from the pitch. That man is Gennaro Gattuso.