The myth surrounding Claudio Gentile is that of a hatchet man. Yes, his surname is perhaps one of the more inappropriate names ever given to a footballer. But what does the data say compared to the typical treatment he received from the media?

“I’ve always had a distrust of centre-backs who can play.”

Jack Charlton pulls no punches with his footballing philosophy.

Nowadays, the mere mention of ‘man-marking’ has the same effect as committing blasphemy in a private audience with the Pope. In an era where attacks start with the keeper, where everyone has to be confident in carrying the ball and using both feet, the stereotypical defender, more worried at stopping the opponent rather than starting his team’s actions, is no more.  

Italy have always been linked with that stereotype. The country of Catenaccio, of the mean defence, of tight 0-0 draws and 1-0 wins, of Machiavellian, cynical “the end justifies the means approach,” of parking the bus, of putting 11 men behind the ball. The country of astute tactical fouls, where defenders use any trick to stop the opposition from scoring.

Despite the brilliance of defenders like Gaetano Scirea, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro, it’s hard to shake that label when one of the more infamous names in your glorious history is the one and only Claudio Gentile. There’s no smoke without fire.

Claudio Gentile will always be associated with Italy’s famous 1982 World Cup win. But in a dark way. He had nothing to do with the rebirth of Paolo Rossi, the experience of Dino Zoff, the skills of Bruno Conti and Giancarlo Antognoni, the energy of Marco Tardelli or the runs of Antonio Cabrini. He will be forever pictured next to Zico and his ripped shirt. Or disparaged for the number of fouls (exaggerated in almost everything that was written about the tournament) he committed on Diego Maradona in Italy’s second-round victory against Argentina.

Claudio Gentile and Zico

Is Gentile football’s most misunderstood man?

Gentile grew up in Libya and hastily moved back to Italy when Muammar Gaddafi rose to power, so there’s an unfortunate irony in people using the ruler’s name as Gentile’s nickname. It was understandably something he objected to. Juventus signed him from Varese in 1973 and he played with the Old Lady for 11 years, winning six league titles, two Italian cups, one UEFA Cup and one Cup Winners’ Cup. Not a bad haul.

On April 19, 1975 Gentile made his international debut in a very apt 0-0 draw against Poland in Rome in the Euro ’76 qualifiers. He played 71 times for the Azzurri, bowing out after Italy’s unsuccessful Euro ’84 qualifying campaign. But in 1978 and 1982, a period where Italy redeemed themselves after a disappointing 1974 World Cup campaign, Gentile was very much at the centre of the action.

Let’s examine whether his reputation as the master of the dark arts is justified.

Despite his bad boy reputation, he was only sent off once in his career and even that wasn’t a straight red.

In World Cup 1978, it was actually the Netherlands, the country famed for its Total Football, who conceded the most fouls, both in total and on a per-game basis.

1978 World Cup Disciplinary Table:

TeamGames PlayedFouls ConcededFouls per GameYellow CardsRed Cards

With both Willy van de Kerkhof and Arie Haan topping the charts with 23 fouls apiece, Gentile was eighth with 18 fouls and his only yellow card came in Italy’s last game against Brazil, a dead rubber of a game.  

1978 World Cup - Claudio Gentile Fouls

But the legend of Gentile really took flight in World Cup 1982. Once again, the data can help us separate the truth from the myth.

1982 World Cup Disciplinary Table:

TeamGames PlayedFouls ConcededFouls per gameYellow CardsRed Cards
N. Ireland59919.841
W. Germany713018.680
El Salvador35217.350

At Spain 1982, Poland committed the most fouls in total and Cameroon registered the highest average per game. Italy ranked sixth on fouls per game, tied with West Germany.

Now, it’s true that Gentile committed the most fouls throughout the tournament, 24 in total including two handballs, but his numbers split by game aren’t that intimidating. He was guilty of four fouls per game, the fourth-highest figure of players at the tournament. The bad boy of this edition was Ibrahim Aoudou of Cameroon, who gave away 17 fouls in just three matches, at a rate of 5.7 per game.

Gentile was booked for his third foul on Maradona a few minutes before half-time against Argentina, while in the game against Brazil he was shown a yellow card within the first 15 minutes for his second offence against Zico. That means for most of those two games the Juventus defender had to temper his natural man-marking tendencies in order to prevent Italy playing with 10 men. It’s worth mentioning that it was Argentina, rather than Gentile’s Italy, who had the poorer disciplinary record in the clash, receiving three yellows and a red compared to Italy’s two bookings.

And the number of fouls in the game against Brazil was split evenly with 21 per side.

1982 World Cup - Claudio Gentile Fouls

The legend of Gentile is based on his uncompromising man-marking skills. His numbers below show his relentless commitment to that role:

Claudio Gentile fouls on single player

But do these numbers reflect the picture of the hatchet man many writers like to paint? Gentile was a tough defender in an era where defending was seen as a positive skill in its own right. As important as creating and attacking.

 “I wasn’t very good at playing football. But I was very good at stopping other people playing football.” That’s Charlton again, this time talking about himself.

We get the feeling that, from the safe distance of the other end of the pitch, he would’ve gotten along very well with Claudio Gentile.

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