From Juventus to Italy to LAFC, Chiellini was a likable villain

Why Giorgio Chiellini was a natural born winner (0:44)

Jan Aage Fjortoft praises Giorgio Chiellini after his retirement from football. (0:44)

If Giorgio Chiellini were a movie villain, he'd be Loki or, since it's Christmas, Hans Gruber from "Die Hard." You know he's a bad guy and you know he's about to do something fiendish, but whether because of the goofiness or the smile or the belief that deep down, there's good in him, you kinda like him.

Consider this moment from Euro 2020. It's the coin flip before the penalty shootout in the semifinal between Italy and Spain. Tension everywhere except on his face, which has a massive smile, and it quickly turns into joking, happy-clappy man-handling of his opposite number, Jordi Alba, which ends with Chiellini picking him up in a bear hug. It's a squeeze that is no doubt affectionate, but also signals "I'm in charge, little man ..."

And yes, Italy went on to win that shootout and the Euros themselves, defeating England in the final (in another penalty shootout.)

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Was it the mind game that did it? We'll never know, but it's part of the Chiellini lore, and is also why he's a lot more popular than his track record suggests he should be. After all, he spent 17 seasons at Juventus, winning nine Serie A titles (though Chiellini, like many Juve fans, would probably say it's 10 and counts the 2005-06 Scudetto as well, even though it was later revoked following the Calciopoli scandal.)

Spend that much time on a successful Juve side, especially in those years and in the polarized world of Serie A, and the opposition is bound to loathe you. And yet Chiellini was never public enemy number one among the anti-Juve contingent.

Was it because he was also an Italy international and they were grateful for what he did with the Azzurri? Not quite. Truth be told, prior to Euro 2020, his Italy tenure -- a whopping 117 caps -- coincided with one of the worst periods of their history. They made the final four of a major tournament just once -- losing the Euro 2012 final to Spain, 4-0, a match that saw Chiellini start despite carrying an injury and being forced to go off after just 21 minutes -- didn't make it out of the group stage in 2010 and 2014 and failed to qualify entirely in 2018 and 2022.

More simply, Chiellini always had an enduring underdog quality that stuck with him even while he guided Juventus, the ultimate blue-blood club, to Serie A title after Serie A title.

It may have had something to do with the fact that he was more of a throwback defender, to the days when center-backs weren't pretty or key parts of the buildup play. He was strong, athletic and quick (at least in his 20s), but he was never the most elegant or accomplished passer out of the back. In that sense, the 11 years he spent alongside Leo Bonucci in the heart of the Juve defense -- and for much of that time in the Italian national team as well -- were the perfect synergistic relationship.

Bonucci was the gifted passer who could build play from deep; Chiellini was the powerhouse who could match the world's best strikers. Both were enforcers who could get cynical -- just ask Bukayo Saka, after he was dragged back by his collar in the Euro 2020 final -- but the difference was that Chiellini, maybe thanks to his smile though more likely thanks to his brains, was sent off just seven times in a career that spanned 833 games for club and country.

For a central defender who played with his intensity, that's a remarkably low number. It's also indicative that more than half of them came before his 25th birthday. This is a guy who got better and smarter with age, making up for the quickness he lost in his legs with quickness of the mind. He stuck around, too, long enough to play against both former Italy forward Enrico Chiesa and his son, Federico Chiesa.

This wasn't just true on the pitch, either. He turned his everyman persona into a kind of personal charisma, becoming the unquestioned leader of the Juve dressing room and, at Euro 2020, the national team as well.

Some -- including me, I'll admit it -- were highly skeptical when Roberto Mancini opted for a Chiellini-Bonucci partnership (combined age: 70) at the Euros. But the pair played a critical role on a young and inexperienced side.

"A big part of my job as captain is distracting my teammates and relieving the pressure on them," Chiellini has said. You can chuck the Jordi Alba incident into that bucket: whatever nerves and butterflies might have been fluttering about before the spot kicks were surely gone when they witnessed the big defender picking Alba up off the ground like a toddler.

That ability to read situations, and people, has served Chiellini well. It's probably not a coincidence that he pursued university while playing, earning a BA in economics in 2010, and then an MBA in 2017. Education was a big part of his playing days, too.

"I studied opponents ... a lot," he once said about his game. "Every player has his tendencies, whether it's a type of run, or preferring to go one way or the other, or taking an extra touch, or cutting to the near or far post. I watched a ton of video to learn what [opponents] liked to do most of the time and then I made sure it wasn't an option, just to get them out of their comfort zone.

"If they still beat me, fine, but I made it harder for them."

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The same year Chiellini received his MBA, he also made headlines in the most Chiellini way possible.

Juan Mata, then at Manchester United, had started a charity for professional athletes called "Common Goal" that invited players to pledge 1% of their salary to charitable causes. Not knowing Mata personally, Chiellini wrote an email to the generic email address on the website, saying he wanted to join. Naturally, they assumed it was a hoax, and it was only after he arranged a video call that they were satisfied it was really him.

So what comes next? Having spent the last two seasons at LAFC in Major League Soccer, reaching two MLS Cup finals -- winning one and losing the other -- he's going to stick around in Los Angeles, refine his English and let his kids finish the academic year. But he's made it very clear that his dream is to return to football in an executive role, ideally at Juventus, which happens to be where his twin brother, Claudio, works as a lawyer. The way Juve's last 18 months have gone -- points penalties, en masse board resignations and huge losses on the balance sheet -- they could certainly use another Chiellini on board.

If he does return one day, Juve will once again embrace their folk hero. And those who hate Juventus, will have to deal with a villain who's difficult to loathe.

Heck, it's not his fault he bleeds black-and-white.