The early 20th century saw mass immigration that brought millions of Italians to seek their fortune in Argentina. Amongst these countless travellers: Vincenzo, from Crotone. Establishing himself in the small town of Longchamps, in the province of Buenos Aires, Vincenzo set down the roots of yet another family of Italo-Argentinos. Two generations later, Vincenzo's nephew – Gabriel – embarked upon an odyssey that would eventually take him back to where it all began: Italy.
Gabriel's journey was characterised by a brilliant start – in 2005, after playing a significant role in Argentina's victory in the Under-20 World Cup, European giants Liverpool started eyeing up the promising centre-back. One year later, in the wake of Liverpool's Champions League triumph in Istanbul, Rafa Benitez decided to bring young Gabriel Paletta to Merseyside. Although Rafa defined Paletta as possessing characteristics similar to those of club legend Jamie Carragher, Gabriel's career in Liverpool was very different from that of his Scouse colleague. After a mere three league appearances, Paletta was invited to pack his bags and return to where he came from: a hard knock for a 21-year-old kid.
The failure to impose oneself on the grand stage of European football has proved to be a fatal blow to the career of many South Americans. For instance, amongst Paletta's World Cup-winning Under-20s, many were immediately signed by European clubs. After a failed start to their continental careers, most of these young talents gradually faded into footballing obscurity. Julio Barroso, Pablo Vitti, Rodrigo Archubi, to name but a few. "Who?" you may ask. That is precisely the point.
Nevertheless, quitting is not in the nature of a real Gaucho Italiano like Gabriel Paletta. Coming from a family that endured hardships much more profound than those found on a football pitch, Gabriel kept his chin up. With patience, resilience and humility, Gabriel waited nine long years for his breakthrough in European football to occur, rebuilding his reputation at Boca Juniors and Parma. Now, aged 30, Gabriel has quietly become a key player at the heart of Milan's defence (the sixth best in Serie A this season, with 28 goals conceded in 24 games). Sturdy, rough and with a no-nonsense mentality, Gabriel is a symbol of the working-class football that makes lovers of the beautiful game nostalgic. In a world that has seen many crystalline talents give up at the first hurdle, Paletta is a necessary example of how commitment and persistence can count more than skill.
Gabriel is not a Cassano, a Balotelli, a Vitti or a Barroso. Gabriel doesn't posses heaps of talent and, throughout his career, hasn't had the option of resting on his laurels. Despite this handicap, while contemporary wonderkids thought that their talent alone would suffice, Paletta worked hard and in near-total silence. And while those other potentially stellar careers gradually went to waste, Paletta finally reached the climax of his journey – his rightful reward for the sacrifices and the spirit demonstrated over the years.
The unconventionally heroic nature of Paletta comes at a price: no big sponsorships, no photoshoots and, perhaps, no horde of fans shouting his name. But this, for our working-class hero, is far from the purpose of playing football. Our hero doesn't see the sport as a means to achieve fame, or public recognition. Football is Paletta's job and, as such, his aim is to execute it with the maximum commitment and seriousness required.
Making fun of Gabriel is easy – the age, the appearance, the relative anonymity all make him seem unfit to mix with Italy's elite. But, in football as much as in life, those who transcend these prejudices and work hard to overcome them are those who emerge as victors in the long run. This year, Paletta has done exactly that. Amidst the fan's criticism and mockery, Paletta has performed consistently, week in and week out, highlighting his valid skills in the role of centre-back. At the age of 30 – the age at which the majority of careers begin their declining phase – Gabriel has finally achieved the respect that he deserves.
In hindsight, Paletta had already won his battle against prejudice back in 2014. After a solid season with Parma, Italy's coach Cesare Prandelli bestowed upon Paletta the highest honour: a World Cup call-up. Widespread social media criticism over the defender's presence in the squad was quick to surface: "He's not even Italian" or "Look at this guy's hair". Paletta endured this teasing with the same humility and professionalism with which he faced rejection at Anfield back in 2006.
"I've learnt the national anthem and I'll be singing it in Brazil", Paletta stated. The opportunity to do so came in the first game of the World Cup: Italy beat England 2-1, Paletta started at the heart of the Azzurri's defence and devotedly belted out the Inno di Mameli, as promised. Now, if this were a fictional story, I'd be writing about Italy's ugly duckling, Paletta, guiding his team to an unexpected and heroic World Cup triumph. I'd be writing about Paletta's game-saving tackles, about his redemption and, for some last-chapter drama, his winning header in the final: the perfect story, right?
The answer is yes, it would be a perfect story. But when is life ever perfect? The England game was to be Paletta's only start for Italy, during what Italians will forever remember, or rather gladly forget, as one of the most disastrous World Cup campaigns in the country's history. Not only was the campaign a fiasco, but Paletta's individual performance was also rated negatively by Italian papers. La Gazzetta dello Sport's verdict was categorical: a lowly 4.5 rating for Gabriel, further rubbed in with references to his unfortunate Liverpool experience. So why is this Paletta's victory over prejudice? You have the right to be perplexed.
Paletta won his battle the very moment he stepped onto the pitch that torrid Brazilian afternoon. Before playing for a big club, before being quietly but widely recognised as a reliable defender, Paletta had already liberated himself from his unjustified crucifixion. By setting his foot on that grass, Paletta experienced an emotion that his critics will never even remotely grasp. And what is more, Gabriel did it silently, with a touch of shyness, concerned merely about running after that ball, about giving it his all, as he always does.
Gabriel Paletta is not the best centre-back in the world, and nobody would claim that he is. Still, faced with criticism that is hardly ever relevant to his performances on the pitch, Gabriel always responds flawlessly: not with his voice, but with his heart.
Thereby, we should say thank you – thank you for teaching us an invaluable lesson. Gabriel Paletta: not the best, but our working-class hero.