Giorgio Chiellini is having the time of his life.
Twenty-three years into a professional soccer career that has seen Chiellini play in two World Cups, win an Olympic bronze medal, captain Italy to a European Championship and capture nine Serie A titles with Juventus, Chiellini still embraces every game and training session like it’s his first.
“He’s a big kid, but in a good way,” LAFC teammate Kellyn Acosta said. “Sometimes it’s hard to believe that he’s, I don’t know, 45 years old?”
Close. Chiellini will turn 39 midway through the coming MLS season, which kicks off Saturday with LAFC facing the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl. But if he’s made any concession to age, it’s an insistence on enjoying the final days of an unparalleled career that saw him recognized as one of the best defenders of his generation.
“I enjoy every day because I know that I am close to the end,” he said. “There are many problems in life, but I think we have to enjoy what we do.”
That desire to squeeze everything he can out of soccer was behind his surprise decision to leave Juventus and Italy last June for LAFC despite having a year left on his contract.
“I arrived here in order to enjoy this league, discover new things, understand how is soccer now, at what level, in the U.S. And also in order to understand a different view of the sports business and sports here. It’s a huge difference,” he said.
“Enjoy,” by the way, is both a word Chiellini uses frequently, and an emotion he seems to experience almost as often.
“Giorgio is always like this,” said Alessandro Del Piero, a former club and international teammate and arguably the greatest Italian player of all time. “He’s always enthusiastic for his job and his life.”
Del Piero is as responsible as anyone for his former teammate’s decision to come to MLS. After retiring in 2015, he moved to L.A. and opened a trendy West Side Italian restaurant called N10, after his uniform number. Ever since, he’s been extolling the city’s virtues to anyone who would listen — among them Chiellini, who had never played for a team outside Italy.
“He’s very smart,” Del Piero continues to say of his former teammate, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in business administration and is the author of two books. “… He understands what’s going on, what could be the future.
“We did talk before he came to L.A. and of course I was explaining what it means to be in the U.S., what it means to be in L.A. especially. He was always very interested and curious to know as much as he can. He’s been spending a lot of time in my restaurant.”
But Chiellini also came here to win since his final season in Italy marked the first time in a decade he failed to lift at least one trophy with Juventus. When he joined LAFC in midseason, he was primarily expected to provide leadership and tutoring for the team’s young defenders. Instead, he played in 11 of LAFC’s final 16 regular-season games, starting nine of them, and appeared in two of the team’s three playoff games as LAFC won both the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.
“I wanted to help the team [by] bringing my knowledge, but bringing also my attitude,” said Chiellini, who is fluent in English. “It is not about me, because to be honest, I give what I can to the team. But it is the work of all the coaches, the work of all the club. Everyone has different goals, but everyone needs these trophies in order to achieve their own goals.”
“His energy is huge for us, a guy that’s very vocal. He’s experienced it all from Champions League to World Cups to play at the highest level for so many years.”
— Kellyn Acosta, on LAFC teammate Giorgio Chiellini
Whether LAFC will repeat as champion will depend how on hungry the players are. Chiellini’s Juventus teams won nine straight Italian championships; no MLS team has successfully defended a title since 2012.
“It’s not easy,” he said of MLS. “The rules don’t help a team create a dynasty because [of] the salary cap. When you win, everybody asks for more money. But the important thing is the attitude and the mentality. Continue to be hungry. Hungry to lift trophies, hungry to win.”
Chiellini’s biggest contributions to LAFC‘s first championship were largely intangible. His joy at simply being on the field was contagious, with a smiling Chiellini roaming the penalty area and flattening opposing forwards, then helping them to their feet with a grin and an encouraging pat on the fanny.
His energy is equally infectious.
“He takes things very serious, in the gym, to trainings, to the games,” Acosta said. “His energy is huge for us, a guy that’s very vocal. He’s experienced it all from Champions League to World Cups to play at the highest level for so many years. And he’s continuing to play at a high level.
“Player, coach, mentor, brother, friend. He does it all.”
Most of his teammates expected all that. What they didn’t anticipate, however, was his granular knowledge of MLS. Many of the European veterans who have come to MLS arrived with little understanding or respect for the league. Chiellini arrived with both.
“He actually surprised me because he literally watches every single MLS game,” Acosta said. “He knows all the players. When he first came in, he already knew my name and where I played previously, and how many games.”
And while some imports have tried to recreate an European environment in MLS, Chiellini said that’s a mistake. He showed up eager for something new.
“If you want to change everything, you lose at the beginning,” he said. “You have to accept the different culture, different habits, and you have to do the first step in order to have this different way of play. Everything is different. It’s not easy.
“But you have to quickly adapt. There are very good things in this league. The environment is very good. It’s a different way of life. I’ve really loved every day I’ve spent in the USA.”
So, he said, has his family. Chiellini and his wife Carolina have two daughters, 7-year-old Nina and 3-year-old Olivia, and the opportunity to expose them to another lifestyle and language was a huge bonus of the move, and one of the things Del Piero stressed most strongly.
“It will be an unforgettable experience for my family,” said Chiellini, whose daughters both attend school in English. “In Italy, we are not happy to have different cultures. L.A. is a city of different cultures. And it’s amazing how you can learn in [little] time many, many things.”
How long that education will continue Chiellini can’t say. His TAM-funded contract, worth $1.075 million, according to figures provided by the MLS players’ association, expires at the end of the season. Whether he’ll be offered a new contract — or even if he’ll want one — isn’t something that keeps him awake at night.
“It’s very hard thinking about the next year,” he said. “I have learned in my career after 30, then 32 and imagine now at 38, that you can’t have a long plan because everything changes so quickly. You have to be ready to adapt.
“I’m living in the moment.”
And at the moment, that life is pretty good.