It was a day of firsts for Giorgio Chiellini on Saturday. The 38-year-old veteran soccer star beamed with delight as he recalled donning his MLS Championship Ring.
“It was a new thing for me, the ring,” he said with a grin. “I was waiting for it. It will remain in my memories for all time.” In Italy, the rewards for champions are not quite as personalized. “[We receive] just medal and cup.”
The list of awards and accolades for the seasoned centre-back ranges from nine consecutive Serie A titles, five Coppa Italia titles, five Supercoppa Italiana titles, to the UEFA Euro 2020 and 117 caps for his national team. Yet, throughout all his achievements, his devotion to his craft, defending, has never wavered, nor has his zeal for learning waned.
“Life will be beautiful after the end of a player’s career. But you have to prepare first,” said Chiellini.
The Pisa native, (yes, that Pisa) not only holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration, but he is also an active advocate for the FIFPro “Mind the Gap” program, which encourages athletes to further their education to prepare themselves for the inevitable conclusion of their time as professional players.
It is a gift to be able to display love for one’s work decade after decade the way Chiellini does. His infectious joy spreads across the pitch to his teammates.
“Giorgio wears a lot of hats – player, coach, mentor, brother, friend. He does it all,” boasted LAFC midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “He takes things very seriously, starting in the gym, to the trainings, to the games. His energy is huge for us.”
Chiellini appeared in 11 matches for LAFC last season and has opened his second season in MLS with flourish, displaying his defensive awareness and confidence on the pitch in a more even-tempered manner, knowing this is the start of a long campaign.
His hunger for learning extends from the classroom to the pitch to the playing fields. Chiellini has had to adjust to the physicality and versatility that is required of a defender in MLS, along with the grueling travel schedule and short offseason. But he does this, as he does it all, with a smile that evokes the image of a child discovering something new with each game.
“I am curious. I want to learn about everything. The type of play and the way of play for a centre-back, it is changing,” Chiellini explains. “It was not so easy in the beginning, but I loved it. I was engaged to understand the new passes and positions I never did before. And I worked a lot on it in all through training, and continue to work to try to improve at almost 40, because I think it’s the only way to keep going.”
It is that dedication and drive that makes him so successful. Chiellini opened the scoring for LAFC’s 2023 competitive season in the 24th minute when he touched a loose ball in the box straight into the net. It was his first goal across all matches since August 2019 for Juventus.
In doing so, Chiellini became the fifth oldest player to score a goal in MLS history and the oldest at the time of their first league goal. After the goal, he celebrated by saluting the home crowd, kissing his fingers and pointing to the sky. A celebration that was dedicated to his friend, and former Italian National teammate, David Astori.
After the game, as he spoke about his series of “firsts” in LAFC’s home opening win over the Portland Timbers, he also discussed his relationship with Astori, who died of a heart attack caused by an undiagnosed pre-existing condition on March 4, 2018.
“I don’t know if it was a sign or destiny, or nothing at all, but I would like to celebrate for him. He is always on my mind,” said Chiellini with a deepened expression on his face as he spoke about his friend.
The death of the former Fiorentina captain continues to be commemorated by his family, friends, teammates, and fans, as one of the most tragic days in Italy, a nation where soccer seeps into every aspect of life. Matches are still played in his honor, ceremonial moments of silence memorialize his contributions and serve as reminders of the fragility of life. The depth of feeling and grief about the circumstances surrounding Astori’s death pervades Chiellini’s viewpoint of life.
“Sometimes I think of how it was possible, there was no reason for it. And in that moment, I think of how I’m lucky. And try to enjoy and live our life the best as possible because there is no sureness about the future” he said.
The impact of the preventable death of his close friend and teammate at the age of 31, merely two years after the birth of Astori’s child, expresses in Chiellini who relishes and squeezes the value from every minute of life with a pure spirit.
His regard for learning, training, building his skillset, and natural ability to befriend and mentor his teammates, have extended his professional career beyond what most pundits and game analysts would predict. And, while he is fully aware of the impact of age, he has grown gracefully into his new superpowers.
“I am very different defender from many years ago. I lose something. I earn something else,” Chiellini smirks knowingly. “I was able to maintain my best skills, especially marking players, and helping the team to be settled, to do the offensive marking, and not concede so many counterattacks.”
“As we train, we play,” Chiellini continues. “The coach continues to say this, and it is true.”
That same play in which he scored and became the fifth oldest to score in MLS history is one he practiced with LAFC the days before their match against Portland. Soccer is not just a sport; it is a dynamic artistic expression across a canvas of grass and Chiellini is a maestro.