Club loyalty is rare these days across the continent. Jean-Francois Gillet left Standard Liège in 1999 frustrated at a lack of opportunities to forge a career in Italy. What follows is a decade love-affair with the Southern yo-yo club A.S. Bari. Aaron Giambattista chronicles Gillet’s legacy at Bari as he begins this season with Bologna.
After Paolo Maldini’s retirement, when speaking of bandiere left in calcio, Italians will most commonly refer to 3: Alessandro Del Piero of Juventus, Javier Zanetti of Inter, and Francesco Totti of Roma. A bandiera is one who represents the colors, the essence of the club itself. Without a doubt, Jean-François Gillet should be included in that group of incredibly loyal gentlemen.
But if 11 years ago, you told a Bari tifoso that this fresh-faced blonde Belgian would become the all-time most capped Bari player of all time, they’d have laughed. He arrived during tumultuous times- Bari were hurtling towards Serie B and brought him on board very late in the transfer market from Monza to try and settle an awful goalkeeping situation. Unfortunately, the team was sliding to Serie B, and Gillet couldn’t stop it.
Gillet chose to join Bari in its Serie B adventure, as the fans assumed that it would be a relatively short while before the club returned to Serie A. What transpired was a long descent into mediocrity- at one point, Gillet was frustrated with the lack of ambition at the club, and left on loan to Treviso, but returned to the club, and despite the club flirting with relegation to Serie C, decided to pledge his loyalty to the Roosters of the south.
The club continued in mediocrity for years. The club ownership, the Matarrese family, has long been despised by Biancorossi fans for lacking any ambition or plan for Bari; indeed, that is what led to this near decade spell in the 2nd division as well as the current relegation issues. There was frequent interest from Serie A clubs in the best Serie B keeper, yet he declined all offers preferring to remain at Bari, regardless of where the club would end up.
2007-2008 turned out to be a major turn for the fortunes of Bari and Gillet. The club was again plummeting towards relegation into Serie C under Marco Materazzi’s father, Giuseppe, and was humiliated by archrivals Lecce, thumped 4-0 at home. Giuseppe Materazzi was sacked, and the club hired ambitious young coach Antonio Conte to guide them to safety. Conte did excellent, and the club finished in mid-table.
The next season shocked everyone. Conte had turned Bari around, but no one expected the club to be challenging for Serie A promotion. While clubs like Salernitana, Sassuolo, and Empoli briefly maintained 1st place, Bari flew under the radar for much of the first half of the season. On the 29th matchday, Gillet captained Bari against Sassuolo, defeating their promotion rivals and seizing first place in Serie B, which they would maintain for the rest of the season.
It was an incredible return to Serie A for Bari and Gillet, two protagonists of calcio that deserved to be in Serie A. The next season was an incredible one for the club- dubbed Barcelona-lite, they stunned preseason predictions with their attacking play, and Gillet proved all the reasons he was so highly rated. With Serie A newcomers Ranocchia and Bonucci playing central defense, Gillet did a masterful job organizing them, as well as shot-stopping.
In 2009-2010, Gillet played more than 3,000 minutes for Bari, the 3rd most of any goalkeeper in Serie A. Given the young players standing in front of him, Gillet was peppered constantly with shots. He defended against 532 shots, by far the most in Serie A that season (next closest being 438) and maintained an impressive 11 clean sheets. The most all-time capped Bari player was crucial to Bari’s defensive solidity, with his cat-like reflexes, proactive leadership, and classy confidence.
Sadly, as an “elevator” club, Bari’s fortunes in Serie A were about to take a downturn. A terribly-run transfer window saw the talented Bonucci and Ranocchia leave, and Gillet was defending the goal protected by a group of unwanted Serie B-caliber defenders. The team was destined to be relegated as early as November, a coaching change and January transfers couldn’t halt the descent into Serie B.
Just a month ago, The Cat from Liege stood at a crossroads. The club was relegated when he was just a boy, and he chose to remain all those years in Serie B. Now he is a man, and with Bari’s ownership, finances, and future still rather uncertain, Jean-Francois Gillet has chosen to spend the remaining years of his career in Serie A, having recently signed with Bologna.
Bari fans do not begrudge him this move, by any means. Gillet sacrificed nearly a decade of his career to fight in Serie B with I Galletti, the club of his adopted town, and having demonstrated to be easily a Serie A caliber keeper, he deserves to stay up one bit. At his farewell conference, Gillet was in tears as he bid farewell to the colors he represented so long as captain, where he carved his name into club history. The fans were also in tears, as there saying farewell was the one ever constant in the Bari lineup. No matter how poor the team was, the old-timers sitting in the Curva would grin “at least we have Gillet between the posts.”
The story of Bari and Gillet was one of a strange decade-long romance, the relationship between a foreigner and a club that was constantly underperforming. While the two now go their separate ways, the Biancorossi fans and Gillet have promised each other that this is an “arrivaderci” not a “goodbye.”
Aaron Giambattista is an expert on all things related to Juventus and Serie A. He is one of the fine people to run JuventiKnows.com – an English speaking site for Juve fans. You can also find him on Twitter @Juventiknows
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