The beautiful game is the world's game. It would admittedly take a hefty makeover for non-league to suddenly rival the cosmopolitan factor of the elite level, but there are some truly multi-national tales it manages to intertwine with all the same. Giancarlo Gallifuoco knows all about putting in extraordinary mileage on his footballing voyage, and not just for the fact he's a former Torquay United and Dover Athletic player...
This year has taken the Sydney native to the Malaysia Super League, with the recently-promoted Kuala Lumpur City. Less than a decade ago, the 27-year-old was in the midst of his professional football grounding at Tottenham Hotspur, though two seasons tussling with National League forwards would later prove as authentic an education as he could have ever hoped for.
The one-time Swansea City prospect is a good 6000+ miles away from these shores today, but thanks to the wonders of modern technology, Non-League Daily briefly gets to go all Judith Chalmers, as we head all the way to the Malaysian capital to check in with 'GG'...
Tell me about life so far in Malaysia. How did the move come about, and were you able to go and take a look around before signing?
Malaysia’s beautiful. I’ve been here before when I was younger, to KL specifically, so I was quite familiar with the city; it’s one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia. We’ve been in and out of lockdown consistently, as have a lot of places in the world, and we’re currently in the middle of a four-week lockdown. From what I’ve been able to show my wife, it’s been beautiful and I love it, even though I’ve only scratched the surface so far. I’m looking forward to it being back to normal and us being able to see everything. The move came about because the coach had watched me play in the Asian Champions League (for Melbourne Victory). He saw me and he reached out to an agent to get in contact with me, so that’s the kind of platform that competition has.
And (being known as a defender/midfielder) is this the first time you’ve had the number nine shirt?!
It definitely is the first time I’m wearing the number nine shirt! I used to play number nine for Australia when I was Under-17s but even then I didn’t have the number nine. I think I’m the only number nine in the world that’s only scored one goal in the season, but it was either that or I had to choose 13, and for me, 13’s unlucky, so number nine it was.
Back to coming to England, with the trial at Spurs, what sticks in your mind? Did someone meet you at the airport, did you have a hotel to stay in?
To be honest, it sort of wasn’t a trial. It’s hard to explain but I was already in Italy and I was playing for Torino, who were Serie B at the time, in their reserve squad. I played a first-team friendly, and in that game, I got an assist from midfield which won the game, 1-0. I was playing attacking midfielder at the time and this article went all over Italy about Torino having this signing from Australia. I actually got reached out to on Facebook, saying ‘hey, the technical director at Spurs is trying to get in contact with you, what’s your number?’ He got in contact and said ‘when does your contract end?’ I said ‘I’m actually in re-negotiations at the moment but I haven’t signed, my contract ends at the end of December’. He said ‘tell them that you want to go home for Christmas, and I’m going to send you tickets to fly to London, I need you to pass a medical and you’ll be signing with us’. Obviously, you don’t say no to Tottenham Hotspur, and I think the day before my 18th birthday, on January 12th, I signed. It was an incredible experience, my whole life flipped on its head. I was going from being in the second division, I was a youth-team player and was on basically a scholarship, and then all of a sudden I’m getting picked up off a flight that I didn’t pay for, in a beautiful car, and I’m being shown around the training ground, meeting (then-Spurs boss) Harry Redknapp. They’re showing me my apartment and I’m being told that my gym buddy is going to be (Emmanuel) Adebayor, so definitely a huge change!
When you first get started there as an actual Spurs player, do you remember anything from training, anything a player did, or what they said to you etc.?
I remember the day of my medical, I had to do a fitness test, which was really, really hard. They said they were happy with it, ‘you’re gonna be signing tomorrow, do you wanna train today?’ I was like ‘yeah, of course’, trying to show them that I was eager. We played like a half-field game, and I remember spending 60 minutes chasing everybody around, not touching the ball! I called my dad late that afternoon and said ‘I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life, I’ve come to a team where I’m never going to see the ball ever!’ But I was very grateful at the time I had (ex-Spurs youngster and current Sheffield Wednesday midfielder) Massimo Luongo, who’s Australian but we also used to go to school together, so he took me under his wing and guided and helped me a lot, so I’m very grateful for him.
Before that, was the scene very much you travelling thousands of miles from home, suitcase full of dreams to trial at clubs in Italy? Was it by yourself, embarking on all of that, or was anyone with you?
Yeah, so 15 years old, I left Sydney for Canberra on a scholarship, played with the Under-17s national team and we qualified for the World Cup. I scored two goals in three games, I was playing attacking midfielder and striker at the time, and I had gained a little bit of interest from overseas agents. Unfortunately, it kind of coincided with a time where my family went through some financial hardships, so it was basically all the money I had saved up my whole life, and some money from my family, and it was off on my way. My dad came with me the first time for about two weeks and then he had to go back home, and I stayed around bouncing around Italy until fortunately I found a home in Torino. Obviously, a lot of scary times, but I’m grateful for it; it taught me a lot of really valuable lessons, taught me how to be a grown-up very quickly. I think a lot of people on the outside don’t understand that 99 per cent of footballers live a very false life where they have to grow up very quickly. For the vast majority, it’s a lot of time being by yourself, working when no one’s watching, a lot of sacrifices, and that period was a hard one. I was a baby, I knew nothing about anything, and all of a sudden I was using all my money to stay in an apartment in the slums of Torino and taking three buses to get to training. Having two jumpers and experiencing for the first time ever a proper winter! Fortunately, all very, very good lessons, and makes me grateful every day for everything I have now. It all worked out in the end.
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Joining Torquay (in 2016), what was the connection there? Did (then-Gulls boss) Kevin Nicholson know about you from seeing you at Spurs/Swansea?
Yeah, he did. I think I was going to Mansfield. After my year at Melbourne Victory, I had eight or nine first-team appearances and I flew out and spoke to Mansfield. We were going back and forth and the coach came up to me and said ‘I’m so sorry but the budget’s gone a bit tighter than I was expecting, I can’t offer you the contract I said I was going to offer you’. Obviously, I’d flown all the way out from Australia, with the intention of signing for Mansfield. He said, ‘Listen, I know this coach, he’s from a team a league below, but he’s in dire need of a player like you. I think it’d be good for you, you can go and play 40/50 games.’ Three days later, I had a meeting with Kevin Nicholson in a hotel restaurant, and he liked my attitude, he liked how motivated I was, and I stayed at Torquay for a year.
Going down to non-league, what struck you about it when you first played at that level? There’s obviously big clubs but were you suddenly in the bar after the game with the fans at some of the grounds etc.?
Yeah, that was really weird! That was a weird time at the beginning, to be honest. Although I hadn’t played a lot, I was very blessed from the time in Italy to the time at Torquay that I’d gone from Spurs to Swansea to Melbourne Victory; three clubs with huge financial backing, do everything the ‘right’ way, and I was very spoilt. Then all of a sudden, I was in a 10,000-seater stadium, the pitch wasn’t pristine, and the fans and the team are suddenly kind of merged into one, not miles away like when you’re sitting on the bench at White Hart Lane or something. That was strange for me, how intimate it was, but then I learned to love it quite quickly. I learned to see how motivated and fuelled you are by the fact you can actually see the love or hurt, the pain or joy on the fans’ faces, because you actually know some of them, you see them every day. I think it shows you what you really love about football, and I think in the end, all footballers love to be part of a community, part of camaraderie, and enjoying winning. I think non-league has that in abundance.
Best friends and neighbours since 7 years old, first game he comes to watch me play in England...a moment I’ll never forget ⚽️ ❤️ pic.twitter.com/XN380XI4Ej
— Giancarlo Gallifuoco (@giange94) April 29, 2018
Were there any characters you played with or met in non-league that were a different breed to what you’d experienced before?!
Yeah, I hadn’t really experienced an out-and-out target man striker until I went to the lower leagues. I didn’t really experience that because I was playing ressies and for the national team, and for the national team, we’re the biggest country in Asia most of the time, so there’s no target man when their striker’s much smaller than me. At Spurs and Swansea, everyone was big but you were trying to outplay each other. Then you’re in non-league against some teams where their identity, and rightfully so, is to go long, to hit the target man who’s great in the air. I had to learn really quickly because I’d had my whole career at that point thinking I was very dominant in the air, and then you suddenly realise everybody’s dominant in the air.
That’s in reference to the style in non-league, but as characters, I just met more genuine people. I think at the top of football, a lot of people have super-egos, super machismo, and rightfully so, I think that’s how you get there. You’re hard on yourself, you become this character that’s impenetrable. You have 150,000 people on your Instagram every day that tell you that they love you or they hate you, depending on a 90-minute game. So they become these characters that from the outside, you’d say it’s arrogance, but it’s a necessity. You go down to non-league and you meet genuine people that are just playing for the love of football; I think I really resonated with that. I’m a boy from Australia, I’m across the world, I’m missing every birthday of my mum, my dad, my brother, my sister, my uncle, my cousins; I’m missing the growth of so many people because I have a dream of football. I think that really gave people a genuine opinion of me, and a genuine version that they showed to me. If I could say anything about that, especially my time at Dover, it was the first time I really had an honest group of friends in football, which is a sad thing to say, but unfortunately at the higher level, you’ve got to be a stone-cold killer most of the time.
At Dover, there was reported interest in you from Football League clubs, did you ever hear of any of that, or talk to clubs higher up?
I think it was the last five or six games, I was fortunate enough that I just went on a bit of a goalscoring streak, and then I got a couple of Man of the Matches in a row, I got Defender of the Year in Kent. I heard some things about Gillingham, I heard some things about some other clubs. It was hard not to have that play in your head when you’re trying to get to the play-offs, but I’m the kind of character where that kind of thing fuels me, so I loved hearing it and I doubled down on work. I scored in the last game but we weren’t able to get in the play-offs, and then it started to trickle through and there were a couple of contracts that came through, oral negotiations about this and that. I was at a place where if it didn’t feel perfect, I didn’t want to go there; ironic, in hindsight*. Two or three options were from the Conference, two or three from League Two. I just thought that I needed to make a change. I thought that my persona in England had become a certain way; no longer was I viewed as an agile midfielder who can play centre-back, I became this centre-back athlete. I didn’t really like that at the time, and I wanted to try something new, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something. That’s where the shift happened to Italy (with Rieti).
*Giancarlo's spell at his next club, Rieti, included going a couple of months without being paid.
Whereabouts in Italy are the family roots and did you grow up speaking only Italian at home? Is Sydney home, and if so, which part?
The whole family’s from Napoli. I grew up speaking Italian at home, that’s why until I was five or six years old, my vocabulary was very screwed up! My family home is in Sydney, in Bronte Beach, a beautiful, beautiful part of the world. I’ve always had a really strong Italian heritage, all of my family lives there, outside of my immediate family. That’s why initially I went there when I was 16 and why I went back (after Dover), because that was always the motherland for me. That was the reason I loved football, watching Maradona play for Napoli, watching Italy in World Cups. I remember watching the 1970 World Cup final, recorded, so I was more a fan of Italy than I was a fan of Australia for a long, long time; Australia was where I lived but I was always Italian.
Have you ever had to sing for initiation when you joined a new team, and if so, which song(s) did you go for?
Yeah, the only place that doesn’t do it is Italy really! I always choose the same song, I always choose Uncle Kracker, because you can clap while you sing. *Starts a brief ‘Follow Me‘ rendition* ‘You don’t know how you met me, you don’t know why…’ and then you clap and people will join in with you, and no one can hear your shit voice!
What kind of approach from a manager do you think gets the best from you? Which manager(s) has seemed to understand that best?
When I was younger, like (André) Villas-Boas (at Tottenham), and actually my Dover manager (Chris Kinnear); probably my two favourite managers, because when I was starting out in my career, I needed attention. People don’t understand a lot of times for a footballer, especially the ones that are really far from home at that age, the coach becomes your father figure. I’ve been out of my house since 15, so having this male presence in my life, his opinion’s very important to me. I think with Villas-Boas, he took me a lot under his wing and helped me. Now, being older, I know myself, my worth, and my career’s at a completely different place; I just like direction. I just like to be told ‘I like to do things this way and that way’ and then leave me be. I always say to coaches ‘I’m a soldier, I just need the direction and then you don’t need to remind me’. Work ethic and motivation are not the things I lack.
Which spell in your career up to now would you say has been your happiest? The best you’ve felt on the field, in the dressing room - the most complete time?
Definitely right now, and then second to that would be Dover. Thirdly would be Melbourne Victory when I transferred over the second time. All for different reasons. Dover was the first time a coach really took me under his wing, Melbourne Victory the second time had so many of my long-time football friends, so it was just a really comfortable place, but most complete time in general is right now. I feel the most appreciated, given the most responsibility, I’m at a really good place with my football, the team’s doing well.
Has there been a most difficult time in football for you? I know there were the multiple tears you suffered down one side at the start with Central Coast Mariners, so maybe that’s up there.
That’s got to be up there. I tore three of my groin muscles, my hip flexor muscle and my abdomen, all on my right side, so that was a really, really trialling time. The first two weeks, I couldn’t get out of bed, I would have to get my wife to push me up because I couldn’t crunch out of bed. That was a really scary time, and to be honest, now in hindsight, I’m a bit regretful because I tried not to tell anyone. I would always try to take more painkillers, more tablets and I wanted to do everything to help the team, and I don’t think I really did myself justice. Playing in midfield, it’s a position where you’re running 12/13k a game, and I was pushing through so much pain. That was a really hard time for me, because I was at home, I genuinely love the club and the fanbase, and I felt like I was never able to really show myself to the ability that I can. Other than that, I know it sounds crazy but probably the first six months at Spurs. I know everyone thinks it’s a dream come true but you’re on the other side of the world at 18 years old, no mum and dad, haven’t been home for three years, and I got thrown into a superstar changing room. Everybody’s driving fancy cars and wearing Rolexes, and I just wasn’t ready for that. Just an innocent boy from Australia thinking ‘I want to give it the best crack’ and all of a sudden I’m in this changing room where I don’t feel comfortable to speak. You get used to it, you grow up, and the next two years were excellent, but those were the two hardest times.
For any teams, have there been any teammates you’ve felt an extra strong understanding with on the pitch?
Me and (James) Donachie, centre-back partner for my last club, we had a very good connection on and off the field, and I thought that always helped. Then I have a left-back here (Daniel Ting) and we’re quite close. I feel with him a similar sort of thing, where I feel we see perfectly eye-to-eye on plays and movements. Lawrence Thomas (current SønderjyskE goalkeeper) as well at Melbourne Victory; whenever we play together, we always have a great game, because I feel like we’re always in unison.
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Are there any one-on-one battles you’ve had with opponents that instantly come to mind? Either for how they tested you, or if they had a lot to say!
My second year at Spurs, Christian Eriksen signed, and I did the pre-season with the first team. We were doing our pre-season tour and he arrived, and they had to build him up to speed, so every training session, I had to stay back and I had to do one-v-ones with him. Every single day, he would completely rip me open, goal after goal after goal. That has to be the most unsuccessful I’ve ever been in a one-on-one battle! Hopefully he’s recovering now, but yeah, that was a very valuable lesson to me.
Away from football, what else do you enjoy, in terms of interests to switch you off, or wider ambitions even?
In Malaysia right now, I’m in a bubble, so I’ve been playing PlayStation like I’m 13 years old! Usually, I’m quite into fitness, health, nutrition, so I study a lot about that, I read a lot of books, listen to a lot of podcasts, and then I’m really into the gym. I study a lot about business stocks, stock exchange, investments.
Finally! Since you left England, have there been any approaches to go back? Would you like to one day, or do you see your future closer to home?
There have been a couple of times, but I’m just not in that place any more, I don’t think, unless something lined up that obviously was perfect. I loved that place and that chapter of my life, but now, Malaysia’s seven hours away from my home town, so for me, that’s a drive up the road. That’s so close; I’ve spent so much of my life knowing I’m a 30-hour transit away. Even this off-season, there was an approach, and the off-season before, and there’s always little talks about loans, but unless it was the perfect sync-up, I just think I’m really, really happy being closer to home.
interview by @chris_brookes