Mathieu Flamini owes his AC Milan captain Gennaro Gattuso a debt of gratitude. So outrageous was Gattuso's behavior in the first leg of Milan's 0-1 Champions League Round of 16 tie against Tottenham Hotspur -- when he first slapped and then head-butted the visitors' assistant coach Joe Jordan, for which he landed a five-match ban -- that Flamini¹s own moment of madness was mentioned only in passing.
After an hour of the game, the French midfielder launched a horrendous two-footed late challenge on Vedran Corluka, which has ruled out the Spurs fullback for a month (he was lucky it was not more). While his opponent lay writhing in agony near the touchline, Flamini jumped up, and pumped his fists at the crowd, roaring at them for support. It was an ugly response to an ugly tackle.
It should be noted that after the game, Flamini sought out Corluka to apologize, but in microcosm, that was the moment Milan could feel the game slipping away from it. Twenty minutes later, Peter Crouch scored the breakaway goal that separates the teams before Wednesday's return game at White Hart Lane. For Flamini, who spent four years at Tottenham¹s north London rivals Arsenal, the game cannot come soon enough. "It will mean a lot to me to win this match, perhaps more than anyone else," he told uefa.com after the first leg.
While Flamini may hold a soft spot for Arsenal after spending four years at the club (between 2004-08), it's unlikely the feeling is mutual. In his final season he saw off Gilberto Silva and Lassana Diarra to finally cement his place as the team's first-choice holding midfielder, but he decided to run down his contract and move to Milan as a free agent. He later claimed his decision was made the previous year, when he was left out of the lineup for the 2007 Carling Cup final, which Arsenal lost to Chelsea.
Flamini was especially hurt because he had not started the 2005 FA Cup final (which Arsenal won on penalties against Manchester United) or the 2006 Champions League final (which it lost 2-1 to Barcelona). "In my first season, I played in all the matches in the FA Cup, only to not play in the final," he explained at the time in an interview with So Foot magazine. "In the second year, I played every match in the Champions League before I was injured; I came back in time for the final, but started the game from the bench. I then played some Carling Cup matches but once more didn't play in the final because I was left in the stands. These are things which count when it comes to making a decision on my future."
Over in Marseille, there was less surprise at Flamini's defection to Milan. The southern French club had the midfielder on its books since he was five, but he left acrimoniously aged 20 after only one season in the first-team. Flamini was insulted by the deal that Marseille offered -- particularly as he was "un minot," a local boy -- and he accepted Arsenal's offer instead.
"It was okay for Mathieu to mess up his Marseille exit because he was young and the club also made some mistakes," Marseille sporting director Jose Anigo, who coached the team to the 2004 Uefa Cup final in Flamini's season, told L'Equipe. "But he's more calculating than you think. Above all, Mathieu has an individual project. He doesn't care about the clubs."
Flamini had impressed Milan after Arsenal beat the Italians 2-0 in the San Siro in March 2008. The Frenchman had shackled Kaka and Andrea Pirlo with a tenacious performance that allowed Cesc Fabregas to control the match. His teammates queued up to praise him, with Emmanuel Adebayor revealing, ironically enough, that Flamini's dressing-room nickname was "Gattuso." "When the going gets tough, he's always there in the hot spot, but he's only doing it for the good of the team," he said in the mixed zone.
In Milan, Flamini had to start all over again. Under Carlo Ancelotti, just as he had in his early years at Arsenal, Flamini filled in at fullback, making 22 league starts. The following season, Leonardo used him only when two players out of Andrea Pirlo, Massimo Ambrosini, Clarence Seedorf and Gattuso were missing. He started 14 league games, and picked up eight yellow cards and one red in his last nine appearances. He is now on his third coach in as many years, Max Allegri, who has picked center back Thiago Silva in midfield, and also signed Mark van Bommel in January. Flamini has only started two league games since November, the most recent of which was Milan's excellent 3-0 win over second-placed Napoli last Monday.
Flamini has said that the most important period of any player's career "is between 23 and 26." He left Arsenal at 23 and is now 26. His lack of regular gametime has cost him on the international front too: he hasn't played for France since September 2008, in a World Cup qualifying win over Serbia. Now the likes of Yann M'Vila, Alou Diarra, and two former Arsenal colleagues, Abou Diaby and Lassana Diarra, are ahead of him.
Though unforgivable in its severity, this puts Flamini's tackle on Corluka in some context. Up against the fierce rivals of his former club and desperate to make his mark in a huge game that was drifting away from his team, one could argue that Flamini put all the frustrations of his last three years into that challenge.