The start of a new calendar year is often a time for optimism and thoughts of what the coming 12 months might bring, but just days into 2023, the untimely death of Gianluca Vialli served as a harsh reminder to fans of Serie A and football in general, that even those gaining legendary status through their sporting abilities are as human as anyone else.
At just 58 years old, the former Cremonese, Sampdoria and Juventus striker tragically succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Friday, January 6, 2023, after a long battle with the illness, which he fought with the same tenacity he showed on the pitch. During his playing career, he also enjoyed domestic and European success, with Premier League club Chelsea.
The early years
Younger supporters will struggle to picture Vialli as a curly-haired youth with rolled-down socks at his local with the Grigiorossi, with his latter years as a bald imposing figure sending instinctive rasping strikes past goalkeepers making him an icon for adoring fans and instantly recognisable as television coverage increased worldwide.
Performances during a promotion-winning from Serie C1 with Cremonese as a 16-year-old debutant in 1983/84 were enough to convince Sampdoria to shell out €2.5 million [or the equivalent of] on the promising youngster, and Vialli showed no signs of homesickness after arriving in Liguria.
Striking up an instant relationship with Roberto Mancini, observers dubbed the pair ‘I Gemelli del Gol’ (The Goal Twins) as they spearheaded the Blucerchiati’s most prosperous era. Their goals were notable as much for their flair as for their regularity.
At Sampdoria, Vialli claimed a hat-trick of Coppa Italia medals and hit a brace against Anderlecht in the 1990 European Cup Winners’ Cup to secure the Genoese club a first European trophy, but most importantly, helped deliver their first and only Scudetto.
Vialli’s greatest campaign
Despite the challenges of Milanese powerhouses AC Milan and Inter, it was Sampdoria who clinched the 1990/91 Serie A title and striker Vialli who stood out above his peers during that season of ultimate triumph, and as much a personal achievement for the Italian international after a disappointing Italia’90.
Expected to lead the Azzurri to World Cup glory on home soil, Vialli played a supporting role after being ousted from the starting line-up by tournament sensation Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci, which might have provided the fuel to steal the show domestically over the next 12 months. Vialli then topped the Serie A scoring charts with 19 goals and fired his side to the Coppa Italia final, only to miss out on a domestic double at the last hurdle.
In Serie A, though, Vialli netted a crucial second goal away to Inter with three fixtures to play and had scored an equally important 75th-minute winner versus Bari the previous weekend at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. During mid-March, the Italian also struck twice to defeat reigning champions Napoli 4-1 for the second time that campaign, alongside a winning penalty against future employers Juventus, which no doubt helped take him to Turin.
Champions League agony and ecstasy
After shooting Sampdoria to the 1992 European Cup Final, a solitary Ronald Koeman strike late in extra-time saw Barcelona break Blucerchiati hearts at Wembley Stadium and, considering their performance in London many struggled to pinpoint a reason for defeat, making the loss harder to comprehend for Vialli.
It would be his last appearance in a Sampdoria shirt, as Juventus made him the world’s most expensive player when the Bianconeri handed over €17.7m. Even if AC Milan paid €18.4m for Torino’s Gianluigi Lentini just weeks later.
Securing another European trophy in his first season, as Juve brushed aside Borussia Dortmund 6-1 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup, a broken foot disrupted Vialli’s contribution the following year. When he returned to full fitness, though, he formed one of the most potent attacking forces in Italy alongside Roberto Baggio and Fabrizio Ravanelli to claim the double.
A newfound physical presence and intelligent movement reiterated the Bianconeri captain’s position as one of Italy’s top marksmen with 17 goals scored en route to glory. Only Parma stopped a historic treble, by overcoming them 2-1 in the UEFA Cup Final, but a ferocious and technically excellent volley past Luca Bucci from Vialli was the most memorable moment.
While AC Milan regained control of Serie A in 1995/96, Vialli was Juventus’ talisman as they reached the Champions League Final in Rome, with six goals that eased the growing expectancy on young prodigy Alessandro Del Piero.
The pain of 1992 and uncertainty over his future possibly affected his performance in a cagey match, and not selected for a penalty in the shootout. However, Ajax’s woeful attempts meant captain Vialli finally hoisted the famous trophy aloft. Becoming the only man to have won and lost all three UEFA club competitions of the time.
After leading Juventus to Champions League glory, Azzurri coach Arrigo Sacchi admitted several Italy players pleaded for Vialli’s inclusion in the squad heading to England for Euro ’96, but a strained relationship never saw that materialise and his international career ended with just 59 caps and 16 goals.
As foreign talent began flooding towards the Premier League that summer, Vialli joined Chelsea and became one of the few Italian success stories on and off the pitch, alongside Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola. Winning the FA Cup in his first season and following it up with a League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup medal in 1997/98.
The Italian had actually succeeded Ruud Gullit as player-manager in February 1998, but was still contributing significantly on the pitch. However, by the time the Blues lifted the 1998 UEFA Super Cup and another FA Cup in 2000, Vialli was far more coach than a player.
With an adorable and infectious attitude towards a sport that he clearly loved dearly, even had he not achieved domestic and continental success few others have matched, Vialli’s passing will have an impact throughout the world of football.
An emotional Graeme Souness, who played with Vialli at Sampdoria, gave a fitting tribute when telling Sky Sports to “forget football, he was just a gorgeous soul. He was just a truly nice human being.”
“He was just fabulous to be around. He was such a fun-loving guy, full of mischief, wonderful footballer and a warm human being. People will say things about his magnificent football ability, and correctly so, but above all that, what a human being.”