Two of the finest strikers of their generation took to the field for Inter Milan on the final day of the 2001-02 Serie A season, with their side needing to win at Lazio to seal the title for the first time since 1989.
Christian Vieri started alongside Brazil’s Ronaldo – a formidable strike force rarely allowed the chance to play together due to injury problems. Vieri gave Inter the lead that day but the occasion proved too much for his side as sloppy defending allowed Lazio to hit back and eventually run out 4-2 winners – a result that saw both Roma and champions Juventus overtake the Nerazzurri. Ronaldo’s tears as he watched the closing stages from the bench are an enduring image of a painful afternoon.
The Brazilian, however, would soon be the top scorer at a World Cup in which his country claimed their fifth title. Things would not turn out quite as well for Vieri.
It was the Italian’s second World Cup finals appearance, and it once again highlighted his ability at the biggest tournament of them all. Just as Vieri’s goalscoring feats were becoming more impressive at club level in the late 1990s, his international career began to take off. Having won his first cap while at Juventus, Vieri would prove to be Italy’s star man at the 1998 World Cup in France. Playing up front alongside Roberto Baggio, he netted five times in Italy’s run to the quarter-finals.
Vieri’s goals showcased a range of finishing found in only the best centre-forwards on the biggest stage. He opened with a neat left-footed finish against Chile and then showed more refinement with an exquisite right-footed chip against Cameroon. His second goal against Cameroon demonstrated a poacher’s instinct when he took advantage of a defensive error and he followed up with a close-range header against Austria.
Vieri’s most important goal of the campaign came in the second round against Norway as his pace, power and poise enabled him to run clear of the defence and side-foot home from an angle.
In the quarter-final, a goalless draw was followed by a penalty shootout defeat to the hosts and eventual champions, but Vieri had truly made his mark on the tournament.
Four years later, the Italians arguably had a stronger squad in Japan and South Korea and Vieri was very much a key part of it. As in 1998, the striker was prolific in the group stage, smashing an excellent left-footed shot high into the net against Ecuador and later adding a second against the South Americans. Vieri also scored against Croatia in a match the Italians would lose 2-1 but they still made it through to the second round where they were to face hosts South Korea.
It is a game that has gone down in infamy in Italy, mainly due to the refereeing. But Vieri himself had a huge influence on the match as both hero and villain. The Italians survived an early scare when Gianluigi Buffon saved Ahn Jung-hwan’s penalty. Then, with a South Korean defender trying to rip the shirt off his back, Vieri still managed to bullet home a header to put the Azzurri in front.
All was going according to plan and it began to look as if the spirited hosts’ interest in the competition would come to an end against an Italian team that also included all-time greats like Buffon, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti, three of whom would become world champions four years later.
But in an increasingly fractious tie, with increasingly eccentric refereeing, a defensive error allowed Seol Ki-hyeon to pounce for the equaliser with just two minutes remaining. Even then, the Italians had a golden opportunity to win the game in normal time when a low cross from the left presented Vieri with an open goal just six yards out.
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Normally so deadly, the striker got his connection all wrong and sliced the ball horribly high and wide. After Totti received a second yellow card for a dive in extra time – an extremely harsh decision – Ahn’s late header sealed Italy’s fate.
The Italian media pointed the finger of blame directly at Ecuadorian referee Byron Moreno, potentially sparing Vieri too much stick for his glaring miss. Two weeks later, his Inter strike partner would be parading the World Cup having netted twice in the final as Brazil beat Germany 2-0.
While some of his team-mates would get a second chance in 2006, a knee injury cost Vieri any chance of a place in the squad and the opportunity for redemption. But it would be harsh to evaluate Vieri’s career as a series of what might have beens.
When you’re tied with Roberto Baggio and Paolo Rossi as the top scoring Italian in World Cup finals tournaments, you must have done something right. If you’ve played for Juventus, Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan, you have played for some of the best clubs in European and world football.
If you have also played for nine other professional teams in Italy and France, you clearly like to move around. If you have been named in Pelé’s FIFA 100 list, among the 125 best living players, you have caught the attention of arguably the best footballer of all time.
Vieri’s legacy may not be as enduring as some of his more celebrated compatriots like Baggio and Rossi, and his name may not conjure the same sense of nostalgia as Franco Baresi and Maldini – two of the most evocative names from the golden age of Italian club football.
Vieri’s career also carries a feeling of potential unfulfilled when you look at his list of honours. Like another great of his generation, Alan Shearer, Vieri has just one league title to show despite sustained excellent at club and international level.
But for the best part of a decade, Vieri was one of the most sought after and most feared strikers in Europe. At the top of his game, he was a menace to the best defenders in the world. And with an Australian beginning to his formative years, he could have been lost to cricket instead of embarking on a sparkling career in football.
Vieri left Bologna for Sydney as a child when his footballer father Roberto moved Down Under at the age of 31, following a career in Italy that included Coppa Italia wins at Fiorentina and Bologna. Vieri senior’s career would end at the Marconi Stallions in Fairfield, Sydney, and it was here that Christian would take the first steps in a journey that would go way beyond what his father was able to achieve.
During his time in Australia, Vieri developed a love of cricket that he retains this day. In an interview given at the age of 30, he was quoted as saying: “I was telling a friend last week, I would stop playing now to play cricket if I could get the same contract. I was a bit of an all-rounder at school.”
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One of the best strike pairings in modern football history
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But Vieri stuck with the sport of his homeland and his younger brother Max followed him into professional football, eventually winning six caps for the Socceroos.
Christian’s family returned to Italy in 1988, and he would soon make his way in football. As an 18-year-old, he made his professional debut in a Coppa Italia game for Torino and was an unused substitute in their 1992 UEFA Cup final defeat to an Ajax that featured Dennis Bergkamp and Frank de Boer, with Edwin van der Sar on the bench.
But Vieri’s career took an apparent backwards step when he was sold to Serie B side Pisa and he began three years in the second tier with three different clubs. An indifferent year at Pisa was followed by a more successful spell at Ravenna, earning him a move to Venezia. While he was still far from prolific, his 11 goals in 29 games was enough to catch the eye of Serie A teams and Atalanta offered him a route back into the top-tier.
‘Bobo’, as he was affectionately known, took his second chance and notched up nine goals in 21 games at La Dea, prompting European champions Juventus to come knocking. At the age of 23, the former Marconi Stallions man was truly entering the big time and would star alongside Alen Bokšić as the Old Lady won the Scudetto but were upset by Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final.
A return of eight Serie A goals was solid, if not spectacular, but the relationship with Juventus was not to last and Vieri was once again on the move. This time, the Italian would leave his home country again, though it would not be to the other side of the world. It was Atlético Madrid who came calling.
It was a curious move from a Juve side that had reached two Champions League finals on the trot and had just become champions of Italy again. The Spaniards had won the domestic double in 1996 but this was an exceptional performance for a team that would fail to win the title again until Diego Simeone’s men triumphed in 2013.
But Vieri finally revealed that the motivation was purely financial when his autobiography was released in 2015. He admitted regret at leaving Juventus when he said: “I admit that the motivation for this move was purely economic. If I could have turned back time, I’d have stayed in Turin.”
Nevertheless, Vieri’s brief time in Madrid proved a huge success on a personal level, if not for the team. The Italian finished the league’s top scorer with 24 goals, while the team finished well adrift of champions Barcelona in seventh spot.
And Bobo was soon on his way back to the home country as his habit of one club per year continued. Ambitious Lazio paid a reported £20 million to take him to Rome.
Once again, Vieri repaid faith in his scoring ability with a goal every two games, playing alongside Marcelo Salas. Vieri netted the opener in the last final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, which Lazio won 2-1 against Mallorca, but the Rome side finished Serie A in second spot, just a point behind AC Milan, after a loss of form in the run-in.
Following several high-scoring seasons at the top and a successful World Cup, Vieri’s stock was higher than ever. In 1999, demand for Vieri was such that it took a world record-breaking transfer fee to allow Inter Milan to take him from Lazio. The Nerazzurri had spent too long in the shadow of rivals AC Milan and Juventus, and were determined to bring back to the glory days under former Juve coach Marcello Lippi.
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Vieri was a powerful, uncompromising presence in attack
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And it was at Inter that Vieri would finally find a home after seven years of club-hopping. The striker may not have found the success that he was seeking but he did stay for six years.
Despite the disappointment of the 2002 World Cup and Inter’s near-miss in Serie A, Vieri continued to flourish at club level and finished the 2002-03 season as Serie A’s top scorer with 24 goals, two more than the previous season. It was also a season that saw Inter progress through to the semi-final of the Champions League, where they would face city rivals, AC Milan.
Vieri struck the decisive goals against Valencia in the quarter-final but injury again denied him as he was ruled out of the last-four clashes with AC Milan – a particularly cruel blow in such a prolific season.
Two more seasons at Inter followed and he remained a reliable scorer, if not quite as prolific. But injuries continued to plague the striker, and after six years in one place, it was time for Vieri’s club-hopping days to resume. At the end of it, a Coppa Italia in 2005 was the only winner’s medal he had to show for his time at Inter.
Inter released Bobo from the final year of his contract but he would remain at the San Siro, joining city rivals AC Milan. As a fading force and almost 32-years-old, this transfer did not provoke the hostility that it would have two of three years beforehand but it was still a controversial move.
Unfortunately for Vieri, his time at the Rossoneri was far from memorable and he failed to establish himself as a starter. After just one league goal in six months, Vieri was on the move again when Monaco offered him a move to France. Vieri saw this as his one last chance to re-establish himself in the international set-up ahead of the 2006 World Cup.
He seemed out of shape on his arrival on the Côte d’Azur but a double strike against Rennes in a 2-0 league win boosted his confidence and he became a regular starter for the next two months. Unfortunately, a knee injury sustained in a match against Paris St-Germain in March spelt the end of his season, his time at Monaco and his hopes of going to a third World Cup.
Vieri was not ready to quit altogether and returned to Italy to play a season at Atalanta, then Fiorentina, before going back to Atalanta for a third spell.
At the age of 36, having been released by Atalanta, Bobo decided to call time on a career of many highs and lows. The lows included a defeat in the Champions League final, missing out on Euro 2000, the 2003 Champions League semi-final and the 2006 World Cup through injury. And then there was blowing the Serie A title on the final day and that miss against South Korea.
On the other hand, Vieri’s World Cup scoring exploits stand comparison with many of the greats. While his old striker partner Ronaldo sits at 2nd in the all-time scorers’ list in World Cup finals, Vieri – down in joint 14th spot on nine goals – boasts a better record of goals per game (1.0 versus 0.79).
It may be a small comfort to the man who was once the most expensive player in the world but his career combined longevity and consistency. Vieri worked his way up the hard way and found himself playing for some of Europe’s top teams and winning the scudetto with Juventus as a 23-year-old. There may some frustration in the fine margins and tough luck that prevented him from winning the medals that his brilliance deserved but Vieri is on a par with any great striker in the Italian game.
No bad for a teenager in Australia who once had designs on a career in cricket.
By Paul Murphy. Follow @PaulmurphyBKK