There is nothing more thrilling in football than a goal. The sight of seeing the ball hit the back of the net stirs up multiple emotions in different sets of fans and can bring joy to one person, and despair to another. Goalscorers themselves are loved by fans all over the world and are the players who take all the glory once the final whistle has blown. They may not be the best individual players, but they certainly have the most glamorous job in the game. They are the ones who can win games, titles and break records.
Over the course of football history, Italian football has had the pleasure of being home to some of the greatest goalscorers we have ever seen – including Giuseppe Meazza, Gunnar Nordahl, Marco van Basten, Andriy Shevchenko, Gabriel Batistuta and Francesco Totti – but there is one player who often seems to be overlooked despite topping the all-time goal-scoring list.
Silvio Piola is, statistically, the greatest striker in Italian football history, scoring 274 Serie A goals across 26 years in calcio. It’s a record that has still yet to be broken to this day and is unlikely to ever be beaten. Piola is one of two players to score two hat-tricks in the same game and is level with Nordahl on most braces scored, on 49.
Despite the incredible numbers and legendary status in Italy, Piola is rarely mentioned when talking about great strikers. Maybe that’s because of his lack of silverware during his goal-laden career, but his greatness must not be evaluated by what he won, it must be evaluated on how incredible he was in front of goal and how inspirational he was to a new generation of strikers.
You will find very few clips of Piola on the internet as only a handful of his goals were caught on camera. But from eyewitness accounts of his glory days, Piola’s talents were special.
It all started in 1929 when Piola graduated through the youth ranks of Pro Vercelli and made his first team debut in a 2-2 draw against Bologna. It’s doubtful that anyone in that crowd knew they were watching someone who would become an all-time great, but it’s almost impossible to tell at such an early stage in someone’s career.
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Piola only managed to play three games in his inaugural campaign, but whilst he was cutting his teeth at first team level, his polar opposite, Giuseppe Meazza, was running away with the Capocannoniere, scoring 31 goals in the very first Serie A campaign. Piola was coming into the land of giants and had some big names to deal with, especially the already prolific Meazza. It was a big test for the youngster, who was eager to start the next season in the first team for Pro Vercelli.
Piola has been described as a pure goal poacher, in the same vain as Pippo Inzaghi or Paolo Rossi, for example, but he also had incredible physical attributes to bully any defender who tried to stop him. He could score from inside or outside the box with both feet and was equally as dangerous in the air as he was in the penalty box, making him tough to mark.
November 2, 1930, was the date that changed Italian football forever – yet no one knew it – as Silvio Piola scored his first goal for Pro Vercelli against the club he would become a legend with, Lazio. Despite being under six feet, Piola rose highest above all defenders to head home past Ezio Sclavi in the Lazio goal. All it took was this one moment to set Piola off, and he scored a further 12 times that season to finish the season with hype around his name.
After his goal against Lazio, Piola went on a scoring spree, putting Pro Patria and Brescia to the sword before an impressive strike at home to Napoli in a 6-3 victory. Piola was vital to this Pro Vercelli side, winning them 13 points and finishing joint third in the Capocannoniere standings behind Rodolfo Volk, Cesare Fasanelli and Meazza.
Thirteen goals may seem standard for a striker, but when you consider that Piola was 17 at the time and this was his first full Serie A season, it makes it an even greater achievement. In most players’ careers, you can pinpoint the exact moment their lives changed; for Piola, it was that header against Lazio. It changed everything about him and instilled a hunger for goals that was unrivalled during his career.
Piola’s rise continued into the next season for Pro Vercelli, breaking his first goalscoring record, one that would stand for 33 years. The Italian scored four goals away at Alessandria in an incredible 5-4 victory for his side, setting and breaking the record of most goals scored by an away player in a Serie A game.
Piola had a habit of breaking records, and eventually he broke another. The next one was just as impressive and signified that Silvio wasn’t a striker to take lightly. In 1933, Fiorentina took on Pro Vercelli and it only took the hitman 60 seconds to open his account for the game. It would be his first goal of six. He would go on to become the first player in Italian history to score six goals in a single game, a record that only one person would equal – the great Omar Sívori of Juventus.
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Think about it, scoring six goals in a league game is incredibly impressive but the fact that it hasn’t been beaten says a lot about the quality of Piola. None of the great strikers to have graced calcio have come close to breaking his records, yet this is the man few mention – certainly outside of Italy, anyway.
With Piola’s reputation growing by the game, interest from Italy’s big cities was rife. Torino were keen on bringing him in, but Ambrosiana-Milan – the old name for Inter Milan – were looking to create the impossible partnership.
Piola had always dreamed of partnering up with the man who topped the goalscoring charts in his first season, whether it was with club or country. Inter tried their hardest to partner Piola and Meazza but for various reasons, the move didn’t happen. It’s one of the great what-ifs in Italian football folklore.
So that left one club for Piola to join: Lazio. They had been waiting patiently, watching how the other clubs dealt with the striker and eventually swooped to bring Piola to the capital. The story of his transfer to Lazio is one of calcio’s most interesting, with a raft of off-field components making it a possibility.
Just after arriving in Rome, a 21-year-old Piola had to complete his military service, as was the norm for anyone his age. At the time, however, the biggest supporter of Lazio was one of the most feared men on the planet, Benito Mussolini, and he helped ensure that the club’s new star could focus on his football. It has even been alleged that Mussolini himself saw to make the transfer to from Pro Vercelli to Lazio possible, by warning off interest from Torino and Inter.
Piola joined Lazio and started with aplomb, scoring on his debut against Livorno. This was the season where he morphed into a world-class striker. Twenty-one goals in 29 games meant that he gained the nickname “Piola-gol” and he soon became the main man for Lazio.
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In his second season, Piola scored 19 goals as his Lazio side struggled to a seventh-placed finish. It was a poor season for the club, but on a personal level, it was a sixth straight season of scoring double figures. His third season was one that Piola never forgot, special to him as he finally clinched the Capocannoniere.
He finally, after eight years of determination to make his mark, got his hands on the recognition for the most clinical striker in the league. He should really have had his first scudetto title, but Lazio’s eight losses in the season meant Bologna just beat pipped to the title.
Was Piola heartbroken? Of course he was, but he didn’t let the scudetto loss get him down, as he had something bigger on the horizon. He finally got the chance to link up with Meazza with the Italian national team at the 1938 World Cup.
Piola and Meazza set the tournament on fire, teaming up and guiding Italy to the final, where they would take on and defeat Hungry to become world champions. There was no doubt that, at the time, Italy were the best team in the world, and there were even fewer doubts that Piola and Meazza were the best strikers around.
Returning to domestic duty after the finals, Lazio were struggling in the league. In the 1938/39 season, they finished four points above the relegation zone, and it was the first season in which Piola didn’t get double figures in the goalscoring charts. Piola’s time at Lazio was coming to an end, and in his final year at the club, he ended it with style. Twenty-one goals, a fourth-placed finish and his second Capocannoniere meant that Piola departed the capital as a legend.
Scoring 149 goals in 227 appearances for the Biancocelesti meant that Piola became the all-time record goalscorer for the club, one that still stands to this day, a full 22 clear of his nearest rival, Beppe Signori.
After joining Torino during the war-stricken years between 1944 and 1955, Piola still managed to keep up his goalscoring expertise. Scoring 27 goals in 23 games was an incredible achievement, one that earned him a move to rivals Juventus in 1945.
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His spell with the Old Lady may not have been his most famous, but it is where he mentored an 18-year-old by the name of Giampiero Boniperti. Boniperti became a Juve legend years after Piola had left, but credits a lot of his success to the man who taught him the value of movement, physicality and practising finishing with both feet.
Over his two years with the Bianconeri, Piola scored 26 goals. Another runners-up spot meant that, at the age of 34, many believed he would walk away from the game and start to mentor the next generation. Not Piola, however; he wanted to carry on playing and joined Novara in Serie B, where he continued to score freely. It didn’t take long for his goals to take Novara back to Serie A.
That first season at Novara was the only one in which Piola was outside of the top flight – an incredible feat considering how long he played for – and yet he never won the title. It is such a shame that the great man never lifted the scudetto, but the amount of goals he scored more than made up for it.
His final professional goal came against Milan; his Novara side were trailing 1-0 before the 40-year-old decided to have a bit of fun and equalised with a stunning bicycle kick. How many 40-year-olds can you imagine scoring a goal against Milan, let alone a bicycle kick?
In typical Piola fashion, this tremendous goal set another record, of being the oldest scorer in Serie A. The record would stand until 2007 when Alessandro Costacurta, a man who had scored only two goals in his whole career up until, scored a penalty on the final day of the season against Udinese.
Not many people know the story of the greatest goalscorer in the history of Italian football. Giuseppe Meazza may have a stadium named after him, but Silvio Piola has two, at Novara and Pro Vercelli. Francesco Totti may have more appearances for Roma, but Piola has more goals in total. He may only have played in one World Cup, but he and Meazza were sensational in the Azzurri’s triumph.
Some of his records have been beaten or equaled since his retirement, but he still holds the most sought-after one. His 274 Serie A goals look unlikely to be beaten for years to come – especially in a game where players move so freely between leagues. He may have not been the most glamorous, but he was certainly effective and should forever be seen as one of calcio’s greatest players
By Tom Scholes @TomScholes316