MOST FOOTBALL TRIVIA BUFFS AND HISTORIANS you ask will tell you that the transfer of Trevor Francis to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1979 was the first million pound deal in football. Famously, when a mop-haired Francis was presented to the media, Clough insisted he paid £999,999 for the Birmingham forward to avoid heaping too much pressure on his new singing, even though the eventual cost of the deal was closer to £1.2 million than a million when taxes and league fees were included.
However, while Francis can rightly claim to be the first million pound footballer in the UK, the world record for the first seven-figure transfer belongs to somebody else.
Giuseppe Savoldi was born on January 21 1947, in Gorlago, a municipality in the province of Bergamo, a town you can find about 60 kilometres northeast of Milan. Gorlago is a “blink and you could miss it” kind of place with a population of around 5,000 gorlaghesi.
Born into a modest, typical Lombardy family, Savoldi’s father was a railroad worker, while his mother worked nearby at a small button factory. Giuseppe’s first sporting relationship was with a basketball, picking up the orange sphere aged eight and playing regularly until he chose to dedicate himself to football ten years later aged 18.
During his professional football career, Savoldi’s aerial prowess would become famous; his unrivalled timing when rising to meet crosses and his ability to explode vertically from a standing position were skills developed in the dusty basketball courts of the oratory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in the centre of Bergamo.
Savoldi’s natural athleticism and aptitude for multiple sporting disciplines (he was also a regional high jump champion and pentathlete) stood him apart from other youngsters his age and Serie A side Atalanta brought him into their youth ranks aged 15. Savoldi trained at Atalanta while continuing his love affair with basketball in secret, though he was eventually convinced to abandon his hoop dreams and focus on forging a career in football by Mikhail Kincses, a Hungarian youth team coach who recognised Beppe’s potential.
Savoldi’s development was rapid and he was handed his professional debut by Héctor ‘Ettore’ Puricelli as an orthodox left winger on August 29, 1965, in the Italian Cup, scoring a goal in a 1-1 draw against Vicenza. His league debut came less than a week later on 5 September against Fiorentina.
Puricelli was replaced five days after Atalanta’s 1-1 draw with La Viola, and it was his successor Stefano Angeleri who first deployed Savoldi as a centre-forward a month after the youngster’s debut, starting him at number 9 against Juventus. Just like his humble beginnings in Gorlago, Savoldi’s first campaign at senior level was a modest one and he ended the season having played just nine times, netting three goals for La Dea, all of which were scored in cup competitions.
It wasn’t until 9 October of the 1966-67 season that Savoldi broke his Serie A duck, scoring in the 3-1 win over Lazio. Angeleri put his faith in the developing centre-forward and played him consistently through the centre for the majority of the season and although Beppe only managed five goals in 27 appearances – two of which came in a dramatic 2-1 win in the Lombardy derby against Brescia – by the season’s end, his performances sparkled enough to attract admiring glances and lucrative offers from bigger clubs.
Angeleri’s trust in Savoldi was repaid when the young forward, now with a burgeoning reputation, chose to stay at Atalanta for the 1967-68 season, finishing the campaign with double-figure goals (12 in 27 games) for the first time in his career.
With Atalanta languishing in mid-table and Savoldi established as one of Italy’s finest young footballers, the inevitable happened in the summer of 1968 and Giuseppe swapped Atlanta’s blue and black for the blue and red of Bologna, in a part-exchange deal that saw Brazilian forward Sergio Clerici move the other way along with 175 million lire.
In six seasons at the Stadio Comunale, Savoldi made 201 league appearances, scoring 85 Serie A goals. Bologna won the Coppa Italia title twice during that spell, in 1970 and 1974, with Savoldi finishing as the competition’s top scorer both times with 10 goals. He also won the Anglo-Italian League Cup in 1970, as well as the joint Serie A top scorer award during the 1972-73 Serie A season, with 17 goals alongside Paolo Pulici and the legendary Gianni Rivera. In total, Savoldi scored 140 times for Bologna, placing him fourth in their all-time top scorer’s list behind Angelo Schiavo, Carlo Reguzzoni and Ezio Pascutto.
“There are moments in football that are exclusively poetic: these are the moments of the ‘goal’. Each goal is always an invention, it is always a subversion of the code: each goal is an inevitability, shock, awe, irreversibility. Just like the word poetic. The top scorer of the league is always the best poet of the year. Right now it is Savoldi.” Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italian film director, poet, writer and intellectual in January 1972
As a Bolognese, Savoldi was unwittingly involved in a famous incident in a game against Ascoli during the 1974-75 season, where he was denied a legitimate goal through the intervention of a ball boy named Domenico Citeroni, who kicked the ball back out into the field after it had crossed the line. The referee was unsighted and waved play on, despite the protestations of the players and Bologna management.
The incident washed over an apathetic Savoldi who said years later: “I did not even care at the time. The ball boy was a kid and in that game I had already scored two goals. With Citeroni, an adult, we met again at the Sunday Sport, and we shook hands.”
By the summer of 1975, a 28-year-old Savoldi became frustrated at Bologna’s inability to challenge for the league title and after a failed transfer to Helenio Herrera’s Roma the previous year, and with moves to Milan and Juventus failing to transpire, Savoldi eventually transferred to Napoli for two billion Lira (approx £1.2 million), making him the world’s most expensive player, a record previously held by Johan Cruyff following his move to Barcelona from Ajax for £922,000 a couple of years earlier. Understandably, the transfer caused quite a stir, earning Savoldi the less than imaginative nickname in the press “Mister Two Billion”.
Napoli had finished third and runners-up in their previous two seasons, so naturally Savoldi felt that he could become the final piece of the Partenopei jigsaw and help bring the first ever scudetto to Naples. The 1975-76 season started in fairytale fashion for him as he scored seven in as many games in Napoli blue. However, although Napoli won the Italian Cup, talking his personal tally of medals to three, he soon realised he had joined a team that was on the decline.
“There I really believed I could win the Scudetto. But at Olimpico I got injured and then I was out three weeks. After a draw at home to Ascoli, we collapsed and he dreamed vanished.”
Napoli eventually finished fifth that season, just two places ahead of Savoldi’s previous club Bologna. The following season, they finished ninth, they climbed three places to finish sixth in 1978, before dropping back down to seventh in his final year at the club. Napoli were finishing in respectable positions without ever really threatening to mount a title challenge.
“I arrived in Naples too late,” said a remorseful Savoldi. “Vinicio (Napoli manager from 1973-76) confirmed it for me a few years later: that Napoli had already given their best, it was at the end of cycle. We won one Italian Cup, but I had come to Naples late.”
In four years under the shadow of Vesuvius, Savoldi scored 77 goals for Napoli, 12 of which came in the Italian Cup in 1978, a record number of goals for a single season of the competition, which was only surpassed by Gianluca Vialli at Sampdoria a decade later.
In June 1979, with his famed athleticism on the wane, a 32-year-old Savoldi left Naples behind, leaving shattered scudetto-winning aspirations there too. He returned to Bologna, helping them to healthy seventh-place finish during the 1979-80 season by scoring 11 times in 29 Serie A appearances, bettering Napoli’s finish by three places.
In May 1980, events took a darker turn, and charges were brought against Savoldi, accusing the Bologna captain of involvement with an underground betting ring. Following a lengthy hearing, Savoldi was banned from the game for three-and-a-half years. Upon appeal, the sentence was reduced to two years, allowing Savoldi to turn out for his beloved Atalanta in Serie B as a veteran of 34. Naturally, Savoldi found it difficult to cope with football’s physical demands after his enforced hiatus and only managed 16 games and one goal in his swansong season.
Savoldi remains the 13th highest goalscorer in Serie A with 168 goals in 405 games and although his domestic exploits were only rewarded with four caps at international level, the Lombardy railroad worker’s seven-figure son has etched his name in the annals of calcio and world football history.
By Simon Winter @SimonJWinter