In part one of a four-part series looking at the career of the iconic Gianluca Vialli, Dan Davison recalls his rise and early Sampdoria years, which propelled him onto the football map.
Andrea Pirlo, Paolo Maldini, Dino Zoff, Franco Baresi and Francesco Totti; the list of Italian players who have captured the imagination of football fans across the world is spectacularly long. Perhaps no nation that has produced so many players to have achieved this on such a grand scale.
Four World Cup victories and one of the best leagues in the world has helped this, but there seems to be something about the essence of an Italian footballer that makes them more captivating than their equivalent professionals from most other nations. Perhaps it’s their trophy cabinets; perhaps it’s their apparent ease with the ball at their feet; perhaps it’s their hair. If there’s anything that we can take from the continued success of James Richardson, it’s that Italian football sells.
Few Italian players, however, have had much of an impact in the Premier League. Mario Balotelli provided many good stories for the press during his time in England with Manchester City and Liverpool, but not enough on the pitch. Alberto Aquilani was an even greater flop at Anfield. By the time Graziano Pellè earned his lucrative move to the Chinese Super League, he had become a shadow of the player he had once been at Southampton.
You may remember Marco Materazzi for his chest feeling the brunt of Zinedine Zidane’s head in the 2010 World Cup final, but can you remember him playing for Everton? Probably not. There is one Italian, however, who left a lasting effect on the Premier League and in the mind of English fans. His name is Gianluca Vialli.
Born in the relatively wealthy town of Cremona in northern Italy, Vialli’s sporting talents were apparent from an early stage. His father, a self-made millionaire, instilled a work ethic in Gianluca and his four other children, and made sure that they didn’t take life for granted.
They may have been financially comfortable, but Gianluca wasn’t turning up to training with his local team Pizzighettone wearing golden boots. Sadly, now no longer a club after financial difficulties forced them to dissolve in 2012, Pizzighettone were the first to spot Vialli’s talents when he was just nine years old. Although not blessed with towering height or blistering pace, Vialli already had composure on the ball and an ability to make the right decision that many of his young peers lacked.
Vialli’s superiority was obvious even at nine and, after less than a year with Pizzighettone, Cremonese, swooped in to sign him. Continuing to excel at the bigger club, Vialli rose through the ranks quickly, often playing with kids two or three years older than him. At the age of just 16, he was given his senior debut in Serie C1 and looked at home amongst the adults he was playing with and against.
Cremonese were easily one of the best teams in the league during the 1980/81 season and earned promotion to Serie B. They could not hide the talent they possessed in their ranks – scouts from all the top clubs were taking a look at their talented 17-year-old. After another promotion, this time to Serie A for the first time since their maiden season in 1929/30, Vialli was off, snapped up by Sampdoria.
Sampdoria were one of the rising clubs in Italy and it was undoubtedly a big move for a man who had been playing in Serie C1 just two years previously. Having turned 20 around the time the move went through, Vialli knew that he would have to improve his performances further to earn the adulation of the Samp supporters. And, boy, did he do that.
With Vialli linking up with Roberto Mancini up front, Samp now had a youthful but lethal attacking force, one that the whole country was jealous of. Not a club that was used to winning barrel-loads of trophies, things suddenly looked very positive for Sampdoria.
Positive was a word that you could use to describe Samp’s first season with Vialli in their ranks. Having also signed Liverpool legend Graeme Souness in the summer to play alongside fellow Brit Trevor Francis, a strong Samp side recorded their best league season since 1960/61, finishing fourth. Having to battle with Francis, a two-time European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest, for a place, Vialli still showed himself to be more than capable of mixing it with the big boys in Serie A.
The real success for Samp that season occurred in the Coppa Italia with Il Doria beating Milan in the final to record their first ever trophy. Having surprised everyone to win the first leg in Milan, Vialli scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the second leg. It was a momentous day in the history of Samp and gave them confidence for what their star-studded team could do going forward. Souness had been the big-name foreign signing who had made the large impact many expected, but Vialli had produced an extremely strong debut season in Serie A too.
The British invasion lasted only one season further. Souness returned to Scotland to be player-manager at Rangers, while Francis moved to fellow Serie A club, Atalanta. Vialli, meanwhile, ended up staying with Sampdoria for eight years. Given more responsibility in the absence of England international Francis, that is when Vialli really came to the fore. There is little doubt that most of these eight years go down as the best in the club’s long, illustrious history.
It was the appointment of Ascoli manager Vujadin Boškov in 1986 that really changed things for Sampdoria. The former Real Madrid boss immediately realised that he did not have to spend big to replace the departed Souness and Francis – the solution was already in the squad.
Boskov trusted the new generation and great faith was placed at the feet of Vialli, Mancini, Attilio Lombardo and Moreno Mannini. They did not disappoint. Speaking about his former boss on The Big Interview with journalist Graham Hunter, Vialli could not have higher praise. “Our belief sky-rocketed when he arrived. He was like a father figure to me and a great psychologist. He had great communication skills and was incredibly knowledgeable.”
Boskov, however, did not get off to the best of starts. A humiliating first-round exit of the 1986/87 Coppa Italia was followed by a series of underwhelming performances in Serie A. Boskov found himself immediately under pressure at a club where the expectations had been raised. But then something appeared to click. Samp’s players started to connect, the passes that had previously gone astray gradually became perfect. And Vialli became a monumental star.
A sixth-place finish in a league that was now surely the best league in the world was nothing to be sniffed at. Vialli had become Samp’s best player and top scorer, scoring twice as many in the league as Il Doria’s next most prolific, his friend Roberto Mancini. He became particularly prolific towards the end of the season, scoring goals in big games against Juventus and Milan.
Vialli was again top-scorer the following season, with Sampdoria improving their league performance to finish fourth. More importantly, Samp banished their Coppa Italia woes of the previous season, embarking on a fantastic run all the way to the final. Vialli, excellent throughout the campaign, was bound to score in the final and did so after just 33 minutes in the first leg. After Torino mounted a second leg comeback, an extra-time goal from Fausto Salsano was enough to bring the Copa back to the Luigi Ferraris.
Year on year, Sampdoria were becoming a growing force. Impressive in the league, they retained their Coppa Italia title the next season, thrashing Diego Maradona’s Napoli 4-0 in the second leg of the final. Vialli was supreme in his more traditional number 9 role and scored the first of four to start the second leg comeback. Samp also reached the first of two consecutive Cup Winners’ Cup finals, losing the final 2-0 in Germany to a Barcelona side that included Gary Lineker. Vialli, by this stage one of Europe’s most feared marksmen, looked subdued and Samp never got going.
Not to be deterred, they were back in another Cup Winners’ Cup final a year later. Having overcome Barcelona this time in the second round, they found themselves facing Anderlecht in the final. The Belgians, with a team that included ex-Real Madrid man Milan Janković, held out for extra-time in a solid defensive display. That was when Vialli came to the fore. Right on the verge of half-time in extra-time, he opened the scoring with a fantastic finish. Now finding spaces amongst the tired Belgian defence that weren’t there during regular time, Vialli scored again three minutes after the restart.
Sampdoria lifted their biggest trophy to date and Gianluca Vialli was the undoubted hero. Others had made major contributions along the way, but few had the explosive impact that the man from Lombardy boasted.
Those days playing for Cremonese seemed a long time ago now. Though still young, Vialli had emerged as a talisman in the Sampdoria dressing room and the club were emerging as one of the great teams in European football. For the Italians, even greater success was to come.
By Dan Davison @_DanDavison