“A mix of Rossi and Riva”: remembering the explosive brilliance of Enrico Chiesa

“A mix of Rossi and Riva”: remembering the explosive brilliance of Enrico Chiesa

“What was missing from my career?” Enrico Chiesa, scorer of 138 Serie A goals, ruminates over the question posed to him during an interview with Guerin Sportivo. It seems a curious proposition to put to a man whose career spanned 20 years, and who won the Coppa Italia twice, picked up a Cup Winners’ Cup medal, appeared at Euro 96 and France 98, scored on his national debut and, the accolade for which he professes his keenest sense of satisfaction, won the UEFA Cup, a tournament in which he was also named top scorer. 

Enrico Chiesa enjoyed a career most professional footballers would be envious of, but one, in spite of his achievements, which he looks back upon with a sliver of regret. “The great team,” he attests. “I’ve always been close to it. Simoni wanted me at Inter. Juve and Milan have looked for me, but nothing ever materialised. I could have done more.”

This notion that he could have done more has remained the obstinate footnote to a career wherein Chiesa usually had to settle for the role of supporting star. Playing most of his football throughout the 1990s, the halcyon decade in Italian football, became something of a blessing and a curse as the years have slipped by.

For the most part, he performed in the world’s foremost domestic league; this was a time when Serie A reigned supreme in the bright court of European football. The eyes of the footballing world were on this sun-drenched peninsula in southern Europe and the finest stars clamoured for the limelight. 

Amongst the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Marco van Basten, Ronaldo, Iván Zamorano, Hernán Crespo and Andriy Shevchenko, Chiesa strived to forge his own legacy – but it was one often overshadowed by his considerable luminaries. When he scored 22 goals for Sampdoria in 1995/96, Igor Protti and Beppe Signori scored 24. When he again scored 22 goals, this time for Fiorentina in 2000/01, Crespo scored 26. Seemingly forever the nearly-man, there was always someone else to spoil Chiesa’s party. 

For most, the task of attempting to forge a career amongst such a panoply of talent would be a task insurmountable, but for Chiesa, though it would be a long and arduous road, he would fashion a niche for himself in the crowded rostrum of Serie A as a dynamic and exciting forward – despite his own protestations to the contrary. Even if he never reached the San Siro or the Delle Alpi, he at least made sure those who filled the terraces within each stadium knew his name.  

Enrico Chiesa was born in Genoa, a colourful, historic port city on Italy’s north-western coast that is home to fierce rivals Genoa Cricket & Football Club and Unione Calcio Sampdoria. Growing up, though he harboured a desire to play professionally, Chiesa held no particular persuasion towards either of his home town’s two clubs. Instead, it was the eternal enemies of the city of Milan, a two-hour drive north along the A7, that caught his attention. “My father, I never knew why, was a lukewarm Inter fan. My uncle, on the other hand, really cared for Milan. And I initially followed him.”

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At the time, a young Chiesa could never have foreseen that the team against whom he would score the most goals would be his uncle’s beloved Rossoneri, for his first steps in the world of football were embellished with disappointment. 

Signing for the blue and white half of his home town, Chiesa endured an indifferent start with Sampdoria. Despite winning a Cup Winners’ Cup medal in his debut season, the young forward found his time on the pitch limited to just a solitary substitute appearance in his first two campaigns. In short measure, he was loaned out to Teramo and then Chieti, both of Serie C, where his form was tepid at best.

Not yet out of his teens, Chiesa’s slight frame and lack of height were deemed incompatible with the centre-forward role which he favoured. Goals were scarce and thus it was something of a surprise that, when the 1992/93 season dawned, Chiesa found himself recalled to his parent club and thrust into the first team. What followed was a year-long condemnation of his abilities, as he registered a single goal in 26 appearances. 

Confidence shot and with his capacity as a professional footballer in doubt, he was loaned to Serie B side Modena, where the less strenuous surroundings rewarded him with 15 goals. The first signs that Sampdoria had the beginnings of an exciting footballer were budding, but it was deemed too soon to throw the young forward back into the chess game of 1990s Serie A with all its tactical idiosyncrasies. Chiesa was an unbroken colt: raw, unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous at times. He lacked the self-awareness to yet be considered a compatible facet of this Sampdoria side. 

Another loan moved beckoned, this time to Serie A side Cremonese, where Chiesa first came into contact with a man that would covet him throughout his entire career: Gigi Simoni. Under his tutelage, the shy, underachieving Chiesa blossomed into the footballer his nascent talent had been hinting at. “With him I reached maturity. It made me understand the true importance of sacrifice and of thinking first of all about the team. Not that before I didn’t, but with him I had full awareness.”

Utilising his astonishing pace, Simoni shifted Chiesa from a central role to the wings. No longer having to contend with the finest generation of centre-backs world football has ever witnessed, he found greater joy could be had on the flanks, where the extra room and his blistering turn of speed saw him develop into something of a wide forward.

Not quite a winger, not quite a number nine, Chiesa raided the spaces between centre-half and full-back, drifting from out wide to ghost between the lines. In his previous jaunt in Serie A, Chiesa had laboured to a single goal. Now, he was rampant. “Not surprisingly, I scored 14 goals. Simoni doted on me. Finally, I felt ready for Sampdoria.”

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Return to Sampdoria he did, where fortune played a part in his ascension to the starting eleven. During his initial attempts to break free of the reserves a few seasons prior, Chiesa had found his route blocked by the considerable figures of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli. Unable to afford him proper game time ahead of their two talismanic forwards, his development lay elsewhere, but with the sale of Vialli to Juventus, a berth had opened up in the Sampdoria front line that a now effulgent Chiesa was more than willing to snatch. 

However, despite his exploits at Cremonese, Chiesa found himself on the bench for Sampdoria’s opening fixture of the 1995/96 season, a 1-1 draw with Roma, and would be in and out of the side for the foreseeable future. After 11 games, the 22-year-old had played in less than half and failed to find the net in any of his outings.

Sampdoria were enduring an indifferent start themselves, too, until a watershed moment, both for Chiesa and his club, occurred on 3 December away at Bari. Having beaten Udinese 1-0 the previous weekend, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men were attempting to string together their first sequence of results all season. It just so happened the Swedish tactician found his protégé in devilish mood.

After weathering sustained pressure early on from Bari, Sampdoria burst forward on a rare attack, where the ball ended up at the feet of whippet-thin Chiesa, 30 yards from goal. Goalless up until that point, lesser footballers would have laid the ball off to the overlapping full-back and headed into the box to await his cross. Chiesa, however, had other ideas.

Looking up to see his route to goal barred by white shirts, the young forward swivelled a hip and with an audacious drop of the shoulder, turned the defender inside out. A burst of acceleration saw him drive infield on his left foot where he ignored the option of laying the ball off to Christian Karembeu. As another defender closed in, Chiesa let rip with a rifling left-foot shot from 25 yards. Unerring in its path, it whistled into the top corner. His duck broken at last, Chiesa barely seemed bothered, as though he always knew this moment would come. Why celebrate the inevitable?

From thereon in, Chiesa was unstoppable. His sharp movement in the box gifted him two more goals as he completed his hat-trick, and for i Blucerchiati, a revelation was born. Over the next three games, he added five more goals to his tally with braces against Lazio and Juventus and a single goal against Napoli. Another hat-trick, this time against Padova, soon followed, along with further braces against both Inter and AC Milan. Lazio and Juventus fell foul of his lightning pace and crisp finishing later in the campaign, as he enjoyed the rare distinction of scoring home and away against Juve. 

Though Sampdoria floundered in mid-table, Chiesa propelled himself up the goalscoring charts with 22 strikes in 27 games. Only Protti and Signori, both of whom played considerably more games than the precocious Chiesa, finished ahead of him in the race for the Capocannoniere. 

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A first call-up to the Azzurri squad arrived at the end of the season, as Chiesa was selected to play in a 2-2 friendly draw against Belgium. He marked his debut with a goal, and then scored in his second match, this time the opening fixture of Euro 96, where manager Arrigo Sacchi raised more than a few eyebrows by picking the dynamic youngster ahead of the likes of Roberto Baggio and Gianluca Vialli. To this date, Chiesa is the last Italian footballer to score in his first two caps. 

After a stellar campaign with Sampdoria and a spirited showing at Euro 96 despite his nation’s ultimate shortcomings, it was inevitable that Chiesa found himself with suitors for his signature, and it was Parma, bankrolled at the time by the considerable wealth of the Tanzi family, who emerged victorious. Enamoured with the chance to play under the tutelage of Carlo Ancelotti, Chiesa gleefully accepted the contract offer and became a integral fixture in the Gialloblu’s attempts to clinch the Scudetto. 

Arriving in the same summer as Crespo and Lilian Thuram, Chiesa flourished in this burgeoning Parma side. Positively thrumming with confidence, his debut endeared him to the Gialloblu faithful almost immediately. An assist for Dino Baggio in the 14th minute was followed by his first goal for the club eight minutes later. Latching onto a through ball, Chiesa’s frightening pace took him past the hapless centre-half before he guided the ball into the far corner with his left foot. 

It was becoming something of a trademark: there were few players who could accelerate so quickly and so readily as Chiesa. With his slender shoulders and lithe frame, he was unlikely to best the rough-and-ready defenders of Serie A in a physical contest, but it was his turn of speed that was so astonishing. From a standing start he would streak past full-backs and centre-halves alike, deft in his control of the ball as he ran. Sometimes, it seemed as though his feet and hips were acting of their own volition, as if the man himself was a mere passenger on this rapid joyride through opposition defences.  

Time and time again, Chiesa cut swathes in backlines that had previously been impregnable. If football was a duel, he was a nimble blade, slipping between rings in chainmail, stealing the life from his foes before they even knew he was there.

But Parma would not wield him in isolation. He struck in tandem with Crespo, each one as cunning and subtle as the other, each one capable of acting as the offhand that swept in behind the main thrust. Together, in their debut season, they plundered 29 goals in Serie A as Parma came agonisingly close to clutching their first Scudetto. 

During this period, the Tanzi family’s millions had successfully transformed this small club from Emilia-Romagna into something of an Italian powerhouse, one which regularly tussled with the established entities of Juventus, Milan and Inter at the sharp end of the table. Parma themselves became practically synonymous with 1990s calcio; all eight of their major honours were accrued during this brief period, and two of them were won with the help of Chiesa’s electric form alongside Crespo. 

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Although the league title evaded them, Parma, and especially Chiesa, became renowned for being knockout cup specialists. During his three-season stay at the Ennio Tardini, Chiesa spearheaded the club’s endeavours on both the domestic and European cup fronts. While his attacking returns in Serie A were modest – ten goals in 1997/98 and nine goals in 1998/99 – it was his goals elsewhere that swelled his final tally. In both campaigns, he scored more goals in Europe and during Parma’s two Coppa Italia runs than he did over a 34-game league season. 

When Parma qualified for the Champions League by virtue of finishing second in the 1996/97 season, Chiesa relished the opportunity to test his mettle on the grandest stage. During qualifying, he plundered a hat-trick in the first leg against Widzem Łódź before continuing his impressive goal-scoring form on into the group stages: two against Sparta Prague, the first a characteristic blistering run coupled with a cool side-foot finish, the second a penalty rifled into the top corner, and one more at the expense of Galatasaray, a rare header in the six-yard box.

If his goals during the 1997/98 season – six in the Champions League and five en route to a Coppa Italia semi-final – were important, then his tally in the 1998/99 campaign was instrumental. Without Chiesa’s eight UEFA Cup goals, Parma would never have clinched their second – and to date, last – European trophy. 

A brief peruse of Chiesa’s statistics might lead the casual observer to judge that his annus mirabilis resided in the comfortable surrounds of Sampdoria or the moribund post-Batistuta years at Fiorentina, where on both occasions he scored 22 league goals and came within touching distance of the Capocannoniere.

This sheer outlay of goals, however – though typically a useful barometer against which to measure centre-forwards – embodies the occasional misleading obsession with focusing merely on statistical outputs. He may certainly have scored more goals in the colours of Sampdoria and Fiorentina, but it was his form in Parma double-winning 1998/99 season wherein the true genius of Chiesa could be found.

By this stage, Crespo was fast maturing into one of Serie A’s finest strikers. Possessed of the pace, movement and ruthlessness of his compatriot Batistuta, he had rightfully staked a claim to be considered Parma’s undisputed striker. While he had enjoyed something of an equal relationship with Chiesa up until that point, the 1998/99 season was the start of Crespo’s ascension into the kind of returns that would see him accrue almost £80m in transfer fees over the years. 

With Crespo now an unmovable fixture in the central striking role, Chiesa could enjoy the freedom of playing as his foil. Like in his Sampdoria days, he was free to roam, striking at will and at random, from the left flank, from the right flank, even through the middle. By now, as he himself confessed, he benefited from “full awareness” of his role on the football pitch. 

Order  |  Calcio II

Chiesa was not a man for whom stat-padding against supposedly weaker teams was a concern. If anything, he had a predilection for performing better when he felt the weight of pressure all too keenly on his shoulders. A wealth of goals throughout his career against Juventus, Milan, Lazio and Napoli was testament to this, but the opportune moment of his strikers throughout Parma’s victorious UEFA Cup run in 1998/99 consolidated his reputation as a man who relished the important games. 

Parma’s early run of fixtures in the first and second rounds were a fallow field for Chiesa. Rather than scratch around in the stony dirt, he laboured and toiled, sowing the seeds for what was to flower in the later rounds. By the time the quarter-finals arrived, Chiesa’s crop had grown bountiful. He reaped a brace against Bordeaux, three goals over two legs against Atlético Madrid, and, most crucially of all, the third and final goal in the final against Marseille. A sumptuous half-volley, without doubt the goal of the final, was the least Chiesa deserved.

It was his performances in the latter stages against Bordeaux and Atlético that had seen Parma through to a final which they won with consummate ease. They were too slick, too quick, too incisive – all traits embodied by their diminutive Italian forward, and one whom, little did i Crociati know it, would soon be little more than a memory. 

Chiesa’s talents had grown too great for Parma to conceal. In spite of their riches, it was not greater wealth that ultimately lured Chiesa away from the Ennio Tardini. At the age of 28, an invitation was extended to the ever-ambitious Chiesa that he could not possibly reject: Fiorentina and the opportunity to play alongside Batistuta. “Giovanni Trapattoni wanted me. I went willingly. They were a great team with Batistuta, the greatest centre-forward I’ve ever played with.”

Fiorentina, desperate to keep hold of their talismanic Argentine, had promised Batistuta signings. Throughout the 1990s, La Viola had never made a serious assault on the throne of Serie A. More often than not, it was Batigol’s astonishing outlay that kept them from sliding into mid-table mediocrity. This was a side that was built around their iconic number nine, but which simply did not have the quality elsewhere to sustain a title challenge. With Chiesa, though, Trapattoni was hoping to ignite the sort of partnership Parma had profited from, and fire Fiorentina to their first title since the 1968/69.  

Instead, a dream partnership soon dissolved, in no small part down to Chiesa’s injury problems. As is so often the case with footballers that rely on short-twitch muscle fibres to generate their astounding pace, Chiesa fell foul of several muscular injuries throughout the 1999/2000 season which hampered not only his chances, but Fiorentina’s too. Batistuta, wearied by having to shoulder the goalscoring burden of his beloved La Viola, netted 23 times as Fiorentina limped home to a disappointing seventh-place finish. 

In a strange quirk of fate, Chiesa, the man whom Fiorentina had signed to entice Batistuta to stay at the Artemio Franchi, soon became the team’s focal point when Batigol departed for Roma, where he would finally claim a Scudetto. Without their talisman, Fiorentina were expected to struggle, but 22 goals from Chiesa – including, yet again, multiple strikes against Juventus, Milan, Inter and Roma – endeared him to Viola fans after his difficult maiden campaign. Victory in the Coppa Italia was enough to compensate for another mediocre league finish. 

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At 30, Chiesa had lost little of his pace and incision, regularly raiding defences with his darting runs, and the 2001/02 season started brightly with five goals in his first five appearances. Frustratingly, the weapon he relied so fiercely upon was cruelly robbed of him in September of 2001. “Unfortunately my left knee popped and a new story started from there. As usual, I didn’t give up. It took me a year, but I went back to playing, but I was no longer a kid. The Formula One car had failed.”

A catastrophic knee injury curtailed Chiesa’s career for over a year, ending his third and final season with Fiorentina before it had really started. With the club’s financial woes also proving burdensome, Chiesa was sold to Lazio, who would encounter their own difficulties in the coming years, but the injury had taken its toll. A handful of appearances in the blue was all he could manage before he moved on once again to Siena. 

The Tuscan minnows were enjoying their first foray into the Italian top flight and Chiesa, by now a respected elder statesman of the game, was seen as a tremendous coup. The veteran became Siena’s focal point, registering double figures in his first three seasons as Siena fought valiantly to avoid a premature return to Serie B. Such was their adoration that, to this day, there is still a Siena supporters’ club named after their beloved striker. 

After five years back in Tuscany, an ageing Chiesa departed once more, this time for the less ostentatious surrounds of Serie D and Figline where he would see out his playing days before undertaking a brief sojourn into coaching. 

While Chiesa may not have accrued the silverware his obvious talent on the football field warranted, the vision of this quicksilver striker streaking past labouring centre-halves, brown locks flowing, his baggy, oversized Parma jersey billowing around his slight frame like a blue-and-yellow parachute was seared indelibly into the minds and hearts of the millions of observers who witnessed the wonderful madness that was Serie A in the 1990s. 

In the grand monument of this mesmerising decade, it is the likes of Baggio, Batistuta, Maldini and Del Piero who are the pillars that hold the ceiling of this temple to football aloft – but Chiesa warrants his own pedestal in some quiet, understated corner, representative of the man himself; rarely the main man but often the most important. 

He may have regrets when it comes to his career, but few who ever watched him would be in accordance. In fact, it is Fabio Capello who coined probably the most fitting description of Chiesa when he described him as “a mix of Paolo Rossi and Gigi Riva”.  That’s quite the target that son Federico has to aim for.

Enrico’s response was delivered in typical self-effacing fashion: “Nice definition, even if Riva was much more powerful than me and had the header. I got to know him with the national team. He said he sees me in him: both introverts, little small talk and many facts.” Above all else, perhaps that is how Chiesa ought to be remembered: little small talk and many facts. 

By Josh Butler @joshisbutler90

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