Gianluca Vialli was the kind of devastating striker who stood out even in the greatest era of Serie A. He and Roberto Mancini were the ‘Gemelli del Gol’ (Goal twins) who combined to lead Sampdoria to the only league title in their history. Next came a world-record move to Juventus, which would end with the club’s second and still most-recent Champions League win.
At 32, he moved to Chelsea and became the catalyst of their greatest team of the pre-Roman Abramovich era, winning one trophy as a player and five more as manager after succeeding Ruud Gullit to become player-boss in 1998.
He did it all with the kind of affable charm that meant he was loved and respected by more than just those whose clubs he had represented. Even taking into account the knowledge he had been battling pancreatic cancer on and off for the previous five years, the news of his death a year ago today at the age of just 58 was a hammer blow to anybody who ever watched him play.
Vialli’s rise to prominence started at his local club Cremonese, from whom Sampdoria signed him and started to build a successful side around he and Mancini. His power, pace and versatility made him a formidable forward. In 1988-89 he bagged 33 goals as Samp reached the European Cup Winners’ Cup final and won the Coppa Italia. They went on to win the Cup Winners’ Cup the following year, the Serie A title 12 months on from that and, in 1992, reached the European Cup final against Barcelona at Wembley.
After 141 goals in eight seasons, Vialli made a move to Juventus worth 40 billion lire (around £12.5 million), breaking the world record transfer fee, and under Giovanni Trapattoni and then Marcello Lippi he seemed to become a more complete striker than ever, ending his spell with the Old Lady at the absolute pinnacle as he captained the Bianconeri to the Champions League crown in their 1996 penalty win over Ajax.
It said much about the project Chelsea were building under manager Ruud Gullit that Vialli moved to Stamford Bridge that summer on a free transfer. While he was less mobile than he had been in his younger days, his intelligence made him a delight to watch all the same. His four goals against Barnsley in a 6-0 Premier League win at Oakwell were an absolute clinic in style and substance on a football pitch. He had so much of an edge in his head that younger, quicker players just couldn’t stay with him.
When Gullit was sacked later in that 1997-98 season, it seemed a curious move to hand the reins to a 33-year-old Vialli in a player-management role but he went on to become the Blues’ most successful manager to that point. They went on to win the League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup that term, adding the Uefa Super Cup to this list the next summer. He’d add an FA Cup in 2000 and the Charity Shield soon after.
Having been prematurely dismissed by Chelsea just a few months on from that FA Cup win, he took the chance to manage Watford the following year. He explained later that he’d accepted the role because he wanted a proper measure of what his managerial skills were, surmising that his Chelsea successes were not an accurate portrayal of his true worth given some of the comparative riches available to him.
Vialli was a thinking person’s footballer. He co-wrote a book ‘The Italian Job’ on the very intricate differences between English and Italian football. He loved the finer things in life but also promoted a very professional approach to the sport in the way that he carried himself, and is credited with being one of the players who helped to banish the heavy drinking culture at the top of the English game forever. It came not from lectures or pontifications but from his example.
Nobody who knew him had a bad word to say about him. Nobody who watched him had anything but admiration for his brilliance on the field, his love for the game, or his clear joy for life.
He was a great Italy international, part of their 1990 World Cup squad which reached the semi-final on home soil. Alongside Mancini he then played a role in the Azzurri’s Euro 2020 triumph at Wembley as an advisor to his great friend and former team-mate. He had already fought off cancer once by that point, but months later he announced that he was in a second battle with the disease. It remains a huge loss to the game that a footballer as spectacular, a manager as unassuming and a character so loved was taken so young.