Serie A Heroes: Gianluca Vialli, an Ode to Unpredictability

To remember Gianluca Vialli is to talk about a player who was truly out of the box. Fuori dagli schemi, as we say in Italy. He was not the strongest of his generation, nor the most controversial. But he had a share of talent and rebelliousness big enough to make him a cult figure in the Belpaese of the 1980s.

A pop culture icon way before it would become normal for a football player’s life to be constantly under the spotlight, people just loved or hated him. They talked about him, not failing to notice that he was one of the very first male celebrity to wear an earring, which was a big bold move in the sanctimonious Italy of the 80s decade. But they could not encompass him.

Perhaps the word that best sums up the life and career of Gianluca Vialli is “unpredictable”. Vialli’s choices and experiences were always one step ahead, audacious, and innovative.

From his comfortable upbringing in a wealthy family, to the trophies collected domestically and abroad as an underdog. From being one of the very first Italians to cross the English Channel and land in the Premier League, to ultimately reinventing himself as the head of the Azzurri delegation, just in time to win the Euro 2020.

Every plot twist in his life was unexpected and unpredictable. Every time that something uniquely remarkable happened in the world of calcio, for some reason Gianluca Vialli was there, ready to win a fairy tale Scudetto at Sampdoria or to be the last Juventus captain to lift the Champions League trophy to date.

Even the beginning of the story was far from the narration of the average footballer cliché. This was not a tale of a player of humble origins who made his way to social redeem. Born in Cremona, Vialli came from a well-off family. The Viallis even possessed a castle in the Cremona countryside, where the young Luca spent his summertime as a kid.

He started playing football in the neighboring Pizzighettone, but it didn’t take much for him to be noticed by the bigger Cremonese, the club of the provincial seat. He debuted in Serie C1 at just 16 during the 1980/81 season and, in three years’ time, he helped the Grigiorossi clinch a historic promotion back to Serie A, the first in 54 years for the Tigers.

However, Vialli played his first top-flight game not for but against Cremonese. It was just a matter of time before such a promising striker would end on some bigger club tabs. It was Sampdoria to secure his services in the summer of 1984, reportedly having the upper hand over Juventus. The fate paired Sampdoria against his beloved Grigiorossi in the curtain raiser of the 1984/85 campaign…

And so, Luca found himself into a mid-table yet ambitious club. In Genoa, he forged a special bond with a boy of his same age, also playing as a striker. His name was Roberto Mancini. They were so different yet so well-paired. One having lived a sheltered life, the other coming from a working-class family. Mancini was the good-looking one, Vialli was more eccentric. And still, their partnership upfront worked terribly well. Perhaps oversimplifying, Vialli created the chances, Mancini scored.

They would become an inseparable duo. They called them I Gemelli del Goal (“The Goal-Scoring Twins”) and rightly so. Together with an unrepeatable generation of players, Vialli put his stamp on the last authentic miracle in Italian football, winning the Scudetto with the Blucerchiati in the 1990/91 season. In that magic campaign, he also was the Serie A capocannoniere with 19 goals.

Sampdoria also reaped success in Europe. They won the Cup Winners Cup in 1990 (where Vialli was the top scorer), topping Anderlecht in the Final, then fell at the last hurdle, inches away from clinching the most important trophy, two years later. The Doria reached the last act of the 1991/92 Champions League, humiliating the defending champions of Crvena Zvezda in the process.

They lost to Barcelona at Wembley during extra times. Vialli was blamed for missing several chances that perhaps could have written yet another page in Sampdoria’s history books. It remained his bigger regret, only partially eased by the Azzurri’s triumph at Euro 2020 in the same stadium.

After eight seasons as a Blucerchiato and with the Wembley wound still fresh, the time was ready for a new adventure. Vialli had resisted Madama’s courting for many years, but he finally accepted the challenge and moved to Juventus.

Those were bittersweet years for him. He struggled for form, picked up many injuries and endured a couple of tormented seasons. It took Marcello Lippi’s hand to bring him back in shape and make him the cornerstone of a frontline that also featured Alessandro Del Piero and Fabrizio Ravanelli, on top of Roberto Baggio who incredibly fell behind in the pecking order. Under the helm of the future World Cup winner, Vialli became Vialli again and goals started to flow in.

We choose two remember two, both happening in the space a few weeks in 1994: a spectacular bicycle kick against his beloved Cremonese on October 23, and a brace in three minutes against Fiorentina on December 4 that helped his side bounce back from a 0-2 gap in a roaring Delle Alpi Stadium, before Alex Del Piero would complete the epic comeback.

That Champions League that he had missed at Sampdoria came in his hands with the Bianconeri. Vialli scored two goals in the competition, both against Nantes in the Semi Finals, and lifted the trophy as a captain, the last time a Juventus man would do so to present day.

Then, another career twist, perhaps the most shocking one. It was really unusual for Italian players to go playing abroad back in the days. But Vialli was among the first to understand that the Premier League was set to become the real deal in football and answered the call from the Chelsea of the pre-Abramovich era.

He did his job well, despite a less-than-idyllic relationship with his coach Ruud Gullit. When the Dutchman left, he took his place, serving the double role of player and manager. Again, an unusual choice. He led the club to winning the Cup Winners Cup and the subsequent European Supercup against Real Madrid.

He closed his career as a footballer at Stamford Bridge.

That was the player Vialli. The man was a no less intriguing character. He was not perfect and didn’t want to be, but he was so normal and genuine in his spontaneity. Before age and experience turned him into a wise and even-tempered individual, there were days in which Vialli just totally lost it.

The forgotten tales of calcio narrate of a glorious post-match fist fight with Luxembourg defender Carlo Weis, whom Vialli knocked out with two punches. It happened in 1988.

Another epic tale is about his verbal clash with manager Carletto Mazzone during a Cagliari vs Sampdoria matchup in 1992. The two had to be separated before they would put words into action as Vialli reportedly said something not exactly nice to the veteran coach, who urged him to pay respect to an older person.

Even his career with the Italian selection was affected by some random acts of football madness, like when he lost a key callup for disciplinary reasons after elbowing opponent Luigi Apolloni in an insignificant Coppa Italia matchup.

Indeed, his whole experience with the Azzurri was see-sawing. At the Euro 1988, he scored a winner against Spain in the Group Stage but became the scapegoat following Italy’s 0-2 loss to USSR in the Semi Finals due to the many scoring chances he missed.

The 1990 World Cup was supposed to be his tournament, but Luca somehow failed to make an impact. He was a starter in the first two games but only collected one assist. A missed penalty against the U.S.A. relegated him to the bench as he was replaced with Roberto Baggio by popular demand.

He came back to the starting lineup in the infamous Semi Final against Argentina, but it didn’t help. In the following years, Vialli slowed faded down in the pecking order and the end of his experience in Azzurro was lackluster.

Then again, the umpteenth surprising move. He embraced the Nazionale colors, 27 years after his last cap, in the form of delegation chief. The Azzurri manager Roberto Mancini, his friend of a lifetime, wanted him next to him to raise Italy back from the shame of a failed World Cup qualification.

He was right, as Gianluca Vialli played a vital role in nurturing a team spirit that was Italy’s secret weapon during the triumphal Euro 2020 campaign, culminating with their penalty win over England at Wembley.

Perhaps it could not have been any different. Gianluca had been wanting to break the Wembley curse since that infamous May 11, 1992, Champions League Final at the Home of Football. He just made in time to take his revenge, helping Italy conquer the Euro trophy on the same turf.

That tender, liberating hug with his lifetime friend Mancini after the penalty shootout settled everything up and closed the last open loop in his football life.

You can rest now, Luca. The journey is over. And, what a hell of a ride that was.