Gianluca Vialli: A nimble-footed artist, an affable prankster and a billionaire everyman

Barely a week after football lost a bit of its soul with the passing of Pele, it lost some of its colour and style when Gianluca Vialli lost his long battle with pancreatic cancer. He had defeated his “fellow voyager” – to quote from an interview he gave to The Guardian four years ago – twice, but the third went futile. He had just one wish, he said in that interview: whether he outlived cancer or cancer outlived him, he has won and lost several on the field, he would do so with a smile on his face.

He probably would have left with a broad smile on his face—all his photographs feature that beatific, warm smile on his face—but he left his friends, of which he had several, and the football fraternity drowned in tears. It’s a measure of the man that, at his hour of departure, he is remembered for the person he was and less the footballer he had been. Little doubt that he was one of the finest forwards of his time, a nimble-footed artiste with an oeuvre of audacious skills.

Rummage through the grainy reels of his Sampordia-Juventus prime, you would unearth pure footballing gold. The bicycle kicks, the back heels and chips, a sliding header off the turf against Bari (a goal most unusual), the dummies, volleys and curlers, he had both exceptional technique and impeccable vision. He masterminded the second most romantic fairy-tale script (after Diego Maradona’s Napoli heist) in Serie A when he inspired Sampordia to the lone scudetto in their history (he netted 19 goals in 26 games). Years later, he shepherded Juventus to Champions League glory in 1996; then relocated to Chelsea, brought “sexy football” to London, and made them genuine contenders for the first time in the Premier League era. A haul of 259 club goals in the era of backline thuggery was no simple feat. Later, he reunited with Roberto Mancini, his best friend, to help Italy win the European Championship last year. In some ways, it was a salvation for both, for their international career never scaled the lofty heights that befitted their staggering talents.

But beyond his superlative skills, he was endeared to the masses because of his character. Sampordia’s tribute perfectly captured the man he was, put out as beautifully as he played the game: “We won’t forget your 141 goals, your overhead kicks, your cashmere shirts, your earring, your platinum blonde hair, your Ultras bomber jacket. You gave us so much, we gave you so much: yes, it was love, reciprocal, infinite. A love that will not die today with you. We will continue to love and adore you.”

Pure theatre

Vialli was a man born for the gallery, in a genuine spontaneous way. His goal celebrations were spectacular. Some of those were pure theatre. He would flip and somersault, dance and roll on the ground. The night Sampordia won the title, he walked around the stadium in just his underpants. But whatever he did, there seemed infinite grace and dignity. He carried off the shaved head with as much elegance as his fuzzy mop.

Wherever he went, he made friends. His Sampordia teammate Graeme Souness, whose shoes he once filled with shaving foam, would later recollect. “If you were in his company for 10 or 15 minutes, even once, I think you’d remember him for the rest of your life. He was just a special person.”

Son of an entrepreneur billionaire, who lived in a 60-room 15th-century castle in Cremona, he flaunted none of his elite forebears. “I thought a billionaire’s son would be aloof and reserved. He was just the opposite, he was an everyman, humble and warm,” Mancini, with whom he hit off the ground as well and sneaked to night outs, once recollected. On the contrary, he was extroverted and an unchallenged prankster—he once put pepper spray in the pants of his teammates, put Parmesan cheese in the shoes of a manager and uncorked champagne in the dressing room before an FA Cup match, in his managerial days with Chelsea. He was philanthropic too. There is a lovely story about him inviting Chelsea’s then-liaison officer Gary Staker to a dinner. After the dinner, though, Staker could not find his old car in the parking space. Instead, he found a brand-new BMW. Turned out that it was Vialli’s gift.

Ability to diffuse nerves

So when the tension was uneasily simmering in the build-up to the Euros, in the backdrop of Italy not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Mancini knew whom to bring to the team to defuse the nerves. Italy would benefit from his experience and tactical sharpness, but more than anything else, he wanted Vialli to suck out the nerves and fears in the dressing room with his characteristic wit and humour. He always had a great sense of perspective about the game. He once said: “Don’t believe anyone who tells you football is a war. It’s a sport, a game, and you play games with your mates.”

Throughout the tournament that ended in Italy’s triumph, he was spotted with a radiant smile and bright eyes, dressed elegantly in his blazer, beard trimmed slickly. He started a funny tradition too. Before Italy’s opening game, he was late for the bus and it nearly departed without him. He would come running and manage to stop the bus just in time. Italy won the match and Vialli suggested that he would intentionally turn up late for the match. It did work too.

But the night Italy lifted the Cup, he broke down in the arms of his friend, brother, his goal twin, Mancini. Tears welled down the face of Mancini too in what was the final act of the goal twins. “Working with Roberto and the staff is emotional. He has said that we are becoming old but, for me, working here together will keep us all young,” he would say.

Soon cancer would come back to haunt Vialli again. And this time, he lost the battle, but with a stoic smile, though leaving his friends in uncontrollable grief and imperishable memories that would bring a smile on their faces and a drop of tear in their eyes.

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