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Gianluca Vialli: Luca who's talking
He’s a legend of the Italian game. A man who gave his all for club and country in a glittering career. Calcio Italia talks to Gianluca Vialli about his past, present and future

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Gianluca Vialli is the ultimate football leader. He was a top figure as a player, then as a Coach and now as a TV pundit, proudly working for Sky Italia. He has gone through the last 20 seasons starting as a promising youngster in his hometown of Cremona and ending up as one of the first Serie A stars to move to the Premiership. For all of a week, before Gianluigi Lentini’s £13m switch from Torino to Milan, he was even the world’s most expensive player following Juventus’ £12m swoop.

He has always learnt something from his Coaches – a sort of adopted son for Azeglio Vicini, the right arm of Vujadin Boskov and the sword in the hands of the soldier Marcello Lippi. He had some tactical problems with Giovanni Trapattoni, who played him in a strange midfield role for a month during his Juve days, and he did not get along with Arrigo Sacchi on a personal level. There are rumours Vialli was offered a coaching job at Parma by the very man who did not include him in the 1994 World Cup squad. Gianluca, of course, does not confirm this.

He prefers to tell Calcio Italia about his incredible rise through the youth ranks at Cremonese, all the way from a 12-year-old in the Allievi squad to his Serie B debut. “It was at Sambenedettese, whose ‘keeper was Walter Zenga. In the second leg of the tournament in Cremona, I scored a great goal past him thanks to a lob,” explains Vialli. Only three seasons with the Grigiorossi were needed to make Vialli the main target for legendary Sampdoria owner Paolo Mantovani. He signed Luca and another promising Italian talent, a certain Roberto Mancini.

But a regular place in the Blucerchiati front line was reserved for Trevor Francis, who won the European Cup with Nottingham Forest. Vialli then turned to a right wing role and he also received an Under-21 call-up, despite Roberto Donadoni playing in the same position. Enzo Bearzot capped him at senior level for the 1986 World Cup as a substitute for Italian legend Bruno Conti, but Vialli was destined to make Azzurri history as a Goleador.

Italia ’90 should’ve been the peak of his career, but Luca was quite unlucky. He got injured in the USA match and replaced by Roberto Baggio, who made an incredible impact with Totò Schillaci. Every football fan in the peninsula wanted the pair in the starting XI for the semi-final against Argentina, but Vialli recovered and his old friend Vicini fielded him instead of the Divin Codino. “After the South Americans beat us on penalties, I became the scapegoat,” he says. “Actually, I don’t think I made any major mistakes in that game, but people blamed me for stealing Baggio’s place. I think Vicini decided with his heart, rather than with his mind, but that’s the way it goes.

“Of course, missing the chance to lift the trophy was one of the two major disappointments in my career. The other one is the European Cup Final at Wembley when Sampdoria lost to Barcelona. I must admit in that game I wasted three very easy opportunities to score. It was in part my fault, but we also paid for a lack of strength in depth. We were very tired in the final part of the season and we should have rested somebody in the domestic campaign.”

Vialli also won a number of great honours at Marassi, including the only Scudetto in the club’s history and the Cup-Winners Cup. “That was an incredible team,” he adds. “We were all great players and very good friends. We won that European trophy 2-0 during extra time against Anderlecht in Gothenburg.”
That Final also included a name that was set to become familiar. “Eidur Gudjohnsen’s father was in the Belgian team and we swapped shirts at the end of the match…or so his son told me. When I signed him for Chelsea he approached me with that odd anecdote. Unfortunately, I did not remember his Dad, because all my football memorabilia is locked in my parents’ house in Cremona.”

In 1992, after refusing offers from Milan, Vialli left Samp to join Juve. The Bianconeri won the UEFA Cup and Baggio was crowned the Ballon d’Or by France Football. But the transition was surprisingly tough, even if the trouble with Vialli in Turin was all about tactics. “Trapattoni had many forwards to choose from, so someone had to move back to the midfield zone, and I did it. I used to play in front of the defence, as a playmaker. Some critics said I reminded them of the great Alfredo Di Stefano. Giampiero Boniperti himself confessed I was playing like him in his glory days.

“The real problem was that I had two injuries and I was very disappointed. I was thinking about a Samp return when Lippi took over and asked me to stay. I was happy, because I could not leave Turin without achieving something important. We won everything - the Scudetto, Champions League and Coppa Italia!”

In the summer of 1996, Vialli opted for a new challenge and signed for Chelsea. “It was about time to experience football abroad. I was looking forward to the move to London, but Glenn Hoddle did not want me, because he relied on Mark Hughes. I had decided to switch to Glasgow Rangers when Hoddle was appointed England manager and Ruud Gullit took over at Stamford Bridge. He called me up and I was happy, even if it was really hard for me at first. Maybe, on a subconscious level, I was thinking that moving from Juventus to Chelsea was a step down in my career, as the Blues were not such a dominant force as they are today. Gullit was disappointed with me – and he was partly right - but he also made some mistakes while dealing with the matter.”

So Chelsea dropped the Dutch boss and Luca took over as player-manager, capturing the Cup-Winners Cup in Stockholm – “I always seem to win trophies in Sweden!” – the FA Cup and the Charity Shield. In the following season, one wracked with financial difficulties, he was surprisingly sacked. “There were a couple of players I had already decided to release, including Frank Leboeuf and Dan Petrescu, but the club thought it better just to change the Coach.”

Vialli signed for Watford and a move to the First Division was quite a surprising choice. “I know, everybody still asks me about it,” he concedes. “I fancied the idea of having full powers in a very ambitious club and trying to steer them back to the Premier League. Unfortunately, financial problems came through and they could not afford my staff wages anymore.”

That was Vialli’s last coaching role, despite rumours about recent offers from Fiorentina and Parma. But in order to see Luca drop his job at Sky and get back into the thick of it, he must receive a call from one of Europe’s giants. “I am absolutely in no hurry. Only a mega offer can make me change my mind, because I’m really passionate about my current job. It’s very nice to work for the football fans, to change their mentality and their approach to the game. I feel this is my mission with Sky, as it really has cultural aspects involved.

“The day I return to coaching, I hope it’s in Italy, but then I would gladly move again to the Premiership. I want to end my career in England and I love London. It’s the birthplace of my wife and my daughter, definitely the city where I’ll keep living after football.”

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Interviewed: February 2006

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