Chelsea icon Vialli was determined to banish stereotype of wealthy upbringing and proved to be charming and personable | The Sun

Chelsea icon Vialli was determined to banish stereotype of wealthy upbringing and proved to be charming and personable | The Sun

January 6, 2023

GIANLUCA VIALLI could have settled for a life of comfort.

Instead, he dived into the deep end, swimming with the sharks and fishes of football.

And while his flame has been doused prematurely, at the age of just 58, for those who watched him or got to know him in even the smallest of ways, the light will always burn.

With many of football’s greats, the back story is similar.

A way out of poverty, the street footballer from a humble background, who fought his way up from the ghetto.

But Vialli’s story, although completely different, was all about the same steadfast desire to prove himself.

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It was not poverty that drove Vialli to make it on the field. It was wealth. Or the desperation to show he was there despite his background, not because of it.

After all, when you grow up in a 60-room castle with a history going back over 600 years, you know that you have been handed a gilded life.

Vialli, always a slow, deliberate speaker, with a ready smile – and a fag in hand – was determined to live down the stereotype.

He did it the only way you can on the football pitch – through sheer hard work.

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Vialli was determined to banish stereotypes over his wealthy upbringing through hard workCredit: Reuters

Having joined his home town club Cremona – close to that Castello di Belgioioso where his millionaire father had established a home – at 16, he swiftly established himself as a potential star.

That was due to a work ethic that stood out, even from the start of his career, a player happy to sacrifice himself for the team.

Success followed. And in 1984, when he was signed by Sampdoria, it was to also prove the start of a lifelong friendship with strike partner Roberto Mancini.

The duo were inseparable and led Samp to the club’s greatest era, including the Serie A title in 1990-91, three Coppa Italia victories and the European Cup Final at Wembley in 1992, where only Ronald Koeman’s famed long-range free-kick could deny them the ultimate club triumph.

It was to prove the end of Vialli’s Sampdoria career, opening the way for another successful move to Juventus, ending in him finally getting his hands on “the Cup with the Big Ears” with a shoot-out win over holders Ajax in 1996.

Yet it was his next, shock, move, to Chelsea on a free transfer, that sealed Vialli’s reputation in England.

Signed as part of a renovation of the club by owner Ken Bates and his chief lieutenant Colin Hutchinson, Vialli was expected to be a key part of Ruud Gullit’s side.

It did not quite turn out that way, with Vialli often cutting a frustrated figure on the bench as Gullit preferred to pair another shock recruit from Italy – Gianfranco Zola – with Mark Hughes.

A TRUE BLUE

Of all the images that summed up the initial Chelsea incarnation of Vialli, it was his slalom run, on a snow-covered arctic circle pitch in Tromso, to score a terrific goal when many – including the manager who had damaged ankle tendons when kicking a rock that he thought was just a giant snowball – were barely able to stand.

But it was his ability to stay on his feet and negotiate the tricky internal politics of The Blues that saw Vialli elevated to the top job when Gullit was sacked after playing himself at centre-back in a League Cup semi-final first leg defeat at Arsenal.

Vialli has been among the chief agitators against Gullit’s aloofness although it was the club that approached him out of the blue to ask if he wanted the job.

Suddenly, Vialli was in the spotlight for different reasons.

Yet throughout, even when the heat was on, he remained charming, personable, utterly decent. Basically, despite feeling the strain at times, remaining himself.

His first pre-match dressing room pep talk, ahead of the second leg against Arsenal, was pure Vialli – handing each of his players a glass of bubbly. 

Within weeks of his appointment, Vialli had guided the team to a League Cup Final win over Middlesbrough, following that when Zola – whose relationship with his now-manager became strained – came off the bench to score the Cup Winners Cup winner against Stuttgart in Stockholm.

But despite landing the FA Cup in the last Final at the original Wembley in 2000, the ice was getting thinner – and even an artist like Vialli could not skate on it forever.

LUST FOR LIFE

Five games into the new season, he was gone. Vialli recalled: “I drove from the training ground to visit the board and when I arrived they asked to sit down. 

“I was thinking of how much money to ask for, one or two million pounds.

“Instead, Colin Hutchinson said, ‘You once told me that after three years you either have to change the manager or all the players. We decided to change the manager.’”

It was the effective end of Vialli’s top tier club career, with a brief spell in charge of Watford ending in a serious contract dispute.

But not the end of Vialli’s lust for life, his ready smile, his essential decency – and his willingness to chat with anybody who shared his love of the game.

Vialli stayed in London for the next two decades, loving the feel of his adopted home, working as a TV pundit and setting up a sports investment company before the drawn-out battle against pancreatic cancer began in 2017.

Initially, thanks to treatment at London’s Royal Marsden, Vialli seemed to be winning that battle, getting the all-clear in 2020, soon after joining up with Mancini as part of the Italy set-up.

In his book “Goals”, a series of accounts of “inspirational stories”, Vialli explained: “Life is made 10 per cent by what happens to us and 90 per cent by the way we react to it; if we change the way we look at things, things begin to change.”

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Yet the cancer returned, even more aggressively, bringing Vialli’s life to an end today.

Far too early. The sense of sadness will hang from Cremona to Stamford Bridge, and in many parts between. A good man, gone.

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