Chelsea’s participation in tomorrow’s Euro 2020 final between England and Italy stretches beyond the five Blues who could feature on the field.
Former Chelsea player-manager Gianluca Vialli is the head of Italy’s team delegation, performing a key role among the players, coaches and support staff for the Azzurri.
To mark the presence of our former number nine at Wembley tonight, we have trawled the archives to reminisce and bring you nine key facts about the 57-year-old that you may not have heard before…
The son of a self-made millionaire, Vialli was born in the Lombardy region of northern Italy and was brought up with his four siblings in the 60-room Castello di Belgioioso in Cremona.
It was from the 14th-century castle that he would regularly make the 90-minute round trip to local amateur side AS Pizzighettone at the start of his football journey, before moving to Serie C side Cremonese and making his debut at just 16.
Maiden European adventures
Vialli’s close relationship with Roberto Mancini, the current Italy manager, was struck up in the Azzurri’s Under-21 team, with the latter reportedly influential in convincing his fellow striker to join him at Sampdoria. The pair soon became known as the ‘goal twins’ as they brought glory to the Genoa club in the form of three Coppa Italias, the Cup Winners’ Cup and a first Serie A title.
The scudetto success provided Sampdoria with the chance to play in the European Cup for the first time, a feat Vialli repeated as Chelsea manager when taking the Blues on our maiden adventure in the competition in 1999. On both occasions, his team went further than expected – Sampdoria all the way to the final, Chelsea to the last eight – before being beaten by Barcelona.
After unquestionable success at Sampdoria, Vialli was lured to Juventus weeks after the European Cup final defeat, the move breaking the world record transfer fee at the time at £12m. He won four major honours in four years in Turin, including that elusive Champions League title, but remarkably left for London on a free transfer in the summer of 1996.
‘The Bosman rule made your life as a professional footballer so much easier,’ he later reflected in Blue Day, a book celebrating our 1997 FA Cup triumph. ‘No transaction involved, your current club didn’t even have to speak to anyone, it was just you and the club you wanted to join. It was a major opportunity for a guy like me who wanted to play away from Italy.’
The Italian’s quick adaptation to life in London was helped by his grasp of the language and his penchant for English idioms certainly didn’t go unnoticed. In his first interview with the club’s matchday programme, he claimed he made the transfer after ‘Chelsea twisted my arm’, and other football phrases such as ‘game of two halves’ and ‘fit as a fiddle’ soon followed.
However, one famous misstep came during a press conference when Vialli remarked ‘when the fish are down’ to illustrate a difficult moment. ‘In Italy we say fiches, which is the French way of saying chips,’ he explained. ‘But obviously it sounds like fish. So I used this word by mistake, everybody laughed but it was fine – as long as I got my message across.’
Chelsea’s biggest ever away win in the top flight, since matched at Wigan Athletic in 2010, came at the start of the 1997/98 campaign, and was also a moment of personal triumph for Vialli.
The unsettled striker was making his first appearance of the season, preferred up front to Mark Hughes, and took centre stage by scoring four goals in a game for the first time in his illustrious career. Among the haul was a 30-minute hat-trick as Barnsley were dismantled at Oakwell.
After the game, manager Ruud Gullit pinpointed Vialli’s recent change in diet. ‘He looks fitter and sharper,’ said the Dutchman. ‘And he’s given up smoking!’
Following Gullit’s abrupt departure as Blues boss in February 1998, Vialli took the player-manager reins at Stamford Bridge and faced a tricky early task of overturning a 2-1 first-leg deficit in a League Cup semi-final against Arsenal.
As a means of settling the nerves and setting the tone for what was to come during his two-and-a-half year spell in charge, the suave Italian handed round glasses of champagne to his players in the dressing room prior to kick-off. The bubbles worked a treat and goals from Hughes, Roberto Di Matteo and Dan Petrescu meant Vialli had qualified for a Wembley cup final in his very first game in management.
Having started himself in the game, Vialli left the field with 10 minutes remaining to a standing ovation. Afterwards, he commented: ‘I hope I can get some sleep now. I hope I can get used to this or I will have a heart attack!’
Once a Blue
Vialli’s preference to play in England and experience life in London naturally drew him to Chelsea, with the club gaining popularity throughout Europe in the mid-1990s due to the influx of European talent to SW6. Yet the striker’s history with the Blues went back further than his signing in 1996.
One of his childhood friends had gifted him a Chelsea scarf following a trip to England, introducing him to the club for the first time. A decade later and now a keen collector of football shirts, another friend returned from London with a Chelsea bomber jacket, which Vialli promptly began wearing to Sampdoria training.
Over 20 years after leaving the club, he remains close to the Chelsea community. He still lives in SW6 with his wife and two teenage daughters, spending lockdown in the capital last year.
During treatment for pancreatic cancer in 2017, he was admitted to the local Royal Marsden, which he has since described as a ‘fantastic hospital.’ Following two separate nine-month courses of chemotherapy, the former striker was declared cancer-free in December 2019.
Best of the rest
Much of Vialli’s enduring popularity with the Chelsea fanbase surrounds the style and class he brought to the club, both as a player and manager, but it is also true that he remains the second most successful manager in our history.
The League Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and Super Cup made up a trio of trophies brought back to the Bridge in 1998, followed by the FA Cup two years later, taking his collection of major honours as boss to four. Only Jose Mourinho with seven can better that haul.
Sampdoria’s run to the European Cup final in 1991/92 was remarkable, particularly given the fact it was the club’s first experience of the competition, yet the dream ended in heartbreak as they were beaten by Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona and an extra-time free-kick from Ronald Koeman.
The venue was Wembley and it is football’s fascination with a splendid story arc that sees Vialli and Mancini return to the stadium for the Euro 2020 final. Both men have experienced glory there since 1992, Vialli winning the last FA Cup final at the old Wembley and Mancini triumphing in the same competition with Manchester City, but there is a feeling of unfinished business as a duo and on the international stage.
Vialli was named in the team of the tournament at Euro 88 but was hampered by injury two years later at the 1990 World Cup on home soil, failing to score as Italy went out in the semi-finals. Mancini was in the squad for that tournament but didn’t feature. Both men will be hoping to upset the locals in north London tomorrow.