In 1998, just as we did last weekend, the Blues left Anfield with a well-earned 1-1 draw, in a game best remembered for Pierluigi Casiraghi’s solitary Chelsea goal and Phil Babb’s woodwork-related accident. Casiraghi’s Stamford Bridge career proved all too brief, however, and in this long read we tell his Chelsea story…
Pierluigi Casiraghi latched onto a beautifully weighted pass from Roberto Di Matteo and rounded David James in front of the Anfield Road End, before rolling the ball into the empty net from a tight angle. While Liverpool defender Phil Babb collided painfully with the post in a vain attempt at a clearance, Chelsea’s new centre-forward ran straight into the waiting embrace of the away supporters at that end. It was his first goal in Chelsea blue, in his 10th appearance. The wait was over and the Italian international was off the mark. It was supposed to be the first of many.
‘It was one of the best things that I did in my life,’ Casiraghi said of that wild celebration in amongst the travelling Blues fans.
‘In Italy, if you score they have an athletics track around the pitch, or the fans are not close to the players to react to them. So it was a fantastic thing to go directly to the fans to celebrate.’
Casiraghi had scored a brace at Anfield two years previously, playing for Italy at Euro 96, and had been hoping it would prove to be his lucky ground after a frustrating start for Chelsea in the opening weeks of the 1998/99 campaign.
The Italian was brought in for a record transfer fee of £5.4 million, essentially to replace the departing Mark Hughes. We were building a team capable of challenging for the Premier League title and there was a vacancy for a strong, smart striker who could hold the ball up, finish well and open up space for the singularly talented Gianfranco Zola. Not only did Casiraghi fit that description, but he also added to the strong Italian flavour of the Chelsea squad at that time.
‘The manager was [Gianluca] Vialli and I had played with him for Juventus and the Italian national team, so he knew me very well,’ he recalled in an interview for the Chelsea programme.
‘He spoke with me maybe in May ’98 to ask me if there was a possibility that I would come to England. It was a dream for me because I had loved English football for a long time. When I was young, I saw a lot of First Division matches on television.
'After the warm-up I said I was okay and I wanted to play because it was an important match.’
— Pierluigi Casiraghi
‘I met Colin Hutchinson after that, in Parma, after a match with the Italian national team and I said yes, first because it was a dream for me to play in England, but also because there were a few Italians at Chelsea.
‘At that time the most important teams were Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Chelsea was one of the new clubs that had a lot of foreign players and this was one of the things that I liked. I remember in those days there were a lot of flags flying over the stadium, maybe 10, 11 different flags, and I think they were one of the first clubs in England with a lot of foreign players.’
Yet Casiraghi had been identified because his qualities were seen to be typically British, or at least suited to the Premier League. The comparisons with Hughes weren’t long in coming, but he didn’t mind that – if anything, it was a compliment.
‘First of all, Mark Hughes was one of the best players in England,’ he told us 20 years on from his move to west London. ‘I liked him so much because we were similar, physically and technically.
‘I loved to fight in every match, in every situation, for every ball. I loved to play 100 per cent for 90 minutes, to fight in the box for headers. Maybe these days it’s different, but 20 years ago football was physically very strong so all the clubs needed a strong physical player.
‘So this is the reason that I could play with Gianfranco. He is a different player, very talented technically, so if you have two strikers – one who is a talented player and one who is physical – then generally this is a good partnership. This is the reason why, generally, I played up front with Gianfranco and, earlier in my career, I played up front with Roberto Baggio and Beppe Signori as well.’
His glamorous career was the other reason Casiraghi was such an exciting signing. He was 29 when he arrived at Stamford Bridge and had previously played for Juventus, Lazio and the Italian national team at a time when only the best forwards in world football could hold down a place in any of those teams.
That was the level at which Chelsea now saw itself as a club. We had brought in some of the best talent in Europe – much of it from Italy – over the past two or three years and were pressing hard to take the next leap forwards, to the league title and the Champions League. Casiraghi was to be part of a five-man attacking rotation that would be the envy of England.
He and Zola would be supplemented by the thrilling winger Brian Laudrup, signed on a free transfer from Rangers, where he had been the star of the Scottish Premiership. Then there was Tore Andre Flo, who had impressed during his first season at the Bridge before shining at the 1998 World Cup in France. Finally, Vialli himself was still registered as player-manager. With midfield support from goal-hungry Gus Poyet and pass master Di Matteo, plus the width provided by attacking full-backs like Graeme Le Saux and Dan Petrescu, the possibilities were endless. Casiraghi was supposed to be the still, solid presence that held it together.
He hadn’t got off to the quickest of starts, but we still had hope, and his goal at Anfield had helped keep the dream alive. Then it happened. West Ham. Upton Park. The injury.
When we interviewed him, Casiraghi had been chatting away happily until we brought it up, but there was a deep intake of breath on the other end of the phone as he composed himself to recount the day his career was ended. He knew the question was coming, but the emotion of the moment seemed close to the surface even two decades on.
‘I remember that just before the match I had a fever – not too much but my temperature was 38 degrees,’ he explained. ‘So I spoke with Luca and we decided that I would do the warm-up and then we would see if I would play. After the warm-up I said I was okay and I wanted to play because it was an important match.’
He would probably never have remembered that conversation had it not turned out to be a sliding doors moment for him.
‘After 20 minutes, I clashed with Hislop, their goalkeeper, and...yeah.’
He trailed off and a brief silence that felt like an age followed.
‘But, you know, this is football, and I was unlucky. It can happen. It can happen.’
Twenty minutes of the game had passed when Casiraghi threw himself at a near-post cross, as he had been doing throughout his career, but Shaka Hislop landed hard on Casiraghi’s outstretched leg, leaving him writhing helplessly on the pitch, clutching at the air in agony while his team-mates rallied around, frantically beckoning the stretcher bearers onto the pitch. They knew immediately, instinctively, that it was serious. At that moment he wasn’t thinking beyond the pain – he didn’t consider that it would be his last game as a professional footballer.
‘I didn’t know in that moment, but afterwards I had a lot of surgery in London and in the first two weeks I had a lot of problems. I realised, I think, after one month that it was very, very difficult to come back because the injury was so bad.
‘I had a long rehabilitation because I had around 10, 11 surgeries and some of them were very, very long operations, both in London and Italy. It was not very easy. Physically and mentally it was very difficult for me, but mentally I’m strong and I wanted to come back and play because football is my passion. Football was my job and it was my dream to play in England, so I fought a lot to come back. Even if there was a one per cent possibility, I wanted to try to come back – I think you have to.
‘The injury was very strange because I broke the ACL and the PCL – the cruciate ligaments – but I also broke the nerves, and this was one of the worst things because if you break the nerves it’s very difficult to reattach everything. Then after the first or second surgery I had complications with the other leg, so it was very complicated.
‘All the staff, all the physios, all my team-mates were very close to me after my injury and that was very important to me.’
Eventually, Casiraghi had to accept that his playing days were over. His team-mates missed him. He’d only been at the club a short space of time, but they were keen to visit him in hospital and there was a target-man-shaped hole in the frontline. We finished third that season, but within touching distance – four points – of top spot. Who knows whether his contribution would have been enough to tip the scales in our favour. Zola still wonders to this day.
‘I’ve been thinking a lot that we probably would have deserved that year,’ he said in a recent interview. ‘We certainly missed Casiraghi. He was a player, in my opinion, who in our economy of our game was very important. He may have been my Mark Hughes. I can't complain because I played with Tore Andre Flo, another fantastic player with whom I had a great understanding on and off the pitch, but many games for the type of game they were, Gigi would have helped a lot.’
Jody Morris was struck by the strength of character Casiraghi showed during that period. In a programme interview four years ago he was asked to identify an occasion when he’d seen a team-mate demonstrate courage. He thought back to Gigi.
‘He was a top man and I loved him as a team-mate,’ said Morris. ‘He didn’t speak much English but he was an infectious character. I was just struck by how positive he still was after suffering such a bad injury.’
In the summer of 2018, they were all reunited for a Chelsea Legends game at Stamford Bridge and Casiraghi ran out onto the pitch in front of our fans again. It was a redemptive moment and the thousands in attendance gave him a standing ovation. They recognised what it signified.
‘It was 20 years since I had played on that pitch, so it was exciting,’ he said. ‘It was nice to meet my team-mates, like Graeme Le Saux, Dennis Wise, Tore, Baba, Jody Morris again too. There were a lot of fans and if you come back to play on that pitch, with 30,000 people watching, it is a very, very, very nice experience. It was a fantastic night for me.’
From now on, he can remember his last game in a Chelsea shirt and smile.
A version of this article first appeared in the Chelsea programme last season. To subscribe for the current campaign and get each programme delivered to your door, click here.