Gianluca Vialli: The Greatest Champions

6 min read
Cover Image for Gianluca Vialli: The Greatest Champions
Chris McMenamy
Chris McMenamy

In the wake of the terrible news of Gianluca Vialli’s passing, I thought I’d learn a bit more about his career before he moved to England. He won the scudetto with Juventus. OK, who hasn’t? Lifted the Champions League, as well. Fair enough, that’s impressive. Quite the CV for the late, great Luca. Trophies spilling out the sides, but one stands out in particular. A scudetto with Sampdoria.

As a 90s baby, my earliest memories of calcio are the late days of Football Italia, Ancelotti’s Milan and Francesco Totti’s uncomfortably tight Kappa jerseys. My knowledge of Sampdoria was limited to a friend owning one of those iconic jerseys and a bizarre Football Manager love-in with Vitali Kutuzov.

I spent some time reading about Vujadin Boškov’s Sampdoria team and was immediately gripped. Winning what was, at the time, the best league in the world was automatically an incredible achievement, but when you’re not Juventus or a Milan club (or have Diego Maradona), it was considered an almost insurmountable task. In fact, only twice in the last thirty years has the title been won by someone other than the northern powerhouses, when the two Rome clubs won a title each in 2000 and 2001.

Before that, Hellas Verona shocked the world by winning the league in 1985, despite winning only half their games. At that time, Sampdoria were trending upward under the caring ownership of Paolo Mantovani, a man who approached football like a fan and treated his players and staff like their favourite uncle. However, his affable demeanour was not to be confused with a lack of ambition. He was convinced a scudetto winning side could be built in the blue half of Genoa.

Having guided Sampdoria back to Serie A in 1982 before their first major trophy, a Coppa Italia triumph three years later, he appointed a former Real Madrid manager who’d just taken Ascoli to Serie A, Vujadin Boškov of Yugoslavia. A history professor, he was an intelligent man who loved football, but saw it as a simple sport and often questioned why football coaches over-complicated the beautiful game. “Football is football,” he quipped to the Spanish media while in Madrid, something that rings true even in the age of grey haired men drawing lines on a screen at half-time.

This great Samp side was built over several years by Mantovani and sporting director Paul Borea, whose consistently intelligent recruitment kept the club on an upward trajectory throughout the early years of its Serie A return, but also provided the players that would prove the core of the scudetto winning side. Consistency bred through retention of key players built a team chemistry upon which Boškov thrived. Mannini, Pagliuca, Vierchowod, Toninho, Pari, as well as The Goal Twins (Mancini and Vialli), had all been at the club for at least three years prior to the 1990-91 season.

Borea augmented the squad in the years leading up to the scudetto win with the creative and experienced Giuseppe Dossena and defensive midfielder Srečko Katanec, both tailored to Boškov’s system that required hard working, determined players. Another key player in Attilio Lombardo, a dangerous winger who could also play centrally, helped give the squad greater balance.

Several top six finishes and consecutive Coppa Italia wins in 1988 and 1989 lead to a European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph over Anderlecht in 1990, a year after they’d lost to Barcelona in the final of the same competition. While they weren’t considered among the favourites for 1990-91’s Serie A, they were hardly a bolt from the blue, pardon the pun. This side’s success had been building to a crescendo since 1982 and Boškov’s careful, simple stewardship had built a solid unit with flair and grit in equal measure. Mantovani was convinced they had built a side capable of winning the scudetto after the Cup Winners’ Cup win, claiming: “Our enemies are not in Genoa, but in Florence, Milan and Turin.”

An early season unbeaten run that included a win over Milan at San Siro put Sampdoria top of the league after eleven games, but losses against Lecce and Torino saw them drop to fifth as the season approached halfway. That loss at Lecce, in their sixteenth game, would be their last of the season. A 1-0 win against Fiorentina in early February sent Sampdoria top of the league, where they would remain for the final fifteen games, unbeaten and unassailable.

A 2-0 win over Arrigo Sacchi’s incredible Milan side in March was crucial, just when some in the media questioned if they might crumble under the pressure. The Goal Twins, whose combined 31 goals blasted Samp to the title, scored one each that day. Roberto Mancini, at the club since the age of 17, finished Milan off after Gianluca Vialli’s penalty, one of 19 goals that earned him Serie A top scorer.

Vialli scored seven more goals in the final ten games, including the final goal in the 3-0 win that sealed the title on 19 May 1991. Lecce were put to the sword inside half an hour and the blucerchiati could party. The magnitude of this scudetto is evidenced in the dominance of the big three in the three decades following it, as well as defeating a Milan side that won several European Cups and scudetti.

Vialli stuck around for another season as Sampdoria reached the European Cup final against Barcelona at Wembley, only to lose to a Ronald Koeman extra time winner. He departed for Juventus that summer, with Pari and Toninho also leaving. Boškov left and took over at Roma, coaching a young Francesco Totti. Samp would win Coppa Italia again in 1994, but their golden age had passed..

Vialli’s footballing legacy is Sampdoria, European glory with Juventus and a successful career as player and manager at Chelsea. Ask most people under 35 about Sampdoria winning a scudetto and they’d likely wonder if you had a fever, certainly given their recent decline. Serie A could do with another ‘shock’ like it. Atalanta certainly flirted with the idea in recent years and Napoli may well do it this year, but the north’s vaunted clubs are never far away.

The great Vialli-Mancini partnership is another rarity in modern football, as fewer elite teams have two attackers, although I am a sucker for a good 3-5-2 with a dynamic duo wreaking havoc up top. Although his playing career was a bit before my time, I always saw Vialli as that guy who constantly seemed to be lovely, charismatic and around football, most recently as part of that suave band of Azzurri staff who won the Euros. Impossibly cool and well dressed in the Bearzot inspired blazer, until he lost his composure at the final whistle like all true football fans, it now feels like an appropriate ending to a magnificent life in football for him.

RIP Gianluca Vialli

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