‘You win or you learn’: The joyous career of Italian striker Gianluca Vialli

A prolific goal scorer, Vialli’s accuracy, and power were sublime with both feet, which made him a dominating force to be reckoned with

Sajid Khan
Published : 10 Jan 2023, 02:27 PM
Updated : 11 Jan 2023, 12:07 PM

Gianluca Vialli, the great Italian striker, passed away at age 58 on Friday, Jan 8.

On Sunday, Sampdoria hosted Napoli. Luciano Spalletti’s visiting side, currently leading the Serie A title race, were comfortable throughout. They scored twice and left with 3 points. The match ended, but the Sampdoria fans did not leave the stands. Instead, they sang:

“Luca Vialli, Luca Vialli, Luca Vialli alé alé, we love you and we adore you, you are better than Pelé.”

For the older fans, it was a familiar chant. The Genoan club looks set for relegation from Serie A this year, but there was one shining moment in their history when they were on top. And the year they won the Scudetto on their jerseys, Gianluca Vialli was their top goalscorer.

Of course, he hadn’t won it alone. He was one half of the I Gemelli del Gol – the Goal Twins – alongside Roberto Mancini.

"We met at 16 years old and never left each other's side," Mancini told the BBC.

"Italy's youth and senior teams, Samp, the highs, the lows, the victories and the defeats."

They played at Sampdoria for eight years. Alongside the Serie A title, they added three Coppa Italia trophies and the 1990 European Cup Winners’ Cup to the club’s history.

But they missed out on the 1992 European Cup, losing to Barcelona at Wembley in extra time.  

“We’d always won at Wembley,” Mancini sighed during a 2021 interview with The Athletic about their friendship.

“There’s always a first time,” Vialli consoled him. “You either win or you learn, right? You never lose. Think about the good times.”

Vialli had many good times throughout his career – with Sampdoria, then Juventus, and finally Chelsea.

The transfer to Juventus was monumental, for a then world record fee of £12.5 million. La Vecchia Signora, The Old Lady, won the UEFA Cup in his first season, but Vialli didn’t hit the ground running. It wasn’t until the arrival of manager Marcello Lippi that he underwent an intense training regime to lose weight and boost his natural abilities. With newfound form, he pounced on the 1994-95 season, helping the Turin giants to the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia that year. They narrowly missed out on a treble, falling to Parma in the UEFA Cup final over two legs. But he ended his time at Juventus with a high in 1996 – a Supercoppa Italiana victory and Champions League glory against Ajax.

That same year he joined Ruud Gullit’s rebuild at Chelsea, only to clash with the Dutch giant in his new London home. Once Gullit was dismissed in early 1998, Vialli became player-manager and the first Italian to manage in the Premier League. He saw instant success, winning the Cup Winners’ Cup, the League Cup, and even defeating Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.

At the end of the 1998-99 season, Vialli retired from professional football with a total of 259 goals in 673 appearances at the club level.

The ‘learning’ for Vialli was with the Italian national team, especially in the 1990 World Cup, which the Italians played on home soil.

Vialli was at the top of his game at the time, but couldn’t quite find his footing in the tournament. He missed a penalty against the US, hitting the post, and was dropped for the great Roberto Baggio and Salvatore Schillaci, who ended up taking the golden boot. He was brought back for the semi-final against Argentina, but came off in the second half. He watched from the sidelines as Diego Maradona scored the penalty that took his country to the final and turned the whole of Italy against the Napoli superstar.

Vialli’s stint with the Azzurri came to an end in 1992 on the back of a group stage exit in that year’s Euros and tension with the national team’s coach. His international career ended with 16 goals in 59 matches.

Then, of course, there was the cancer. He first spoke of it publicly in 2018, after living through his first year with the disease. In 2020, he was given the all-clear.

“I don’t want to fight cancer,” he told the Guardian that year, “because it would be too big and powerful an enemy. I feel this is a journey. It’s about travelling with an unwanted travel companion until hopefully it gets bored and dies before me.”

That journey took a turn for the worse near the end of 2021, when he was diagnosed with the disease for a second time. It ended on Friday.

But let us not linger on the bitter end, rather on one last good time.

It is Jul 11, 2021. Wembley once more. England’s Bukayo Saka steps up to the penalty spot. Opposite him looms the towering Gianluigi Donnarumma. Saka shoots right and Donnarumma bats it away. He swaggers from the goal line as Italy win Euro 2020.

Coach Roberto Mancini is all smiles and is overwhelmed by embraces. After a bit, he manages to break free of the crowd and starts walking across the pitch towards his players.

Then, he turns back and falls into a hug from Gianluca Vialli, who he took on as a member of his backroom staff. As the two hold each other, Mancini is wracked by sobs. When the two separate tears are streaming down their faces and Mancini has to take a second to breathe.

Later that night, the two lifelong friends will lift the trophy that is Italy’s first major silverware since 2006.

“Don’t believe anyone who says football is a war,” Vialli wrote in La Bella Stagione, the book he co-authored with Roberto Mancini about their Scudetto-winning season at Sampdoria. “It’s a sport, a game. And you play games with your friends.”

This article was written for Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.