Everybody watching wanted to be part of that embrace. As Italy celebrated winning Euro 2020, Azzurri supporters around the world watched as Roberto Mancini sought out his old friend and strike partner.
It is painful to lose our legends – especially sporting ones who represented the peak of physical fitness. This was especially true with Vialli who was one of the most athletic and impressive players of his day. For many of us of a certain generation, the images of his greatest games remain fresh in our memory. To think that he is no longer with us feels like being robbed of a precious part of our younger years.
Many will remember his name first being mentioned in the upper echelons of Calcio as he started to make a reputation for himself with hometown club Cremonese. With a mop of curly hair that looked like something sprung out from a ripped sofa cushion, he terrorised defences with his pace, agility and eye for goal. It was only a matter of time before a bigger team pounced, we reckoned, and Sampdoria saw in him the missing piece of an improbable Scudetto challenge they were constructing. Along with his “goal-twin” Mancini, they produced the most magnificent era in the history of the Blucerchiati.
With Mancio pulling the strings, and Luca thumping home the goals, the Genoa outfit became a side to be feared in Italy and beyond. A string of trophies – and beautiful football – came their way over the best part of a decade. The league title in 1991 was their crowning glory and it was almost followed up with a European Cup triumph that ended in a narrow defeat to Barcelona. Take a moment to think about that – Samp were almost the kings of the continent.
It wasn’t just what they did, though, it was the way that they did it. I was lucky enough to see that team do its pre-season in Tuscany and it felt like a bunch of good friends mucking about and enjoying themselves as much as a group focused on victory. They were a band of brothers, though, and it galvanised them to take on the traditional giants of Serie A and – on many occasions – come away victorious. Vialli was the very heart of that.
When he moved, it was for a huge transfer fee to Juventus where he would deliver – amongst other things – a much-coveted Champions League. It perhaps wasn’t the same fun as in Genoa but it was surely successful. While his initial impact with the Bianconeri was not what he might have hoped for, his final two seasons saw him play a key role as he honed his striking skills to perfection.
A move to Chelsea brought him more trophies and adulation from a new nation. Some Italian players struggled to adapt to the English game but he positively revelled in the pace and fury of the Premier League. The Stamford Bridge faithful loved him and he reciprocated – both as a player and, later, manager of the club. He became revered as one of the finest foreigners ever involved with the London side.
For the national team, things did not perhaps go as he might have dreamed. A key part of the Under 21 set-up he moved up – with Mancini – to the full team with the hope of delivering a World Cup victory on home soil at Italia ’90. The emergence of Salvatore Schillaci and Roberto Baggio meant neither of the Samp men quite had the impact they would have hoped but he remained, nonetheless, a great servant of the Azzurri. His 16 goals in 59 games were maybe not as many as his talents deserved but nobody could ever doubt the commitment he gave to the cause every time he pulled on that famous shirt.
His diagnosis of cancer a few years ago was a dreadful piece of news but he appeared to deal with it with great dignity and inner strength. He became part of the Italy set-up under Mancini and an inspirational figure to his young squad. His speech before the clash with England in the final of Euro 2020 was one to give anybody goosebumps as he spoke of the values of those going into battle and facing the risk of failure but getting back up to fight again. Those were qualities he showed in abundance until, tragically, he could fight no more.
That big smile, the goals, the back-flips of celebration all come flitting across the mind’s eye. In the end, there was one opponent he could not beat but that, of course, is true for us all. What a life he lived, what an inspiration he was and what memories he provided.
We might not have been there in person but we all wanted to put our arms around Gianluca Vialli on that day of victory to show him how much he meant to us all. It is time, now, to say a last farewell with sadness for what we have lost – but also gratitude for everything he gave us.