Farewell to Gianluca Vialli, the gorgeous soul who adored a practical joke and a crafty fag

For anyone who followed the joyful footballing career of Gianluca Vialli and was aware of the seriousness of his fight for health, his victorious embrace with Roberto Mancini on the Wembley pitch became a defining image.

It was the summer of 2021 and those two old friends had settled some scores. They were back where they lost a European Cup final with Sampdoria, delivering the Euros title for Italy at England’s expense, to soothe the lingering scars of Italia ’90.

There was added poignancy because Vialli had been so ill since being diagnosed with an aggressive pancreatic cancer. He had received the all clear but knew it could return at any time. Tragically, it returned too soon.

Tributes are being paid to former Chelsea, Juventus and Italy striker Gianluca Vialli (above)

He died on Friday at the age of 58. And, when the tributes came, they swirled around his fun-loving nature as much as his ability with a ball, his athleticism or as a scorer of spectacular goals.

‘Just a gorgeous soul,’ said Graeme Souness, the Sportsmail columnist who played with Vialli at Sampdoria. ‘Fabulous to be around.’

Vialli matured into a dedicated professional. He trained hard, understood the team ethic and relished responsibility. He was strong, a runner and a clinical finisher.

Yet he never lost the essence of the free-spirited young forward with an unruly mop of curls, a diamond earring and a fine portfolio of dressing-room pranks, dangerous when on the rampage with the shaving foam and scissors.

He once locked Juventus fitness coach Gian Piero Ventrone in a cupboard and called the police to report a maniac on the loose. He smeared soft cheese into the handkerchief Arrigo Sacchi liked to fold into his top pocket.

Perhaps the carefree attitude and indifference towards authority came from the comfort of a privileged upbringing.

The youngest of five children, he was born into a wealthy family and raised in a stately home near Cremona, south of Milan, where he spent time in recovery after his first operations and cancer treatments.

Vialli passed away at the age of 58 on Friday after a battle with aggressive pancreatic cancer

Vialli passed away at the age of 58 on Friday after a battle with aggressive pancreatic cancer

Vialli was 32 years old and hardly knew a word of English when he arrived in London a few days after lifting the European Cup as Juventus captain in 1996.

The deal represented a major coup for Blues chairman Ken Bates, an impressive Bosman free transfer who went on to become a bona fide legend despite making fewer than 100 appearances.

Ruud Gullit often opted for a front two of Mark Hughes and Gianfranco Zola, who signed later in the same year. Vialli grew frustrated by his cameo role as the team won the FA Cup in 1997. Captain Dennis Wise scrawled a message on a vest that read, ‘Cheer up Luca, we love you xx’.

Still, Vialli made an impact, scoring four in a 6-0 win at Barnsley in his second season and, when Gullit was sacked in February 1998, Bates installed the then 33-year-old as player-manager.

Chelsea were 2-1 down after the first leg of a League Cup semi-final against Arsenal and Vialli’s first game in charge was the second leg. Before kick-off, he had a tray of drinks brought into the dressing room in shot glasses and asked his team to toast their future together.

They won 3-1, went on to beat Middlesbrough in the final, ended the season by beating Stuttgart in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup and started the next by beating Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.

He became a bona fide legend at Chelsea despite playing fewer than 100 games for the Blues

He became a bona fide legend at Chelsea despite playing fewer than 100 games for the Blues

Three trophies in six months and this emphatic start to his managerial career continued as Chelsea finished third to reach the Champions League for the first time.

Vialli scored what proved to be the winner against Derby on his final appearance as a player and eased into his managerial role, imposing an Italian-style discipline to the training schedule at a time when the Premier League was internationalizing.

His roguish charm made him popular with the media. He would often light up a cigarette and relax in his chair as if time was no object as he fielded questions, and asked that no one mentioned smoking as he shook hands and disappeared.

Once he came into a press conference with a camera to take photos of those asking the questions. Often he would decamp with his coaching staff and friends to San Lorenzo restaurant in Knightsbridge, booking a table for 10.30pm and talking into the early hours.

In his second full season, Chelsea reached the last eight of the Champions League and won the FA Cup, beating Aston Villa in the last final played under the Twin Towers at the old Wembley.

Then he was sacked five games into the new season and was replaced by fellow Italian Claudio Ranieri.

Vialli enjoyed a glittering career as both player and manager in England and in Italy (pictured)

Vialli enjoyed a glittering career as both player and manager in England and in Italy (pictured)

There was one season at Watford before Vialli retired to a more private life, making his home in London with his wife Cathryn, a South African former model whom he married in 2003, and their two daughters.

He played golf, watched rugby, launched a charity foundation with former Juventus midfielder Massimo Mauro, and worked as a TV pundit on Sky Italia before returning to football when Mancini took control of the Italy team in 2018.

Many years before it had been Mancini who persuaded Sampdoria to sign Vialli from Cremonese. They had played together for Italy’s Under 21s and struck up an instant chemistry, which they used to great effect as the little Genoese club rattled Serie A’s established elite.

Together at Sampdoria, they won the Italian Cup three times, the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1990, the Italian title in 1991 and came close to the European Cup at Wembley, losing 1-0 to Barcelona in 1992.

Vialli wept in the Wembley dressing room that day. He knew it was his final game for the club before moving to Juventus for £12.5 million, then a world-record fee.

He said the time was right, having rejected several approaches from AC Milan boss Sacchi and owner Silvio Berlusconi. One of them he declined because he was enjoying his life with friends at Sampdoria and said you couldn’t see the sea from Milan.

The image of him embracing Roberto Mancini (left) after Italy won Euro 2020 is utterly iconic

The image of him embracing Roberto Mancini (left) after Italy won Euro 2020 is utterly iconic

Perhaps this did not help his Italian career. He won 59 caps and scored 16 goals between 1985 and 1992, featuring in two World Cups, before relations with Sacchi broke down.

‘Two roosters in a chicken coop,’ was how Vialli described them. At first he adored me. Then he noticed me asking questions. Sacchi didn’t like questions.’

It explains some of the emotion behind Italy’s Euros triumph, where Vialli reappeared alongside Mancini, looking older with a thick, graying beard but fit, revealing he was cancer-free for the first time since diagnosis in 2017. ‘I’ve never considered it a battle,’ said Vialli, in his final interview in Gazzetta dello Sport.

I’ve always thought cancer is best kept as a friend. An unwanted traveling companion. This way of understanding life helped me a lot.’ In doing so, he helped inspire Italy’s players to achieve something memorable.

‘You were unselfish, generous and with a huge heart,’ said midfielder Marco Verratti. ‘You always had comforting words for everyone, even when you needed them more than anyone else.

‘You moved me and made me cry many times. You will stay in our hearts because people like you are impossible to forget. You are an example of strength, courage and dignity. We will miss you.’

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