Gianluca Vialli obituary | Football

Gianluca Vialli, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 58, became the first Italian to manage a top-flight English football club when he took over at Chelsea in 1998, guiding them to FA Cup, League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup trophies. However, he will be better remembered for his playing career as a dynamic, intelligent and versatile forward at Sampdoria and Juventus, as well as for Italy, with whom he won 59 caps between 1985 and 1992.

During a long sojourn at Sampdoria in the 1980s and early 90s, Vialli won various honors, including the Italian League and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, but it was during his later, shorter stay at Juventus that he hit the greatest heights, captaining the side to a Champions League title in 1996.

Moving on to Chelsea immediately afterwards, he became a well-liked figure in west London, graduating from player to player-manager and then solely to manager – until, in the modern Chelsea tradition, he was sacked while still in full flow. A year followed as manager of Watford, after which he decided to concentrate on other interests, including television work and a backroom job with the Italian national side.

Gianluca Vialli playing for Chelsea against Manchester United in 1996.
Gianluca Vialli playing for Chelsea against Manchester United in 1996. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Vialli had an unusually wealthy background for a footballer. Born in Cremona in the north Italyhe was raised with his four older siblings in a huge 14th-century castle in the village of Belgioioso, not far from Milan, which had been bought by his father, a self-made millionaire.

In 1980, at the age of 16, he signed for his local club, Cremonese, in the third tier of the league, and four years later was bought by the Genoese Serie A team Sampdoria, who paired him up front with Roberto Mancini. Together they became known as the “goal twins” for their scoring exploits, as Sampdoria, who had won nothing of note up to that point, suddenly became a force in the Italian game.

Gianluca Vialli playing for Sampdoria against Barcelona in the European Cup final at Wembley, in 1992.
Gianluca Vialli playing for Sampdoria against Barcelona in the European Cup final at Wembley in 1992. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

Vialli’s first winner’s medal came in the Italian Cup in 1985, and under the Yugoslavian manager Vujadin Boškov he won another two cup finals, in 1988 and 1989, before appearing in the 1990 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, a 2-0 win against Anderlecht in which he scored both goals in extra time.

That year, Vialli also featured in the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy. He was dropped after missing a penalty in the second match against the USA, but returned for Italy’s semi-final against Argentina, which they lost on penalties.

A year later Sampdoria won the Serie A championship for the first and only time, finishing a comfortable five points clear of Internazionale at the end of the 1990-91 season, thanks in part to Vialli’s 19 goals as top scorer in the league. Qualifying for the European Cup, they reached the final at Wembley in 1992, but lost 1-0 to Barcelona in extra time, Vialli uncharacteristically missing three good chances before Ronald Koeman scored the winner.

Juventus captain Gianluca Vialli lifts the Champion League cup]following their win against Ajax in Rome in 1996.
Juventus captain Gianluca Vialli lifts the Champions League trophy following their win against Ajax in Rome in 1996. Photograph: John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters

Shortly afterwards he accepted an offer to join Juventus for a world-record fee of £12.5m, ushering in the end of Sampdoria’s great era of achievement. In Turin he won the 1993 Uefa Cup during his first season and then, under a new manager, Marcello Lippi, captained the side to a double of the 1994-95 Italian championship and the Italian Cup, creating another formidable goalscoring combination with Fabrizio Ravanelli in a side that also boasted Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Andreas Möller.

The crowning glory of his four-year spell at Juventus was victory in the 1996 Champions League final at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, where he lifted the trophy as captain after a win on penalties against Ajax.

By then in his early 30s, Vialli decided on a final move to the Premier League with Chelsea. He soon became a popular presence at Stamford Bridge, helped by his excellent command of English and use of colloquialisms, as well as his suave but likable aura.

Gianluca Vialli as player-manager of Chelsea with his captain Dennis Wise in 1998, after the European Cup Winners' Cup final against VfB Stuttgart in Stockholm, Sweden.
Gianluca Vialli as player-manager of Chelsea with his captain Dennis Wise in 1998, after the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against VfB Stuttgart in Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: Ben Radford/Allsport

He won the 1997 FA Cup in his first year at the club, but was limited to five minutes off the bench in the 2-0 win over Middlesbrough in the final, and for much of his time under manager Ruud Gullit he found his place in the side was hardly guaranteed.

When Gullit was sacked unexpectedly in early 1998, Vialli took over as player-manager, handing out glasses of champagne in the dressing room before his first match in charge, a League Cup semi-final second-leg win against Arsenal. That took them to the final, where they again beat Middlesbrough 2-0.

Having landed his first managerial honors within weeks of taking charge, Vialli also inherited a decent position in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, taking his side from the quarter-finals to the final and beating Stuttgart 1-0 in Stockholm to become, at the time, the youngest manager to win a European competition.

Third position in the Premier League at the end of the following 1998-99 season was Chelsea’s best showing in the top flight since 1970, and after stepping down as a player to concentrate solely on management, by the end of 1999-2000 he had steered them to an FA Cup final win against Aston Villa and fifth place in the league. However, only five games into the next campaign, the club dispensed with his services.

Vialli’s subsequent move to manage Watford, who had just dropped out of the Premier League, was not nearly as successful. After a season in which the club finished 14th in the First Division he was sackedprompting a lengthy legal dispute over substantial payments he said were due for the remainder of his contract.

After stepping down from management, Gianluca Vialli became a TV analyst, and took on a behind-the-scenes position for the Italian national side.
After stepping down from management, Gianluca Vialli became a TV analyst, and took on a behind-the-scenes position for the Italian national side. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

That was enough to put him off management for good, and he moved instead into work as a television analyst and commentator, mainly for Sky Italia. He also set up a sports investment company, Tifosy, and in 2019 was appointed delegation chief for the Italy team under his friend Mancini, a behind-the-scenes position he held until his death in London, where he had lived since his Chelsea days .

He is survived by his wife, Cathryn White-Cooper, whom he married in 2003, two daughters, Olivia and Sofia, his mother, Maria Teresa, his brothers, Nino, Marco and Maffo, and his sister, Mila.

Gianluca Vialli, footballer and manager, born July 9, 1964; died January 6, 2023

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