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

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

For anyone who has followed Gianluca Vialli’s happy footballing career and knows the seriousness of his battle for health, his triumphant embrace of Roberto Mancini on the Wembley pitch has become a defining image.

It’s the summer of 2021 and those two old friends have settled some scores. They returned to where they lost in the European Cup final with Sampdoria, delivering the Euros title for Italy at England’s expense, to heal the lingering scars of Italia ’90.

There’s added poignancy because Vialli has been in so much pain since being diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer. He had received the all clear but knew it could come back at any time. Sadly, it came back too soon.

The honors go to former Chelsea, Juventus and Italy striker Gianluca Vialli (above)

The honors go 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 revolved around his fun-loving nature as much as his ability on the ball, his athleticism or as a scorer of spectacular goals.

‘A gorgeous soul,’ said Graeme Souness, the Sportsmail columnist who played with Vialli at Sampdoria. ‘Wonderful all around.’

Vialli became a dedicated professional. He trained hard, understood the team ethic and enjoyed the responsibility. He is strong, a runner and a clinical finisher.

However, he has not lost the essence of the free-spirited young forward with stiff curls, diamond earrings and a good portfolio of dressing-room pranks, dangerous when tussling with shaving foam and scissors.

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

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

The youngest of five children, he was born into a wealthy family and grew up in a noble home near Cremona, south of Milan, where he spent time recovering from his first surgery and cancer treatment.

Vialli was 32 years old and barely spoke English when he arrived in London days after lifting the European Cup as captain of Juventus in 1996.

The deal represents a major coup for Blues chairman Ken Bates, a prodigious Bosman free transfer who has 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 that same year. Vialli was disappointed with his cameo role when the team won the FA Cup in 1997. Captain Dennis Wise wrote a message on a vest that read, ‘Cheer up Luca, we love you xx’.

However, 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 the League Cup semi-final against Arsenal and Vialli’s first game in charge was the second leg. Before kick-off, he brought a tray of drinks into the dressing room with a shot glass and asked his team to toast their future.

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 less than 100 games for the Blues

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

Three trophies in six months and the 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 a winner against Derby in his last appearance as a player and eased into his managerial role, imposing an Italian-style discipline on the training schedule at a time when the Premier League was internationalising.

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His roguish charm made him popular in the media. He would often light a cigarette and relax in his chair as if the time was nothing as he asked questions, and wished that no one mentioned smoking as he shook hands and disappeared.

He once entered a press conference with a camera to take pictures of the questioners. He often decamps with his coaching staff and friends to the 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 old Wembley.

He was then sacked five games into the new season and 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 wife Cathryn, a former South African model 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.

It was many years before Mancini persuaded Sampdoria to sign Vialli from Cremonese. They played together for Italy’s Under 21s and had an instant chemistry, which they used to great effect as the small Genoese club upset 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.

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Vialli cried in the Wembley dressing room that day. He knew it would be his last game for the club before moving to Juventus for £12.5million, 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 rejected because he was enjoying his life with friends in Sampdoria and said you can’t see the sea from Milan.

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

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

It probably didn’t help his career in Italy. He won 59 caps and scored 16 goals between 1985 and 1992, featuring in two World Cups, before the relationship with Sacchi broke down.

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

It explains some of the sentiment behind Italy’s triumph at the Euros, with Vialli reappearing alongside Mancini, looking older with a thick, gray beard but fit, revealing he is cancer-free in first time since diagnosis in 2017. ‘I never thought it was a battle,’ said Vialli, in his last interview with Gazzetta dello Sport.

‘I always think cancer is best kept as a friend. An unwanted travel companion. This way of understanding life has helped me a lot.’ In doing so, he helped inspire Italy’s players to achieve something unforgettable.

‘You are selfless, generous and have a big heart,’ said midfielder Marco Verratti. ‘You always have comforting words for everyone, even when you need them more than others.

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