Italy football great Gianluca Vialli has died aged 58 after what he described as his “journey” with an “unwelcome travel companion” – pancreatic cancer.
Vialli announced in December that he was stepping away from his role with the Italian national federation for health reasons after consultation with his oncologists.
Vialli had publicly struggled with cancer for years. He first announced that he’d been treated in 2018 but said he was ‘very well’ in an interview with an Italian newspaper. Another bout with the disease swiftly followed in 2019, before his former team Chelsea announced he’d been ‘given the all-clear’ in 2020. Last year, the former footballer announced the disease had returned.
Vialli played for Italian clubs Sampdoria and Juventus and English Premier League team Chelsea and earned 59 caps for Italy. He was part of the Italy side which finished in third place at the 1990 World Cup.
Following brief managerial stints at Chelsea and Watford, Vialli was part of the backroom staff for the Italy national side, alongside his former Sampdoria teammate Roberto Mancini, and together won Euro 2020.
After the final in which Italy beat England on penalties, Italy defender Alessandro Florenzi paid his tributes to Vialli.
“Everybody needs to know this. We have among us an example that teaches us how to live, in any moment, in any situation,” Florenzi said, per ESPN.
“And I’m talking about Gianluca Vialli, For us, he’s special. Without him, and without Mancini and the other coaches, this victory would mean nothing. He is a living example. I know he’ll get angry, but I just had to say it.”
Having started his club career at Cremonese in 1980 in Italy’s lower leagues, Vialli got his big break in 1984 when he joined Sampdoria.
Together with Mancini – they earned the nickname “I Gemelli del Gol” or “the goal twins” – the two forwards ushered in the club’s most successful period in its history.
Vialli said in a 2019 interview on Sky Sports that the pair’s relationship worked so well on the pitch because they “liked each other as human beings.”
“We were different, but we were getting on extremely well,” Vialli told Sky Sports, “which helps a lot, I think.
“And then on the pitch, we were very complementary… when you’ve got two strikers who don’t care whether the other striker is scoring three and you’re not scoring any, it’s fantastic because the only thing that we wanted was for the team to win.”
Vialli finished as top scorer for the Sampdoria side which won their first ever Serie A title in 1991, also winning the Italian Cup three times and finishing runner-up in the European Cup in 1992 to Barcelona.
Vialli then moved to Italian giants Juventus in 1992 for what was then a world record fee of £12 million ($14.57 million).
During his four seasons with the Turin-based club, Vialli enjoyed more success, winning the Serie A title again, as well as the Champions League and the UEFA Cup.
He still remains the last Juventus captain to lift the Champions League trophy, something he said means a lot to him personally.
“For me, it’s very important to be the last captain of Juventus to have lifted the Champions League because all the fans still remember that, I still remember that and they see me as the last captain of a very successful Italian side in Europe,” Vialli told Sky Sports in 2015 ahead of the Champions League final between Juventus and Barcelona.
“On the one hand, I want Juventus to win because I’ve got so many friends there. But on the other hand, it would be annoying to see someone taking my place.
“Having said that, to have my picture lifting the cup next to Gaetano Scirea – a legendary Juventus defender, probably one of the best Italian defenders of all time – and Gianluigi Buffon, it will be like having your painting hanging next to a Picasso and to Van Gogh.”
Vialli left for Chelsea in 1996, winning the FA Cup in his first season in England before being appointed player-manager in the following season.
Vialli retired from professional football in 1999 to focus on his role as a full-time manager. As a manager at Chelsea, he won the FA Cup and the League Cup before being fired in 2000.
A brief stint as Watford manager followed before he spent many years as a football pundit and analyst.
In 2018, Vialli revealed he was “fine” after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer.
Following his initial cancer diagnosis, Vialli said that he felt a sense of “shame” because of the illness, adding that he would wear a sweater under his shirt so no one would notice his changing physique.
He called cancer “an unwelcome travel companion” in his book, ‘Goals: Inspirational Stories to Help Tackle Life’s Challenges.’ “I don’t see this as a battle,” he wrote.
“I am not a warrior. I am not fighting cancer: it’s too strong an enemy and I would not stand a chance. I am a man who is on a journey and cancer has joined me on that journey… my goal is to keep walking, keep moving until he’s had enough and leaves me alone.”
In 2020, Vialli was given the all-clear following a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, according to an announcement from his former team, Chelsea.
At the time, Vialli spoke about the struggles he went through.
“Regaining my health means seeing myself in the mirror again, seeing the hair grow, not having to draw eyebrows on with a pencil,” he said. “It can appear strange in this moment (of the pandemic), compared to many others I feel very fortunate.”
In 2021, he said that he was battling pancreatic cancer once again after it had returned, stepping away from his role with the Italian national federation in December 2022 upon the advice from medical experts.