Mark Hughes has described Gianluca Vialli as a “beautiful human”, paying an emotional tribute to his former Chelsea teammate after his death at 58.
Hughes also believes that the Italian – who joined Chelsea in 1996 and helped them lift the FA Cup at the end of his first season before winning the League Cup and Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup as player-manager the following season – should be remembered as one of the club’s greats after a stellar career at Stamford bridge.
Vialli’s death was announced on Friday after he had undergone treatment for pancreatic cancer. He had been diagnosed in 2017 before being given the all-clear in April 2020. However, he announced in December 2021 that the disease had returned and he recently stepped away from his role as delegation chief with the Italy national team to focus on his treatment of him.
Vialli enjoyed success as a Chelsea player under Ruud Gullit before becoming the club’s manager. Hughes played with and under the Italian for two seasons at Chelsea, and he told the Observer that Vialli’s arrival in the summer of 1996 had a major impact in transforming the club’s fortunes.
“Myself and Ruud had arrived the season before and the club had made no secret of trying to have a real go at becoming more than a mid-table side,” Hughes said. “The decision was made and really the arrival of Luca was a huge moment because the club went out for big names, and he had just won the Champions League with Juventus.”
Hughes, who admits he was stunned upon learning of Vialli’s passing after concluding training with League Two side Bradford City on Friday morning, paid tribute to the Italian’s personality, as well as his ability as a player.
“He was the most beautiful human in terms of his ability to make people feel comfortable in his presence,” Hughes said. “He was a huge star when he came to Chelsea, but he embraced the club and never gave it the big ‘I am’. He got on with it, and got the respect of everyone around him.
“We were sometimes split into three or four mini dressing rooms at Chelsea and I was very fortunate that I was often sharing with Luca. He was always learning about the English way of life; if he heard a little phrase in English that someone said, he’d sit there and write it down because he wanted to integrate as much as possible.
“He was just a great guy. A great player, but even greater as a person. He will be missed. He loved England, he loved Chelsea and Chelsea loved him. My thoughts are with his family and loved ones.”
Hughes had crossed paths with Vialli at international level before they became teammates, and he has fond memories of their time together at Stamford Bridge. “I remember playing against him with Wales and I was always impressed by his intelligence of him on the field,” he said.
“Then when I got the chance to play with him, you could see how clever he was, how much of an understanding of the game he had. I think that rubbed off on everyone around him during that time at Chelsea. He was a brilliant professional, and while he struggled a bit in his first season, he really kicked on after that.”
Vialli’s arrival coincided with a golden period of success for the club. They won the FA Cup in his first season at Stamford Bridge, though then-manager Gullit often preferred a starting forward pair of Hughes and Gianfranco Zola. When Gullit was sacked in February 1998, Vialli led Chelsea to both the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. They then defeated Real Madrid in the Super Cup before winning the 2000 FA Cupwhile Vialli also guided Chelsea to their highest league finish since 1970 with a third-placed finish in 1998-99.
Only José Mourinho has won more trophies as Chelsea manager and while Hughes left for Southampton in the summer of 1998, he says Vialli’s spell in London should automatically place him among the club’s greatest servants. “He must be up there, as both a player and a manager,” he insisted.
“I just remember everyone being really excited when he came in, given the caliber he had and the career he’d had to that point. I joined Chelsea from Manchester United and when you leave there, people just assume that’s you done in terms of playing at the top.
“They think that’s the stop point for your career in terms of winning things. I was there for three years and we won three trophies, and Luca helped start the things you’re seeing today with Chelsea.
“He was such a great person and it was a genuine pleasure to share a dressing room with him and call him my teammate. Sometimes you don’t fully recognize the greatness of someone’s talent until you’re in their presence of him, and that was the case with him. He’ll be very sadly missed.”