Everyone associated with Chelsea Football Club is devastated to learn of the passing of Gianluca Vialli, our former player and manager, at the age of just 58.
As soon as he walked through the door at Stamford Bridge when already a global football star, Luca declared his wish to become a Chelsea legend. It is a target he undoubtedly reached, revered for his work on the pitch and in the dugout during some of the most successful years in our history. Loved by fans, players and staff at Stamford Bridge, Luca will be sorely missed not just by the Chelsea community, but the entire footballing world, including in his native Italy, where he was such an iconic figure.
Our thoughts are with Luca’s wife Cathryn, his daughters Sofia and Olivia, and the rest of his family and his friends at this terribly sad time.
Chelsea chairman Todd Boehly and co-controlling owner Behdad Eghbali said: ‘This is truly an awful day for Chelsea Football Club. Gianluca’s legend will live on at Stamford Bridge. His impact as a player, a coach and most importantly as a person, will be forever written across our club’s history. We send our heartfelt and deepest condolences to his family and friends.’
Luca Vialli arrived at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 1996, shortly after skippering Juventus to Champions League glory. Considered one of the best strikers of his generation, his capture by another former Serie A great, his long-time friend Ruud Gullit, further underlined the steep upward curve Chelsea were on.
What was missing at the Bridge was silverware, and in his first season Luca played a pivotal role in bringing a first major trophy to SW6 since 1971.
Trailing 2-0 to Liverpool at half-time, our FA Cup aspirations were hanging by a thread. At a frenzied Stamford Bridge, though, the Blues turned a fourth-round tie on its head, Vialli completing the comeback with a brace. The 4-2 win remains one of Chelsea’s greatest days.
They were vintage Vialli goals, too. The first, a classy outside-of-the-boot finish after latching on to a Dan Petrescu pass; the second, a powerful header following the type of electric movement in the box Vialli had long made his name with.
His other attributes as an all-round striker were his strength and hold-up play, the foundation for accurate finishing with either foot, as well as a fondness for catching opponents unawares with shots struck early and often to the near post.
The former Italian international finished his first season at Stamford Bridge with 11 goals in 34 games. Gullit increasingly preferred a pairing of Gianfranco Zola and Mark Hughes up front, meaning several of those appearances were off the bench, including in the FA Cup final, won with a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough. After the semi-final, in which Vialli had been an unused sub, captain Dennis Wise revealed a vest saying ‘Cheer up Luca, we love you xx’.
It epitomised the sentiment towards a man who had already made himself hugely popular with players and fans alike. Charming, self-effacing and determined, the urbane Vialli’s determination to adopt popular sayings from the English language and the manner in which he embraced London life contributed to that immense likeability.
Goals helped, too. He scored what would prove the winner at Old Trafford in November ’96, nutmegging Peter Schmeichel and celebrating in front of the travelling Blues contingent. That magical moment was soon commemorated in song, to the tune of That’s Amore, heard up and down the country, and later over Europe: ‘When the ball hits the back of the Old Trafford net, that’s Vialli!’ The love between player and fanbase was very real indeed.
That connection only intensified midway through the 1997/98 campaign, one in which Vialli had bagged four goals in a game for the first time in his illustrious career, in a win at Barnsley, and netted a famously defiant brace in the Tromso snow. Following the shock departure of Gullit in February ‘98, Vialli took the reins at Stamford Bridge a few days before the second leg of a League Cup semi-final at home to Arsenal. Now player-manager, the Italian selected himself and the dressing room toasted the occasion with pre-match champagne.
The touch of class Gullit brought to the Bridge would be further extended under Vialli, who also had the happy knack of winning important matches. Arsenal were overcome and the Blues won the League Cup final, swiftly followed by the Cup Winners’ Cup. For the first of those finals he did not involve himself on the pitch, for the second he did, although it was his fellow star from Serie A, Zola, who scored the only goal seconds after being brought off the bench. It was Vialli who finished the team’s top scorer that season.
When victory over Real Madrid added the UEFA Super Cup to make a unique treble in the 1998 calendar year, Vialli had eclipsed his predecessors, writing his name into Blues history as our most successful manager in terms of trophies lifted. Even now, only Jose Mourinho has won more than his five as our coach.
Vialli continued as player-manager in 1998/99, although he restricted himself to just 20 on-pitch appearances, mostly in cup competitions. Highlights included a hat-trick against Aston Villa, on a night he handed John Terry his Chelsea debut, a brace at Highbury, also in the League Cup, and the winning goal in his final game as a professional, a 2-1 Premiership win over Derby on the last day of the season.
It brought the curtain down on a campaign in which we had gone as close as we ever did to winning the title between 1955 and 2005. We eventually finished third, just four points off Manchester United, having only lost three league games. It had been a long time since a Chelsea team and the word consistency had gone together so well. Sadly, a succession of frustrating draws late in the season stopped us going all the way.
After the continental flair that Gullit’s ‘sexy football’ approach had brought to the Bridge, Vialli added structure and regularity, both vital building blocks in Chelsea’s rise.
He had strengthened our defending with the recruitment of another stand-out player from Serie A in Marcel Desailly, and Albert Ferrer from Barcelona, an on-pitch opponent of Vialli’s from an appearance in a European Cup final at Wembley.
The defence of our own Cup Winners’ Cup crown had ended at the hands of Real Mallorca in the semi-finals, but more incredible European exploits – and domestic silverware – was to follow in 1999/00.
It was the season in which we competed in the Champions League for the first time, thanks to the high Premiership finish Vialli masterminded. We made it all the way to the quarter-finals, drawing two memorable games with AC Milan, going to Galatasaray’s ‘Hell’ and winning 5-0, and then beating Barcelona 3-1 in one of the very best nights the Bridge has witnessed.
Despite a heavy defeat in Camp Nou in the second leg, the season would still finish on a high as Aston Villa were beaten 1-0 in the last FA Cup final at the old Wembley.
An impressive victory against Man United in the Charity Shield got 2000/01 off to the perfect start, but relationships between Vialli and some of his players had worsened, and when results did too, he was sacked in September 2000, as the club changed direction by opting for an experienced manager in Claudio Ranieri, after a run of young player-managers.
The name Vialli was sung in the stands for weeks afterwards, testament to the esteem and love in which he was held at Stamford Bridge.
A brief spell as Watford manager followed before he turned his hand to punditry, charity work, book writing and, in 2019, a role with the Italy team. Working with his great friend and former Sampdoria strike partner Roberto Mancini, Vialli played his part as the Azzurri won Euro 2020 at Wembley, a stadium that meant so much to him during his Chelsea years, in a city he called home until his death.
Vialli handled the pancreatic cancer that afflicted him on and off for five years in the same way he dealt with what football threw at him: with courage, humility, and humour. His 2018 book, ‘Goals: Inspirational Stories to Help Tackle Life’s Challenges’ is a profoundly moving collection of tales offering insight into the strength of the human spirit, concluding with Vialli’s own brave battle with this cruel illness.
A regular visitor to the Bridge later in life, making the journey from his home around the corner, Vialli was met with universal acclaim by supporters young and old. In May 2018, he managed a Chelsea Legends team against Inter Milan at the stadium. It is a source of some comfort that in his final public appearance at Stamford Bridge, Luca was joined by the likes of Zola, Wise and Roberto Di Matteo, fellow Blues legends he played alongside and later managed during an iconic period in Chelsea history. That the game was in memory of Ray Wilkins, Luca’s great friend and assistant at Chelsea, only makes that occasion more poignant.
A brilliant striker, a trophy-winning manager and a wonderful man, Luca’s place in the pantheon of Chelsea greats is assured. He will be deeply missed.