Gianluca Vialli was the first to Roberto Mancini to celebrate. Of course he was.
Sampdoria’s ‘goal twins’ had first been united almost four decades ago, in Italy’s Under-21s. For eight years, they had formed the greatest strike partnership the Genoese club will ever have. They could celebrate Sampdoria’s sole Scudetto in 1991, when Vialli was Serie A’s top scorer, their three Coppa Italias together, with Vialli scoring three goals in the finals and Mancini two, and the club’s lone European trophy, with a Vialli brace securing the 1990 Cup Winners’ Cup.
Their achievements were historic and magnificent, forged at a club who have never won a trophy without Mancini in the team. Only a Ronald Koeman free-kick stopped them from celebrating everything the club game has to offer.
They can reflect on what may forever remain Sampdoria’s only European Cup final, when Mancini captained them against Barcelona in 1992. It brought disappointment for them at Wembley. Twenty-nine years later, they were back at England’s national stadium, in each other’s arms when Federico Chiesa, son of another of Mancini’s Sampdoria strike partners, opened the scoring against Austria last week.
Italian football has always been a mixture of the romantic and the pragmatic and, for many of us, there is something irresistible about the reunion of Mancini and Vialli, paragons of class seeking to revive the Azzurri after their lowest ebb, the failure to reach the 2018 World Cup under the overpromoted mediocrity Gian Piero Ventura. Mancini’s improvised backheel in the Wales game, facilitated by a misplaced pass from Neco Williams, was not quite executed as well as his greatest goal for Lazio but it was a reminder of his glorious talent.
Admittedly, Vialli’s role is more ceremonial, as delegate chief, a position formerly held by Luigi Riva, than Mancini’s, and Attilio Lombardo, an assistant coach, is the Sampdoria old boy who has tended to play a more significant part in the manager’s various backroom teams.
Yet the lasting friendship between Mancini and Vialli can warm the heart; there is a widespread willingness to believe the best of wonderful footballers and while some become embarrassments in their retirement, it is not just the nostalgic who should enjoy the enduring bromance. Vialli has twice had to confront cancer; he has called it “emotional” working with his old friend and many among the rest of us can sense a deeper meaning to his return to the dugout, especially with the company he is keeping.
He is a reminder that international football can assume a grander narrative. Even in an age of more career coaches and where technocrats can take some of the leading club roles, Euro 2020 has offered various figures in the technical areas, each with a compelling narrative that stems from their past in their country’s colours: Didier Deschamps, Luis Enrique, Frank de Boer, Andriy Shevchenko, Gareth Southgate and Mancini.
Both of Mancini and Vialli’s Azzurri playing careers were ultimately unfulfilling; neither scored in the 1990 World Cup, when Mancini was an unused squad member; their international exiles had begun before the 1994 tournament, when Italy reached the final. They failed to qualify for Euro 92, when Sampdoria were European Cup finalists and Vialli became the world’s most expensive player.
Perhaps they have unfinished business. Certainly, with Italy unbeaten in 31 games, Mancini has lifted Italy out of the wilderness. The best part of four decades after he and Vialli took Sampdoria from obscurity to glory, three since they pipped the AC Milan side of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard to Serie A, perhaps Mancini and Vialli’s crowning glory will actually come with their country and when they are both 56.
It would complete the story of a remarkable double act if it did.
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