The poetry of Gianluca Vialli

The late Chelsea striker Gianluca Vialli controls a ball mid-air, his right leg fully extended in front of him, as though about to hurdle

The great Sampdoria, Juventus and Chelsea striker Gianluca Vialli has died, and I am sad.

He was 58 and had been receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer. As the Guardian has reported, he was diagnosed in 2017, but did not share news of his treatment until a year later. He entered a period of remission in April 2020, but announced that the cancer had returned in December of 2021.

First of all let us say, as my son would put it, that he was an absolute bagger. If you watch the YouTube montage below of his 40 Chelsea goals (in 83 appearances), you will see that he had everything: courage, strength, and timing, not to mention skill with both feet and head. There is a Greaves-like purity and poetry to his scoring, rarely taking more than one or two touches to do his work, including the final coup de grâce. What Chelsea would give for the likes of him now.

I’m sad because he reminds me of the joy (I use the word ironically) of following Chelsea from the era of before. Before the really big money. Before the revolving door of managers and super-success. Before the age of meta. And winning things. Which was far from perfect, lest we forget, but which still managed to combine talents as diverse as Gianfranco Zola, Ruud Gullit, Tore André Flo, Dan Petrescu, Steve Clarke and Dennis Wise.

Watch those goals again. There is an innocence about it all. A sense of jeu d’esprit. (In his first match in charge as manager, a League Cup semi-final against Arsenal, he handed out glasses of champagne in the dressing room.) That nutmeg against Schmeichel. The hat-trick in a blizzard against Tromsø. The 4-2 comeback against Liverpool (still one of my all-time favourite results). No wonder Dennis Wise spent most of his time kissing him.

I’m sad because he was clearly a lovely, and beloved, human being. Tough men of football like Antonio Conte and Graeme Souness do not give up their grief in public without good reason:

“I can’t tell you how good a guy he was. Forget football, he was just a gorgeous soul. He was just a truly nice human being.

“He was just fabulous to be around. He was such a fun-loving guy, full of mischief, wonderful footballer and a warm human being. People will say things about his magnificent football ability, and correctly so, but above all that what a human being. My condolence go to his family – the kids were blessed to have a dad like that, his wife was blessed to be married to a man like that.”

Source: The Guardian

I’m sad because we are talking about him in the past tense, when everything he did was about presence, sporting and human. To borrow from Ted Hughes, he was full of ‘bounce and stab’ on the pitch, but he absolutely knew how to give joy away from it. Via his diagnosis, this included learning to share his vulnerability:

“I wasn’t particularly good at showing my emotions and I kept things inside. It’s not good. Now I realise that whenever I want to cry, I cry. There’s no shame. And if you want to laugh, you laugh. I try not to cry in front of people that might get very emotional. I try to cry by myself. When I’m in a comfortable place, I don’t hold anything inside. I just let it out, and I feel better afterwards.”

Source: The Guardian

It seems he had arrived at a place of wisdom and acceptance about his illness and what that had taught him about the brevity of life. These words remind me of the simplicity of Raymond Carver’s ‘Late Fragment‘:

“I’m convinced that our children follow our example more than our words. I have less time to be that example, now that I know I won’t die of old age, so I try to be a positive example.

“I try to teach them that happiness depends on the perspective with which you look on life, that you shouldn’t put on airs, that you should listen more and speak less. Laugh often, help others. That’s the secret of happiness.”

Source: The Guardian

RIP Gianluca Vialli, 9 July 1964 – 6 January 2023.


  1. Ant, that’s properly knocked me for 6. Thank you for bringing me back to Hughes. And parenting, and the at once terrifying but somehow heroic precarity of life. I feel like I need a little lie down now, honestly! 😂

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about John O’Donohue’s insistence on the vital importance of the ‘quality of approach’ – how transformative that can be. Seems Vialli saw into the power of that ability to adjust perspective like a kaleidoscope too – the almost unnerving agency of that?

    Anyway, thank you again for a brilliant reminder of all these things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Belinda – thank you very much for commenting and bless you. I was saying to someone on my dog walk only this morning, it doesn’t matter what age they are, the parenting does not stop. And I like that.

      I love the O’Donohue line. I don’t think I’d heard that before. Brilliant. Luca Vialli certainly seemed to have sorted this out before he left us.

      Bless you for stopping by and with much love as ever, Ant x


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