The year 1964 was a big one for football in Italy. Helenio Herrera’s Inter defeated Real Madrid in the European Cup final; Roma lifted the Coppa Italia after a dramatic replay against Torino; Bologna won their seventh scudetto; and, in two very different parts of the country, a pair of the finest players Italy has ever produced were born.
First came Gianluca Vialli. Born in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, young Luca grew up surrounded by luxury and called the 60-room Castello di Belgioioso home. Some five months later, and 250 miles to the south, Roberto Mancini was born into a devout Catholic household in the ancient town of Jesi.
Their upbringings varied drastically, but they both had a love of football that began to develop early. From the age of nine, Vialli started making the 45-minute trip from his home to local amateur side AS Pizzighettone. To the south, Mancini was also taking his first steps in the game. At just six, he had begun playing, and starring, for local side Aurora Jesi.
While Vialli may have been something of a late bloomer, Mancini’s potential to reach the very top was never in doubt. Despite interest from some of the giants of the Italian game, including Milan, he signed for Bologna aged 13. Around the same time Vialli made the more inauspicious move from his amateur youth team to Cremonese, then a Serie C side. Vialli made his first Serie C appearance at just 16 and Mancini followed soon after. On 13 September 1981, still three months shy of his 17th birthday, he played in Serie A for the first time.
A remarkable season followed as the youngster scored nine times in 30 appearances, marking him out as one of Italy’s hottest footballing prospects. With the big clubs circling, Sampdoria ultimately landed his signature. Funded by the ambitious and wealthy Paolo Mantovani, the club brought in a litany of foreign talent. Trevor Francis and Liam Brady joined the side in the same summer as Mancini, with Graeme Souness arriving two years later.
Despite the interest in the club’s new stars, it was one of the quieter arrivals who ultimately made the greatest mark on Samp’s history. After four years of leading the line at Cremonese, during which time the club rose from Serie C to the top flight, Vialli attracted suitors from all over Italy, particularly after the 19-year-old had finished as Cremonese’s top scorer the year they won promotion to Serie A.
Mancini and Vialli had already begun to bond away from club football in the Italy Under-21 set up, with Mancini repeatedly tapping up Vialli and selling the notion of joining him at Sampdoria. It worked. Despite interest from a number of major clubs, Vialli elected to join Mancini and the highly ambitious project at Sampdoria in 1984.
In their first season as a regular partnership, Sampdoria finished fourth in the league and won the Coppa Italia for the first time in their history. The 20-year-olds scored both goals in the second leg of the final against a Milan defence that was marshalled by the great Franco Baresi.
The pair truly began to flourish when the jovial Vujadin Boskov took over as manager at the start of the 1986-87 season. The departures of Souness and Francis at the end of the previous season left Mancini and Vialli as the undisputed focal points of the side. With the pair now being referred to as the “goal twins” up front, Samp went on a remarkable run. Back-to-back Coppa Italia wins in 1988 and 1989 were followed by glory in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1990. There was more to come a year later as Samp took their first ever scudetto in 1990-91.
Mancini had by this time transcended his role and was now the undisputed leader of the team on the pitch (and all but an assistant manager off it). Vialli, as he always did, provided the goals, finishing the season as the league’s top scorer – a magnificent achievement given his troubles for Italy at Italia 90. They had lifted Sampdoria to the very apex of Italian football, claiming every accolade possible along the way – and their scudetto triumph meant that for the first time ever, Sampdoria would compete in the European Cup.
They went all the way to the final at Wembley, losing to Barcelona in extra-time thanks to a 112th-minute free-kick from Ronald Koeman. It was the last match Mancini and Vialli played together at Sampdoria. Just two months after that crushing defeat, Juventus opened their chequebook to sign Vialli and the era of the goal twins was over.
Although they were on different paths, the two remained close. Nearly 30 years later, they reunited. Mancini, by this time Italy manager, brought his old friend Vialli into the prestigious post of chief delegate for the side. With the appointment coming at a time when Vialli had been publicly battling cancer, it was a decision that greatly moved the striker. “Working with Roberto and the staff is emotional. He has said that we are becoming old but, for me, working here together will keep us all young.”
Earlier this year, Vialli confirmed that he had been given the all-clear from cancer after dealing with the illness for 17 months. And the pair set off for the Euros together, continuing a journey that started nearly 40 years ago. “We have a relationship that goes way beyond friendship,” Mancini has said of Vialli. “He’s almost like a brother to me.” And Vialli is no less complimentary of Mancini, saying: “Roberto has been my hero since I was 14.”
Mancini and Vialli did as much as anyone to shape Italian football in the 1980s and 1990s. Now they are hoping that their special relationship can be the catalyst to restoring the national team to its former glory. Whatever happens at Wembley on Sunday night, the story of their friendship and near-telepathic understanding on the pitch has given us all something to celebrate.