BY MARK GODFREY
To the English fan, he was an alien; as otherworldly as it could get. Accustomed to a staple diet of Steve Hodge, Peter Reid and Bryan Robson – as industrious and effective in their work as they were – Giuseppe Giannini was the exotic entrée that had been missing from our menu since Glenn Hoddle’s defection to the Monegasque millionaire’s playground.
Snippets of footage on Football Focus or Sportsnight, newspaper reports and schoolboy one-upmanship helped to fuel the spread of the Italian playmaker’s reputation. We all knew of Maradona and Napoli, the Dutch and German contingents on either side of the San Siro divide and the other assorted foreign luminaries generously sprinkled throughout this mythical footballing paradise called Serie A. The homegrown talent – Maldini, Vialli, Donadoni et al – were just as popular; the new breed of Azzurri burdened with the task of emulating Paolo Rossi, Dino Zoff and the rest of Enzo Bearzot’s World Cup winners of 1982. Despite their fame and considerable abilities though, Giannini brought something different, something cavalier. Something regal. The Italians, ever-fond of a nickname, called him Il Principe – the Prince.
Nowhere was Giannini revered more than in his birthplace – the eternal city, Rome. He debuted in 1982 for AS Roma while still in his teens and made a couple of appearances during the Giallorossi’s second Scudetto-winning campaign of 82/83. He was largely a spectator the following year; Roma’s season ended with broken hearts at the Stadio Olimpico by way of that cruellest of finales – a penalty shoot-out loss to Liverpool and Bruce Grobbelaar’s ‘spaghetti legs’.
Giannini’s early career at Roma was shaped by the influence of two men in particular; Brazilian midfielder Falcão, one of the stars of his country’s glorious failure at the 1982 World Cup, and the club’s Swedish manager Nils Liedholm. The former joined the club in 1980 – the same year as Giannini signed his first contract – and possessed all the style and poise the young Roman aspired to for himself, while the latter – his mentor on the sidelines – racked up a glittering list of accomplishments during his time playing and scheming for AC Milan in the 1950s. For the young regista (an Italian term, adopted by hipsters, I’ve come to loathe) role models didn’t come any more appropriate.
He quickly blossomed in the aftermath of the European Cup defeat, becoming a standing dish in the first team during 84/85 under a new Swedish head coach – none other than Sven-Göran Eriksson. However, Roma’s flame that had burned so brightly, slowly began to dwindle just as The Prince came to claim his throne. The giants of the industrial north vied for supremacy with Diego and his band of poor relations from the south, spurring each other on to surpass the capital’s leading club in the second half of the decade. A Coppa Italia was won in 1986, but Eriksson soon departed for Florence. Liedholm returned but was unable to recapture past glories despite Giannini’s influence and the goals of German striker Rudi Völler.
The World Cup of 1990 approached – Italy’s own – and reputations would be made, enhanced or shattered off the back of the country’s showing. A cursory glance through the names in Azeglio Vicini’s 22-man squad demonstrates the depth of quality the host nation would bring to the party. The Italian public were justifiably expectant.
That squad was dominated by stars from the Milanese clubs, Juventus, Napoli and the new kids on the block – Sampdoria. Roma’s time had been and gone; Giannini its only representative for the Azzurri. But Il Principe still earned top billing thanks to his selection in the Team of the Tournament at Euro ’88 where his verve and panache helped Italy reach the semis.
Rather like Carlos Valderrama of Colombia and the magical Yugoslav Dragan Stojković, Giannini’s conducting skills were headlined to light up Italia ’90. Their orchestration of play, directing of moves, dictation of pace and tactics would feature heavily in the success – or otherwise – of their respective countries.
For Giannini – as is customary with most things Italian at major tournaments – events didn’t quite go to plan. The rigid 4-4-2 formation that had served AC Milan so effectively at home and in Europe was adopted by Vicini and thus Giannini’s natural inclination to wander was, to some extent, stifled. The Italians struggled to beat Austria and the USA (Giannini with the only goal) before a more convincing win over Czechoslovakia rounded off a group phase that was a little stodgier than it should have been. By the time the knockout stage came around, Italy were beginning to looking elsewhere for its saviours. Roberto Baggio had just made a contentious world record transfer (£8million) from Fiorentina to Juventus, just as the prime of his career beckoned. Several years before the ponytail appeared and defined him, his mazy dribble and calm finish against the Czechs wowed the critics. The more unlikely Italian hero was Salvatore Schillaci; with just one previous cap to his name before the tournament began, his goals – and performances – came as a bolt out of the Savoy blue.
Giannini, rather than standing out, began to lose himself amongst the ‘noise’ being made by the circus that surrounded Baggio, Schillaci, Vialli, Baresi and the others. His impact in the second round and quarter final was negligible, leading to his withdrawal (to be replaced by Carlo Ancelotti – his predecessor as captain of Roma) on the hour mark of a workmanlike team showing against the Irish on his home turf at the Olimpico. With others breathing down his neck for the starting spot, the semi-final – in Naples – against defending champions Argentina, and that man Diego, presented Giannini with another opportunity to fulfil his destiny as Italian football royalty. Sadly he, and his compatriots, stuttered just as his coronation was in sight.
Italy went ahead through that man Schillaci again after Giannini burst through the midfield to create an opening but the dogged Argentinians fought back; levelling through Claudio Caniggia. The match was nervy with both sides seemingly happy to play out an abrasive war of attrition. If ever a game needed one more deft Giannini flick, one crucial pass, a moment of subtlety that led to a chance, it was this one. It never came. His World Cup script remained unfinished; Baggio thrown into the Neopolitan cauldron in his place. In his adopted home city, Maradona inspired his men – more rugged and pragmatic than when successful in Mexico four years earlier – to an unexpected and unwelcomed final appearance after a victory on penalty kicks. The Italian nation collectively wept; Giannini and friends had fluffed their lines. Third place – earned in the play-off with England – was good but meant nothing to anyone.
Barely 18 months and 6 caps later at just 27 years old, the man who was supposed to be one of the heroes of the previous year’s tournament and the midfield linchpin of the star-studded Italy side for years to come, found himself on the international scrapheap – a victim of Arrigo Sacchi’s new regime.
Back with Roma, he was still their Prince despite the team falling even further behind their rivals, and to rub salt into the wounds, big spending Lazio began to challenge them for supremacy in the capital. The great Roma generation of the 80s last hurrah came in 1990-91 with another Coppa Italia triumph and a run to the UEFA Cup final where, over two legs, they came up agonisingly short against fellow Italians Internazionale; captain Giannini forced to watch former Azzurri colleague Giuseppe Bergomi lift the prestigious European trophy.
While the Prince never really ascended to the position of King, the natural heir to his Roman throne burst into the first team by the mid-90s. Francesco Totti grew up idolising Giannini as an avid fan of the Giallorossi and by 1996, the transfer of power was complete – the young pretender’s style and vision a more than adequate replacement for the deposed icon.
Giannini – like all toppled leaders should do – went into exile gracefully to allow the new man to reign unopposed, firstly with Sturm Graz and then down south with Napoli and Lecce. He hung up his boots in 1999 aged 35.
His career will forever be remembered in Rome but had he moved on during their decline and been able to maintain his initial success for the national side, Giuseppe Giannini’s name would rank significantly higher in the annals of football history than it does in retrospect. Perhaps his legacy is in the greatness he promised but couldn’t quite deliver – from which his successor learnt the most valuable of lessons.