PIERLUIGI ‘TYSON’ CASIRAGHI: A warrior NEVER gives up
It’s 8 November 1998.
One of London’s most heartfelt derbies is being staged at Upton Park.
The West Ham of the young and promising Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand hosts the Chelsea of Gianluca Vialli, a team that thanks to the graft of great players like Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo, Marcel Desailly has returned to the top of English and European football, having triumphed in the Cup Winners’ Cup the previous season.
West Ham has had a very good start to the season and is fresh from a brilliant away success at Newcastle. The protagonist was the ‘old’ Ian Wright, who, although in the twilight of a great career, can still ‘find’ the opponent’s goal with ease. Chelsea, after a difficult start to the season, is slowly recovering and is rapidly climbing to the top of the league table.
The start is of the ‘claret & blue’ brand.
It was a (by no means irresistible) free kick by Neil Ruddock that brought the hosts forward.
Chelsea reacted vehemently.
After 24 minutes of the game it was Gianfranco Zola who received the ball on the right three-quarter of the Hammers’ defence.
He glanced into the middle and saw Pierluigi Casiraghi dictate the cross at the first post.
Zola’s ball is perfect.
Round the back of the defence.
The Blues’ new signing, who arrived from Lazio in the summer, pounced on the ball like a fury, but before he could take a touch that would almost certainly have been a sure shot, the young Ferdinand, with an exquisite acrobatic intervention, beat Casiraghi by a fraction of a second.
Casiraghi, however, was already on the breakaway.
The goalkeeper Hislop (193 centimetres for almost 90 kilograms of weight) also dived on the ball but he too was narrowly anticipated by his team-mate.
The clash between the two is inevitable.
The moment Casiraghi puts his right foot on the ground Hislop lands on him with all his weight.
Casiraghi remains on the ground, motionless.
He can only scream out his pain and raise his right arm for help.
Casiraghi leaves the field on a stretcher.
On a football pitch, with a number on his shoulders and a football uniform, Pierluigi Casiraghi will never set foot there again.
He is only 29 years old.
His injury is one of the most horrendous seen on a football pitch.
Nothing has been saved in ‘Tyson’ Casiraghi’s knee.
Anterior and posterior cruciate, collateral and meniscus.
As if that were not enough, there is an irrecoverable injury to the ‘external popliteal sciatic’ nerve, which is basically the one that serves to coordinate the movements of the lower leg and foot.
Pierluigi Casiraghi does not give up.
His courage on the pitch is proverbial and so is his courage off it.
Months and months of re-education, operations, trials and hopes.
Nothing could be done.
In August 2000, at only 31 years of age, Gigi hung up his boots.
All too soon.
Casiraghi still had so much to give and would surely have won his English ‘bet’ and perhaps regained ‘his’ place in Dino Zoff’s national team.
It was not possible.
‘It had to be this way,’ Gigi says in practically every interview with such serenity and a touch of fatalism.
Casiraghi remained in football, as coach (among other things of a great and unlucky Under-21 team), often collaborating with his friend Gianfranco Zola until April 2017 in Birmingham, in the English Championship.
More opportunities will come soon, because Italian football really, really needs one of Pierluigi Casiraghi’s experience and intelligence.
“If football was played standing still he probably couldn’t even play in the Third Division. But football is a game of movement and at that point he becomes one of the strongest forwards around’.
These were the words used by Arrigo Sacchi to define Pierluigi Casiraghi.
They summarise in an excellent way the characteristics of this striker, who in his career divided the opinion of fans and insiders like few others, between those who did not like him too much because of his not exactly excellent technique and those who instead were crazy about him for his physical, moral and character qualities.
Right from his debut with Monza, where he formed a devastating attacking pair with Maurizio Ganz, ‘Gigi’ Casiraghi was immediately noted for those characteristics that would accompany him throughout his career.
A great dynamism, an uncommon grit and determination and above all an explosive ‘physicality’ that made him a really tough customer even for the roughest and most aggressive central defenders.
His best technical skill is his extraordinary acrobatic ability.
Spins, crosses, diving headers and, above all, impressive elevation.
Casiraghi looks like a footballer out of the 1970s.
A Boninsegna, a Pulici, a Prati or a Riva (who would say of Casiraghi ‘he is the modern footballer who looks most like me’).
In short, one of those penalty area ‘animals’ always ready to put his head where others fear to tread.
In reality, Pierluigi does have an idol.
He, who has always been a Milan fan, grew up in the myth of Mark ‘Attila’ Hateley, who, even if only for a few seasons at Milan, made the Rossoneri people fall in love with him precisely because of the characteristics that Casiraghi seems to have inherited in full.
The big clubs in our league realised very quickly the great value of this striker. Milan and Juventus in particular are competing for him to the tune of billions.
It was the Bianconeri who came out on top.
A Coppa Italia match between Monza and Juventus seems to have been decisive.
Casiraghi was man-marked by the giant Juventus stopper Sergio Brio, not exactly a lord. Brio beat him but the ‘boy’ replied blow for blow, using his shoulders, elbows and that robust and agile physique.
At the end of the match Brio approaches Boniperti. ‘President, that Casiraghi is a gladiator. A force of nature. We could use someone like that.
Boniperti trusted his rocky defender, overcame competition from AC Milan (who ‘fell back’ on Marco Simone) and signed for the Bianconeri.
He would remain at Juventus for four seasons, with ups and downs, with some great satisfaction (the triumph in the first season in the Uefa Cup and Coppa Italia) and some disappointment (the very limited use in the last season, closed by players of the value of Vialli, Roberto Baggio, Ravanelli and the German Moller).
At this point the decision, painful but right, to leave the bianconeri to join Lazio where Gigi found his mentor Dino Zoff.
In the meantime, however, Gigi Casiraghi joined the Italian national team where he found in Arrigo Sacchi a great admirer.
He was part of the Azzurri’s expedition to the 1994 World Cup in the United States and at the 1996 European Championships he was the undisputed starter in the centre of attack alongside Gianfranco Zola (with whom he would cement a deep relationship of friendship and professional collaboration).
It was precisely in those European Championships that Casiraghi probably played the match of his life, scoring the decisive brace in the opening match against Russia … only to find himself on the bench in the match against the Czech Republic, which practically cost us qualification for the next round!
In his first season at Lazio, Casiraghi formed an excellent attacking pair with Beppe Signori. The few goals (4) scored by the Brianza bomber that season should not deceive.
Casiraghi fought like a lion, opened up spaces, and acted as a foot and header for his team-mate who, thanks to Gigi’s painstaking work, was able to ‘free’ his deadly left-footed shot.
The Lazio public is anything but unfazed.
He does not measure Casiraghi’s worth with goals, but with the sweat and courage that ‘Tyson’ (this is the nickname he would be given) puts into every single game for the full 90-odd minutes of the match.
In November of that year, however, everything seemed to change, obviously for the worse for Casiraghi.
Lazio bought another striker … and what a striker!
His name is Alen Boksic.
The Croatian arrived fresh from the title of European Champion won with Olympique Marseille and for Casiraghi the nightmare of the last Juventus season returned: with a contender of this level the risk of sitting on the bench was almost taken for granted.
Zoff almost always favoured the Boksic-Signori pairing and for Casiraghi there were almost always only game-time appearances.
The following season saw the arrival of the Bohemian Zdenek Zeman on the Lazio bench.
Casiraghi was divine at Roma, the fans loved him and he only wanted to reciprocate this affection with the performances he knew in his heart he was capable of giving.
But there are many doubts.
What if Zeman does what Zoff did?
Zeman cannot do without playing with three strikers and the fact that he has three players of this level is an unmissable opportunity for the Bohemian.
Casiraghi, who would basically have to do the ‘dirty’ work for two acknowledged bombers like Signori and Boksic, would actually become as lethal as ever, scoring 12 goals in his second season (his first with Zeman) and as many as 14 the following one.
“I never struggled so much in training before or after. During the week it was torture. But on Sunday we were having the time of our lives! For Zeman, football was 90% offensive and 10% defensive. I played the best years of my life with him and I learnt more from him in those two years than in the rest of my career,’ Casiraghi recalls at every opportunity when speaking of the Bohemian coach.
A quatern of goals against Fiorentina, a wonderful acrobatic goal in the Roman derby.
(lazio vs fiorentina)
(lazio vs roma)
But ‘Zemanlandia’ also came to an end for the Biancocelesti.
A colourless start to the 1996-97 season cost the Bohemian coach his job, with Dino Zoff leading the Lazio side to the end of the season, which nevertheless ended with a flattering fourth place, although lower than expected, especially after the previous two championships.
In the following season, the fourth for Casiraghi at Lazio, the film already seen at Juventus was repeated.
In came Sven-Goran Eriksson, a Swedish coach capable of great European triumphs with teams not in the top tier such as Benfica and, above all, Goteborg (who were even brought to triumph in the Uefa Cup) and who had just finished a few seasons earlier with excellent results on the bench of his cousins Roma.
With Eriksson also came Roberto Mancini who, with Signori, Boksic, Rambaudi and Nedved, made the offensive department of the Biancocelesti ‘eagles’ very populated.
The following summer was the French World Cup and Casiraghi wanted a place in Cesare Maldini’s squad at all costs.
The fear of not being able to play a starring role in the team with the consequence of disappearing from the national team’s radar are more than justified worries for a balanced and intelligent boy like Casiraghi.
The love for the white and blue colours, for the city and that special relationship that has been created with the fans since the first outings in the summer friendlies in the summer of 1993 ended up convincing Gigi to stay.
It would not be an amazing season in the Championship (only a 7th place finish) but in the Cups Lazio would give their best, winning the Coppa Italia in the final against AC Milan and reaching the final of the Uefa Cup, then lost to Ronaldo’s Inter.
At the World Cup, however, Casiraghi will not go. Inzaghi and Bobo Vieri are preferred to him.
It does not end there.
The latter was bought by Lazio right at the end of the World Cup.
Casiraghi is really forced to change air.
A tempting offer arrives, which is also a wonderful personal challenge; Luca Vialli’s Chelsea want him at all costs.
There are already two other compatriots there besides Vialli as coach/player: his friend Gianfranco Zola and the strong midfielder Roberto Di Matteo.
The English league seems tailor-made for Casiraghi.
Every match is a battle, the physical confrontation is not only accepted but strongly desired by the public.
Casiraghi is not afraid of anything or anyone, he takes it and gives it without any kind of qualms.
The adventure gets off to the best possible start.
The European Super Cup, played in Monaco, pits the ‘Blues’ at Stamford Bridge against reigning European champions Real Madrid.
And it was Chelsea who came out on top with a goal in the final by Gus Poyet, the strong Uruguayan midfielder.
His start in the league, however, did not live up to expectations.
His commitment, his relentless movement, his willingness to fight on every ball make him appreciated by the Stamford Bridge crowd, but it is clear that the adaptation time for Casiraghi is longer than expected.
In addition, there is Tore-André Flo, who is pawing at the ball and who, when he comes off the bench in his place, almost always manages to find the way to goal.
Vialli continues to give confidence to Casiraghi and finally, in one of the most prestigious stages in the English league, the bomber from Brianza gets unblocked.
Liverpool – Chelsea was being played, obviously at Anfield Road.
The match has been underway for a handful of minutes when there is a splendid throw in from the back by Roberto Di Matteo that cuts through the Liverpool defence like butter. Casiraghi’s movement to dictate the pass behind the two Reds centre-backs was as perfect as his touch on the volley that allowed him to run past David James, the Liverpool goalkeeper, and then deposit into the net in the unguarded goal.
Marvellous in this case was the jubilation of Gianluca Vialli from the bench who had defended Casiraghi tooth and nail from the ever-increasing criticism for his performances not living up to the fame and money spent by the Blues.
It can be a new beginning.
A new-found form in a league, the English one, which is rapidly becoming one of the most important in the world, perhaps even crowning the dream of winning a championship after having come close to winning a couple with Juventus and Lazio, and who knows, maybe a small place in the new national team of his first great admirer, Dino Zoff, who in the meantime has gone to sit on the bench of the national team.
Everything, but really everything, would end just over a month later in the derby against West Ham in that dramatic clash with Hammers goalkeeper Shaka Hislop.
“I’m often asked what I would do if I could go back to seconds before that terrible clash. In hindsight I should have stopped, slowed my run and avoided the impact that destroyed my knee.
… but then I think … if I had done that I wouldn’t have been Pierluigi Casiraghi!”