After 55 years of hurt, England have finally reached their second final of a major tournament. On Sunday evening, the players will walk out onto the pitch for the most important game in the country’s history since July 30 1966.
The best two teams in the competition have reached the final and England’s opponents are Italy, the Azzurri. It seems fitting that England face Italy, a noble opponent in every sense of the word. Winners of the World Cup four times, it is something of a surprise that Italy have only won the European Championship once, in 1968.
They are a football nation with pedigree and history but there is no real rivalry or enmity with England as there is with Germany for example. England and Italy have faced each other 27 times; England winning eight, Italy 11, with eight draws. Five of those eight defeats have come in competition football either in qualifying matches for the World Cup and Euros or the actual tournament.
While there is no real rivalry to speak of there is certainly mutual respect. The Italians have a reverence for Wembley, referring to it as a ‘Temple of Football’ and indeed understand its significance, importance and place in the history of the game.
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English football supporters have long held Italian football in high esteem and arguably the love affair started in 1992 with ‘Football Italia’, Channel 4’s coverage of the Serie A league. Hosted by the urbane James Richardson, ‘Football Italia’ opened our eyes to a world of highly skilful, tactical football with a dose of the dark arts.
At the time, Serie A was the richest league in the world, the Premier League of its day, and the world’s best players graced its pitches. Players such as Maradona, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Roberto Baggio, George Weah, Jurgen Klinsman, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Gabriel Batistuta, Paolo Maldini. The list seemed endless.
Chelsea supporters were delighted to watch the matches with former Chelsea players Ray Wilkins and Paul Elliot as co-commentators. They were even more delighted when on May 31 1995, Glenn Hoddle’s first signing as manager was one of the leading lights of Serie A, the incomparable Ruud Gullit.
The tingling of excitement and disbelief felt by Chelsea supporters on learning that one of the greatest players in the game had signed for Chelsea lingers to this day.
It was the start of a revolution at Chelsea. A year later, Hoddle left to become England manager and Gullit was promoted. Gullit’s first signing was Italian superstar striker Gianluca Vialli and two more world class Italian players arrived that season in Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola. Chelsea were going continental and the Chelsea supporters were going mental.
There have been 15 Italian players who have donned the Royal Blue of Chelsea, but Chelsea supporters’ long running love affair with the Azzurri was founded in 1996 and continues to this day. As a result there are many London based Italians who are Chelsea fans.
It seems ironic that for many Chelsea supporters supporting England on Sunday, there will be mixed emotions in facing Italy, with two current Chelsea players in Jorginho and Emerson, but especially a veritable Chelsea legend among their management team – Gianluca Vialli.
Chelsea supporters have always loved Vialli as much for his persona as for his playing ability and achievements at the club. He completely embraced the club and its culture and his use of the English language, always charming with his use of English vernacular, often referring to the players as the “chaps” for example.
He is a one off, a huge personality laced with an eccentricity that fits perfectly with the English psyche. Paolo Di Canio’s autobiography revealed that while sharing a flat with him in their Sampdoria days, Vialli preferred to store his clothes in the kitchen in order to get them aired properly. Given that he also had a penchant for wandering around the flat naked, it is surprising he needed to store the clothes at all.
For all of Vialli’s quirks, eccentricity and charm, Chelsea supporters’ love for him predominantly stems from his achievements on the pitch for the club as a striker from 1996-1998 and then as the manager from 1998-2000.
Vialli is one of my favourite Chelsea players of all time and certainly one of my favourite strikers. He was the complete striker, able to play anywhere in the front three, but it was his highly intelligent movement and lethal finishing that always stood out; that and he had the heart of a lion.
He scored 40 goals in his 107 appearances for the club. Most of them are memorable or important.
His winner in the 2-1 away win against Manchester United in November 1996 gave rise to a classic terrace chant, appropriately to the tune of ‘That’s Amore’ :
“ When the ball hits the back of the United net, that’s Vialli; He nutmegged the Dane and poor Fergie’s in pain, it’s Vialli!”
Later that season, he scored the third and fourth goals that famously turned round a 2-0 half time deficit against Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup which Chelsea went on to win that season for the first time in 27 years. He scored four away to Barnsley in a 6-0 rout in August of the 1997-98 season and in October, single handedly, he changed the game away to Tromso in the European Cup Winners Cup.
With a pitch almost unplayable due to heavy snow, Chelsea found themselves 2-0 down to the Norwegian part-timers. Vialli skated through to make it 2-1 on 85 minutes only for Tromso to make it 3-1 in the 86th minute. No problem, Vialli did it again to make it 3-2 in the 89th minute. He followed this up with a hat-trick in the 7-1 win in the return leg and was instrumental in Chelsea’s progression to the final later in the season.
By that stage Vialli had replaced Ruud Gullit as the manager. His first game in charge was the Coca-Cola League Cup semi-final second leg at home to Arsenal. Chelsea trailed 2-1 from the first leg and had just lost 2-0 away to Arsenal in the Premier League, Gullit’s last match in charge.
Luca’s pre-game rallying call to his Chelsea ‘chaps’ was to toast his appointment with a glass of champagne. Chelsea duly played champagne football and beat Arsenal 3-1 to reach the final where they beat Middlesbrough 2-0 to lift the trophy, the first won by an Italian manager in the English game. Vialli followed this up two months later by leading the side to their second European trophy, the European Cup Winners Cup with a 1-0 win over Stuttgart in Stockholm.
By the time Vialli was surprisingly sacked by Ken Bates in September 2000, he had won the League Cup, Cup Winners Cup, European Super Cup, FA Cup and Charity Shield to become Chelsea’s most successful manager at that time.
The depth of feeling at Vialli’s sacking was immense and I remember chants of “Vialli, Vialli, Vialli” ringing out at Stamford Bridge well into that season. He is still adored, his achievements at the club hugely respected and his part in an Italian infused era at the club is fondly remembered.
Chelsea supporters were devastated to learn that Vialli was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer in 2017. Thankfully, he announced in April 2020 that he had been given the all clear. It has been a tonic to see Vialli celebrating on the touchline during this tournament, with his infectious grin, passion and sartorial elegance. Luca has always been the epitome of a gentleman, an Italian aristocrat both on and off the pitch, befitting of a man brought up in a 60-room castle in Cremona.
But for all the love that Chelsea supporters have for Vialli and for Italian football, England supporting Chelsea fans find themselves on opposite sides on Sunday, as will Mason Mount who is very likely to find himself up against his Chelsea team mates Jorginho and Emerson.
How England deal with Jorginho to stop his supply to Italy’s potent attack may be the key to victory on Sunday, as will attacking the upwardly mobile Emerson down the right flank.
England’s last five victories over Italy have all included Chelsea players in the line-up. Jimmy Greaves in the 3-2 win in a friendly in 1961; Ray Wilkins in the 3-2 win in the Bicentennial Cup in 1976 and again in the 2-0 win in a World Cup qualifier in 1977; Graeme Le Saux in the 2-0 win in the Tournoi and Gary Cahill and Frank Lampard in a 2-1 win in a friendly in 2012.
At 8pm on Sunday, my love for Gianluca Vialli and the Azzurri will be put on hold as I hope that Mason Mount (and maybe even Reece James and Ben Chilwell) make it the sixth win against Italy to include Chelsea players representing England.
I’m sorry Luca, but as far as the Final on Sunday is concerned it has to be “arrivederci, it’s one on one”.
David Chidgey is on the Board of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust and presents the award-winning Chelsea FanCast every Monday & Friday available from Acast, ITunes, Spotify or chelseafancast.com .