Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gigi Meroni - 'La farfalla granata'

Luigi 'Gigi' Meroni is a part of Italian football folklore. He was a footballer who drew a lot of controversy in Italy in the 1960's in the same way George Best did in Britain. However, at the time Italy was a much more conservative soceity, so a lot more scorn was poured on poor old Gigi, who unlike Best was more interested in the artistry of paint and paper than the artistry associated with Best. Like Best he was a winger who played on the wing, but could often cut inside and was known for sublime skills on the field and the ability to score and create goals from nothing.

Unfortunately, Gigi's story also helped add to the legend of the 'curse of Torino'. He died at the age of just 24 on 15 October 1967. He was out with a team mate celebrating a win against Sampdoria and was crossing the road to phone a girlfriend when he was hit by a car. Ironically the driver, Atillio Romero was a 19 year old Torino fan, who idolised Gigi to the point that he actually had a photo of him in his car at the time. There was to be another twist of fate, as in 2000 Romero became the president of Torino. It happened at a point in time when Torino seemed to be finally recovering from the Superga air crash of 1949 that had wiped out the all conquering 'Grande Torino' team of that period.

Gigi was born in the small, conservative town of Como in Lombardy on 24 Febraury 1943. He was one of 3 children and his father died when he was young, leaving his mother to bring up the family. He was obsessed with football from an early age and signed for his local team, Como in 1961. He was only there for a season though, playing 26 games and scoring goals before he was snapped up by fallen giants Genoa.

Meroni became an instant hit with the Genoa fans. However Genoa were a club in decline and were no strangers to corruption and doping scandals. Meroni himself was implicated in one of these scandals when in 1963 he claimed to have forgotten to attend a drug testing session he had been asked to attend. His excuse like Rio Ferdinand's a few years ago was that he forgot. Meroni only received a 5 match ban for this and it's difficult to know how innocent he was as the 3 players who did attend the session were found guilty of taking amphetamines.

It therefore seems ironic that this scandal didn't seem to cause outrage amongst the Italian public, however his hair and dress sense did. Meroni dressed like the Beatles with slightly longish hair and it was his hair that became a national obsession. The first time that Meroni was told to cut it for an under 21 international he obliged. However, the second time he wouldn't replying that he hoped he could play well even with long hair. In 1966 he also wasn't allowed to take the field against North Korea as he refused to have a hair cut and was then made the scapegoat for Italy's disaterous showing at the World Cup as a whole. The Italian public also poured scorn on him for his womanising ways and his organising of 'happenings'; the most famous being when he led a chicken on a lead around the town square in Como and then drove it down to the lake where he tried to put a bathing suit on it.

Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Meroni was a genius on the pitch and his beautifully chipped goal for Torino against Inter at the San Siro in 1967, as well as being recognised as one of the best goals ever scored was the first goal that the ultra defensive Inter had allowed in at the San Siro for 3 years. It should also be remembered that Meroni played at Torino for one of the strictest disciplinarians of Italian football at the time, Nereo Rocco. Italian football also commanded that the players lived like monks and they were often put under what seemed like house arrest after defeats under the strict 'ritirio' rules, which is given as one of the reasons why English players didn't fair so well over there.

Meroni's untimely death means that we will never know if he could have inspired Torino to emulate the Grande Torino of the 1940s. At his funeral 20,000 Torino fans turned out. Shortly before he died Torino had accepted a bid of 750 million lires from bitter rivals Juventus, a decision that had been overuled by the protestation of fans. However, although his popularity amongst the Granata faithful could never be doubted even his funeral provided some scandal with the public demanding that the priest, Francesco Ferraudo who eulogised about Gigi's skills, to be excommunicated by the Pope.

The game after Meroni's death has also gone down in Italian folklore. Torino took on bitter rivals Juventus. Torino won 4-0 with Nestor Combin opening the scoring on 3 minutes from long range. The crowd who had been silent started chanting 'Gigi, Gigi'. 4 minutes later Combin a close friend of Meroni added a second from even further out and 15 minutes into the second half he completed his hat-trick, dedicating the goals to the memory of Meroni. Fittingly the fourth goal was added by the player wearing Meroni's number 7 shirt. The result is still Torino's biggest ever Derby victory.

Meroni's total playing record was: Como 1961-2 played 26 scored 3; Genoa 1962-4 played 42 scored 7 and Torino 1964-7 played 103 scored 22.

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