By Keith Weir and Alvise Armellini
MILAN (Reuters) -Former Italy striker Gianluca Vialli, who earned 59 caps for his country and enjoyed a stellar club career with Sampdoria, Juventus and Chelsea, has died from cancer at the age of 58.
Vialli was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. He was given the all-clear a year later only for the illness to return.
Sampdoria confirmed on Friday that he had died.
“Surrounded by his family, he passed away last night after five years of illness faced with courage and dignity. We thank the many who have supported him over the years with their affection. His memory and example will live in our hearts forever,” Vialli’s family was quoted as saying in a statement by the Italian news agency ANSA.
Sampdoria, Juventus and Chelsea posted messages of mourning for Vialli on Twitter and on their websites.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni tweeted: “To God Gianluca Vialli, Lion King on the field and in life.”
Italy’s football federation (FIGC) said that a minute’s silence would be observed at all matches this weekend.
“I know that I probably will not die of old age, I hope to live as long as possible, but I feel much more fragile than before,” Vialli had said in a Netflix documentary aired in March 2022.
He described cancer as “a travel companion” that he hoped would eventually leave him in peace, after testing his mettle. “Illness can teach a lot about who you are, and can push you to go beyond the superficial way in which we live,” he said.
Vialli was however forced to step aside from his role as head of a delegation with the Italian national team last month, saying he needed to focus on overcoming a new phase of his disease.
Working with the Italy squad, Vialli had been reunited with national coach Roberto Mancini, a lifelong friend and strike partner when they both played for Sampdoria, where they were known as “the goal twins.”
Mancini and Vialli led Italy to the Euro 2020 tournament, which was delayed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, lifting the trophy at Wembley Stadium.
They celebrated with a tearful embrace that “was more beautiful than the hugs we used to give each other when I passed him the ball and he scored goals,” Vialli said in a TV interview with Italy’s RAI in November.
Their Sampdoria team had lost the European Cup final to Barcelona at the same venue 29 years earlier.
SUCCESS WITH SAMPDORIA
The son of a wealthy industrialist, Vialli first emerged as a young player with his local team Cremonese in Italy’s third and second tiers.
He moved to Sampdoria in 1984 and helped them enjoy the most successful period in their history, winning the Italian Cup three times. Vialli scored twice as Sampdoria beat Anderlecht 2-0 in 1990 to lift the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
He also played a major role when Sampdoria claimed the Serie A title in 1991 for the first and only time, scoring 19 goals.
Vialli left the Genoa-based club in the summer of 1992, moving to Juventus, where after a sluggish start he rediscovered his goalscoring touch and helped the Turin giants win the Italian league in 1995 and the Champions League the following season.
He joined London club Chelsea on a free transfer in 1996 and became player manager two years later when Dutchman Ruud Gullit was sacked.
Under Vialli, Chelsea won the League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup in 1998 and the FA Cup two years later before he too was dismissed.
His last managerial role was in charge of Watford in the English second tier in 2001-2002.
After leaving team management, Vialli co-founded sports investment firm Tifosy Capital.
Vialli leaves a wife and two daughters.
(Additional reporting by Gianluca Semeraro; editing by Hugh Lawson, John Stonestreet and Toby Davis)