We take a look at the life of Christian Vieri, a man who almost didn’t play football, but when he turned to it, had a career many would kill for.
Change is uncomfortable to most, especially in an era where resources are increasingly scarce. It is but human nature, to resist change, to think of a challenge as a daunting task rather than an opportunity to add a new chapter in one’s life. We humans are more comfortable with a routine, than we are with a day when we do not know what will happen to us.
At this point, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. A person who craves for change, someone who gets easily bored of the mundane, everyday routine that drives most of us – a nomad. In layman’s terms, a nomad is the one who wanders. Originally, the entire human civilization was nomadic in nature. Our ancestors wandered from place to place, be it due to the lack of resources, the danger a place possessed, or simply to explore. Over time though, they settled down. They built empires, they grew crops, they knew where their food would come from tomorrow, and where they would sleep at night. Routine became a habit, change became an avoidable endeavor. Nomads do not get attached to a place, and the ability to change is ingrained in them.
Nomadic behavior and traits are something that is present in every field of life, and football is no different. Take the case of Nicolas Anelka, who played for more than ten clubs in a career that spanned nearly two decades, and the most time he spent at a single one was four seasons. Another interesting case is the one of Matej Delac, the famous Chelsea “loanee” who is now the club’s longest serving player but is yet to play even one senior game for the Blues. Delac has been on loan since as long as memory goes back, and has played for over eight clubs at the age of 25.
Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs called it a day a few years ago, the ever dependable Philip Lahm retired from duty last season, John Terry is no longer the Chelsea captain, and Francesco Totti does not play for Roma anymore. To expand this, think of the Maldini family for instance – Cesare Maldini spent twelve of his fifteen years as professional footballer with Milan. His son is, of course, the great Paolo Maldini who played for the club for over two decades and won everything there is to win in club football, a few times over. His son, in turn, is now in the Milan youth team.
With the Tottis and the Del Pieros, the era of loyalty seems bygone, but there was a time when it well and truly thrived. Especially in Italy, and we romanticised this to no end. There was one, however, in this age of loyalists and gladiators that went from team to team (no less than twelve, in fact) and who left his mark on football in a very different way. Step up, Christian “Bobo” Vieri.
Vieri’s CV paints quite a picture. Having scored over 230 goals in around 480 games, Vieri has won multiple honours which include the Serie A, the Coppa Italia, European Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. On an individual level, he is the joint top scorer for the Azzurri in the World Cup finals, where he has nine goals in as many games in two editions of the tournament. Alongside this, Vieri has been named Serie A Footballer of the Year once, has won the Pichichi Trophy, and was elected into the FIFA XI once alongside being named by Pele in his FIFA 100. At one point, he was the most expensive transfer of all time too.
Not a bad resume. Not bad at all.
However, it was not all smooth sailing for one of football’s greatest nomads. Constant injuries and managerial changes failed Vieri in his bid to win the Serie A with the club he spent most time with – Internazionale. It also prevented the world from seeing a potential dream duo in the form of him and Luis Ronaldo combining together at their respective peaks. The sheer prospect is spine-chilling.
A serious knee injury halted Vieri’s dreams of being a part of the Italian squad for the 2006 World Cup, in which twenty-three of his compatriots reached the ultimate heights a footballer can. The prolific striker could do nothing but lick his wounds and let his mind wander as to what could have been.
A summary of his career or a glance at his records will give a sense of unfulfilled potential, and for the best part, it perhaps was. Vieri lived in the golden age of Italian football, and within the Del Pieros, Baresis and other luminaries, his name is one that is seemingly lost, or does not hold up to the same standard.
However, pushing such a narrative on one of the greatest strikers of the last four decades would be unfair. It is easy to remember the fact that Vieri finished as a runner up more than a winner, but it is more important to remember Bobo for who he really was – a deadly striker with an instinct for goal that few in his, or any era, had. While the Maldini family were as Italian as Don Vito Corleone, Vieri’s beginnings were vastly different. Despite his love for one particular club never being a factor in play, he is deserving of a mention right besides the generals of footballing royalty. At his peak, not only was Vieri one of the most sought out strikers in the world, but he was an attacking threat like few we had seen until, or since then. In terms of combining nomadic behavior and goalscoring ability, perhaps one Zlatan Ibrahimovic would like to be a part of the conversation here – then again, there is no conversation that Zlatan would avoid.
Born in Italy in 1973, Vieri’s dad was also a professional footballer. However, a move to Australia in the 70’s changed his early outlook towards life. It was not Pele and Maradona that he grew up admiring; but one Allan Border. Fret not if the name does not ring a bell, but Border was sporting legend in his own right; just not one that all football fans might be familiar with – he was a pioneering batsman and captain for the Australian national team. Vieri loved cricket as much as his father did football, and one can imagine that it would have been some turmoil in the youngster’s brain at the point when he did indeed chose to play the beautiful game, rather than the gentleman’s game. He played for Australian club Marconi Stallions at the age of 14, but subsequently his family moved back to Italy and so began a life of different Italian clubs and records for the boy who was torn between two sports. The move to Italy enforced his mind as to which direction his career would follow – years later though, the striker still admitted that he would have loved to play cricket professionally. At such a young age, he had already learned how to adapt to, and accept change for what it was – in his case, an inevitability that shaped his future.
Vieri’s first taste of Italian professional football came with A.C Santa Lucia, a team from Prato. He was in his late teen at the time, and his talent did not go unnoticed. He became affiliated with the club and played for them in Serie C, where he netted several goals in games and he impressed many Serie A scouts. Torino made a move for the striker, but Prato were unwilling to sell who they saw as a promising youngster. To convince the President of the club to sell the striker, Torino also had to buy the President’s son, who was a goalkeeper. Not even past his teenage years yet, and Vieri’s story was already off to a fascinating start.
Vieri failed to create a lasting impression at Torino which led to a short first spell in Italy’s premier competition, and thus began the trend that he became so famous for. Unlike Messi who had scored a hat-trick against Real Madrid at nearly the same age, or Luis Ronaldo with whom Vieri would later share a dressing room, the story of “Bobo” was not one where you could point to him and say – “This lad will be the biggest thing in football in years to come.” It was a slow start with different beginnings, but one which ultimately paved the path that he came to walk on.
From Torino he moved to Serie B club Pisa, where he would again fail to properly impress. From there, the striker moved on to another Serie B club Ravenna, wherein his goalscoring prowess came to fray for the first time. 12 goals in just over 30 appearances was however not enough for Vieri to spend more than one season at the club. His one-year-one-club policy came into play and he left for another team from the same league, Venezia, where again his goal tally reached double digits.
Vieri was aged 21 at this point of his career and had already played professional football for four senior teams. Back-to-back impressive seasons saw Atlanta give him a path into the top tier, where he took his second chance at the top and scored an impressive 9 goals in 21 appearances. The big clubs started to take notice of the young striker who possessed great physical strength, was good aerially, and had a bullet of a shot. It was Juventus who came calling this time, and they would be the sixth club that the forward would play for. The Turin based club had just won the Champions League the previous season, which was a testament to how highly the 23 year-old was rated at the time – you do not make the squad of the defending European club champions unless you’re insanely talented. The world was starting to take notice of the brilliant player who was yet to spend more than one year at the same club.
Vieri’s time at his first big club wasn’t bad, but although his game had changed, his policy of not sticking to one club hadn’t. The former Torino, Prato, Pisa, Atlanta (well, you get the idea) man won his first Serie A title with Juventus, but a move to another team beckoned. This time however, it was not to a lower league team (he had become far too good for that), but in another country altogether – Spain had called, and Vieri picked up the phone as he departed for Atletico Madrid.
It was a strange move for the striker who was, at the end of the day, an Italian international just about to enter his prime years. In his autobiography much later on, Vieri admitted that this move was more to do with his finances rather than his “inner child” guiding him out of the country. Regardless, that particular season turned out to be absolutely wonderful for the player on a personal level, even though his club did not win anything – Vieri scored a massive 24 goals in La Liga in as many appearances, taking the Pichichi Trophy home as a result.
After this season, Vieri’s stock rose more than the Sydney-based boy who loved cricket would have ever expected. He had already overtaken his father’s achievements in the game, and he was just about to turn 25 with the world at his feet. Would he stay now, or was it time to move again?
Atletico finished seventh that season, and despite being a sensation for the Madrid-based outfit, Vieri returned to Italy to play for Lazio, who paid €25M for the player’s services.
Perhaps it was during this move, that Vieri truly found his home. His impressive performances earned him a place in the Italian squad for the 1998 World Cup, and he was their star man in that tournament, netting five goals – but sadly, his country could only reach the quarter finals. Italy were led by the formidable duo of Vieri and Roberto Baggio, but ultimately crashed out against eventual winners France. However, he put that behind him, and soon, Vieri was ready for a new challenge at his eighth club in as many years at the senior level. Perhaps, he would finally settle at one place.
And he almost did. Lazio were ambitious, and Vieri paired upfront with Marcelo Salas and scored 12 league goals in 22 appearances, as well as the opener in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final, which Lazio won 2-1. His goal return was good, but Lazio narrowly missed out on the Serie A title after they finished a mere one point behind eventual winners, AC Milan. On the very last day of the season, Lazio needed a win to clinch the title but failed to get all 3 points, and Milan won their game. It wasn’t the first time Vieri was left excruciatingly short of glory, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Vieri had already put together several successful goalscoring seasons and was now a household name. It took a world record transfer fee of €49 million, all the way back in 1999, that tested Lazio’s resolve and led them to selling the goal-machine to Inter Milan. If you’ve lost count, this was Vieri’s ninth club, and it would be the first one to break the pattern of a different club each year.
Of course, perhaps that was to be expected. Inter would not have broken a transfer fee record if they did not expect great things from their newest acquisition. It was here that Vieri would find a place to stay for more than a year for the first time since he moved from Australia. It was here that he would showcase his impressive skillset to the fullest in the years to come. It was also here, however, that his career would come to be defined as “almost there, but not quite.”
By the time he played his first game for Inter, Vieri had already over 70 club career goals to his name – but, he had also lost in the finals of two European cup competitions and had missed out on a second Serie A title by just one point. The constant moving meant that fans of a single club had not yet been attached to the player in a way similar to someone like Totti, and that one big season with a club where he could win the ultimate trophy was evading Vieri. The striker did not stop scoring – it was just that even at a club where he spent the prime of his career, an important trophy just always seemed out of reach.
Vieri’s time at Inter saw him being voted the best player of Serie A once, and the best Italian player twice. However, constant injuries meant that the dream duo of Ronaldo and Vieri could be seen only as often as the moon that declares that Eid is here, before the Brazilian ultimately moved to Madrid. He scored 24 goals in the 2002/03 season which made him the top scorer of the league, yet the season before he could only watch as his team missed out on the Serie A title again due to a defeat on the last day. He helped his team reach the Champions League semifinals, but an untimely injury meant that he could only watch as city rivals AC Milan got the better of his club.
The story of the famous 2001-02 season was particularly heartbreaking for Bobo. Reminiscent of his season with Lazio, this time Vieri took the field for Inter against his former club as his team needed a win to take the title home. Vieri scored the opening goal of the game, but he became a spectator to his team’s sloppy defending that saw Lazio win the game 4-2, and both Roma and Juventus moved ahead of Inter in the table. For the second time in four seasons, the prolific forward had missed out on the Serie A title by a whisker, both due to his team’s failure to perform on the last day.
His luck with Italy was no better. Although Vieri netted four goals in the 2002 edition of the World Cup, his country failed to go all the way. It was the match against South Korea that really highlighted Vieri’s career in one game as he was the hero and the villain in the same game. He shrugged off a defender to bullet a header past the hosts in 2002 to give his team the lead, but bad defending meant that the opponents got one back in the dying stages of regulation time. A game that has lived in infamy mainly due to controversial refereeing decisions (such as the second yellow to Totti in extra time), it could all have been avoided had Vieri finished a chance from six yards out – normally a chance that the striker would finish in his sleep. Vieri messed it up and hit the ball as wide as that Roberto Baggio penalty all those years ago. The consequences weren’t directly as bad, but it was again a matter of what could have been for a team that seemed to have it all. To add salt to the wounds, he watched from home as his club strike partner, Ronaldo, scored a brace for Brazil in the finals to give his country their fifth World Cup.
After six years and over a hundred league goals, Vieri only had the one Coppa Italia win to show for his time at Inter. His last two seasons saw him suffering unfortunate knocks, and although he could still be relied on, he was no longer the beast that Inter had broken the world record transfer fee for – a shadow of the physically intimidating, fierce competitor that he once was.
Vieri moved on at the age of 32, but he stayed at the San Siro as he joined direct rivals AC Milan. Owing to the fact that he was past his prime at this stage, the move did not generate the hysteria that it would have a few seasons ago, but it was still controversial. A move to direct rivals rarely isn’t.
It was his tenth senior club, but for all practical purposes his time at the Rossoneri was as memorable as his time at Prato or Pisa. As a last ditch effort to make it to the Italian squad for the 2006 World Cup, Vieri moved outside Italy for the third time in his life, and for the second time in his professional career as he tried to revive himself at Monaco. Interestingly, Milan won the Champions League the very next season – another trophy that the striker could ultimately never capture.
Bobo suffered a knee injury in March which ruled him out for the season, and therefore dashed all his hopes for a chance at redemption for his national team. One can only sympathise with the man, as he saw his fellow teammates lift the World Cup in Germany – the ultimate prize that eventually would elude him too.
Vieri wasn’t done just yet, returning to Atalanta for a season before moving to Fiorentina and finally back again to Atalanta, in his last season where he played for only €1,500 a month. At that point he said that it was more about pleasure than anything else. Vieri finally called it quits at the age of 36 after being released by only the second club he had spent more than one season with.
All in all, Vieri had played for twelve professional clubs in five different leagues which included two lower level leagues, and he had spent more than one season at only two of these teams – and only one of them at a stretch. Although the furthest he reached with his national team in the World Cup was the quarter final stage, he scored nine goals in nine games – a record few can boast of beating. Although he finished as a runner up in Serie A multiple times, he finished as the top scorer in two different top leagues. He never managed to win the Champions League, but at a dinner party he can proudly say that he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Baggio, Paolo Maldini, Buffon, Francesco Totti and Ronaldo, and with remarkable distinction. Three of those names don’t have a Champions’ League gold medal either.
If you were to plot Vieri’s career on a graph, it would be a most interesting image. From Australia to Serie C, to Serie A to Serie B, to Serie A to La Liga, to Serie A to Ligue 1, to finally calling it quits at the club where he made his first prominent mark in the game. At his best, he was a physically intimidating figure that would make defenders quake in their boots. His foot was a rocket, and his header was a cannonball. His genius was recognized by Pele himself as the Brazilian named him among the 100 greatest living footballers, and even though Pele’s opinions change as often as Vieri himself changed clubs, that is high praise.
There is little doubt that Vieri will have regrets over how his career panned out. Every player values team trophies over individual accolades, and it was only the injuries that stopped Vieri from becoming the player he could have been. He was born amidst the golden generation of Italian football, and it is remarkable that in a team that consisted of the likes of Baggio and Totti, Vieri was never outshone for long by anyone. Looking back at his career, perhaps the boy from Australia will be happy that he chose to kick the ball into the back of the net rather than try and hit it out of the park.
18 years. 12 clubs. 236 goals. One nomad, one man. Bobo Vieri was truly an enigma, a different side of Italian football that deserves to be lauded.