When recalling the greatest Italian footballers of the 1960s, most would think of Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola or Gigi Riva, possibly due to his relatively short professional playing career or perhaps because of the limited appearances he made for the Azzurri, but a life is full of intrigue, achievement and tragedy. You would be forgiven for forgetting poetry reading, art loving, Beatles fan: Gigi Meroni.
Born 24 February 1943 in the beautiful town of Como, Lombardy, Italy, north of Milan and just south of the Swiss border, Luigi along with brother Celestino and sister Maria, were raised solely by mother Rosa after their father passed away in 1945. The family struggled financially, lived in a small area of town and football could only be found in a courtyard of 60 square meters, he then joined the San Bartolomeo Church football team where he began to hone his footballing skills.
The 1946 Italian general election, the first after World War II, resulted in the Democratic Catholic Party winning with 35.2% of the vote. Breaking decisively with its Communist and Socialist coalition partners under pressure from Harry Truman (33rd president of the US) in May 1947, the party went on to win a decisive victory in 1948 general election with the support of both the Catholic Church and the United States and won 48.5% of the vote. Como, Lombardy was a fairly conservative place whilst Gigi was growing up and it’s perhaps the restrictions conservatism that lead him to become the liberal, free spirit he became.
At 17 years old, he started playing with his local youth team of Como, and by the start of the 1961/62 season he was a first team player making 25 appearances in 38 games, he began to make a name for himself; stylish, effortless dribbling, unpredictable movement of the ball and a keen eye for a nutmeg or delicate chip into danger, or the net. Como finished 14th that season and Serie B was won by Genoa who saw the talent of Meroni and signed him that summer to join them in the top flight the following season.
Meroni’s first season saw him make only 15 appearances, scoring once and Genoa finishing just one place outside the relegation zone. Meroni then found himself at the centre of a doping scandal on the last day of the season, failing to provide a sample for officials, claiming he had forgotten his test at the hotel. It may have been overlooked, had three of his team mates not tested positive for amphetamines. Meroni was suspended for the first five matches of the following season but despite the incident he established himself as one of Italy’s hottest prospects for the future, helping Genoa finish 8th in Serie A, scoring 6 goals in 27 games.
By the age of 20 years old Meroni gained a reputation of being a “playboy”; smart suits with fashionable sunglasses, McCartney style hair with a pencil moustache, convertible Aprilla, still painting in his spare time, he then received the call to represent the Italy B team on conditions, set by manager, Edmondo Fabbri, Gigi gets his ear length hair cut shorter, such was the general strict conservatism in Italy at the time. At the end of the season Torino made an offer of 450 million Lira, which is approximately £200,000 a highest fee for a 21 year old, an offer too good for Genoa to turn down, and the summer of 1964 saw Gigi Meroni sign for Torino.
Torino has just acquired the prolific management of Nereo Rocco who had just won the European Cup with AC Milan. Torino had struggled to compete at the top since the Superga plane crash of May 1949, the team known as Grande Torino that won five Serie A titles between 1942 and 1949. In his first season Torino finished 3rd in Serie A and reached the semi final of the UEFA Cup Winners Cup. He played every game that season scoring 5 goals, he was nicknamed La Farfalla Granata – The Burgundy Butterfly, as Burgundy is the colour of Torino’s home shirt. Meroni was quick, creative and agile, and a modern right-winger that wore the number 7 shirt. Due to his unique offensive style of play, he combined searing pace with grace and outstanding technique, often compared to George Best throughout his career, a comparison strengthened by their similar hairstyle, lifestyle, and personality. He was also called; Beatnik Del Gol – the beatnik of football, for his artistic interests and “hippie” lifestyle.
Torino had an excellent season, finishing in their highest league position for 15 years, and just missing out on a place in the Cup Winners Cup final after losing in a play off match against 1860 Munich in Zurich, Meroni scored 3 goals the team’s 9 matches.
Torino saw Meroni as the saviour that Sandro Mazzola should have been as a Torino youth player that left for success with Internazionale in 1960. Meroni wore his socks low and no matter how hard he was kicked or how many times he was fouled, he got up and continued to play, a man with character and was always the target for the press, mainly because he was different from the other footballers, longer hair, different clothes and a different perspective and attitude towards life. The press constantly tried to make links between Meroni and Communism, sometimes simply because he had facial hair, as did Fidel Castro and Che Guevera. They were also overly concerned with Merino’s long-term girlfriend Christina Uderstadt, that had been separated from her husband, something heavily frowned upon in Italy, he would often pretend she was his sister, there was also the strange incident in Como’s main plazza where Meroni and fellow Torino teammate Fabrizio Poletti walked a chicken on a leash and tried to dress it in swimming trunks.
In 1965 Torino qualified for the Inter Cities Fairs Cup, but this season was not to be as successful as the previous, Torino were knocked out of the competition in the first round by Leeds United and had an inconsistent season in Serie A finishing tenth. On 1 November 1965, Italy coach Edmondo Fabbri called Meroni up to the senior national team – Gigi refused to cut his hair. Meroni made a total of 6 appearances for Italian national team. He made his debut on 19 March 1966, in a 0–0 away draw against France. He scored the first goal for the Azzurri in Bologna, 14 June 1966, marking the sixth goal of the Italy / Bulgaria 6–1 friendly match in preparation for the World Cup. He scored a goal in the other friendly, Italy / Argentina 3–0, held in Turin eight days later. During this game, Sandro Mazzola was heavily booed by his hometown fans for being picked ahead of Meroni to start the game. At half time they were swapped and Meroni came on to score. Fabbri selected Gigi for the World Cup squad to travel to England, Italy were drawn in Group 4 along with Chile, North Korea and the Soviet Union. Italy beat Chile 2-0 in the first game, with Meroni on the bench. In their second game they lost 1-0 to the Soviet Union, this time Meroni did start but Fabbri had seen enough and dropped him for the final group game against North Korea. With Italy second in the group needing only a draw to take them through, Italy saw themselves eliminated after losing 1-0. There was outrage back in Italy, the press needed somebody to be held responsible, Italy was a country where it’s football clubs were as regimented as its military and Meroni’s disregard for their strict regulations saw him depicted as a troublemaking hedonist. His long hair and beard, his flamboyant attire, and his dark glasses incurred the wrath of many conservative elements of the Italian sporting press, attacking him personally, giving him racially motivated nicknames and accusing him of devaluing the nation’s colours.
The summer was over, Meroni was back at Torino and about to embark on his best season to date; scoring 9 goals in 31 matches. The moment he will mostly be remembered for, in a Torino shirt came on 12 March 1967 against league leaders Internationale at the San Siro. Managed by master tactician Helenio Herrera, Grande Inter were on an unbeaten home run which had lasted for over three years. On 17 minutes Meroni receives the ball on the left side of the goal area, he’s being closely marked by Giacinto Facchetti, he stops the ball dead, Facchetti keeps moving and he curls his shot in top right corner of the goal, Giuliano Sarti in the Inter goal was helpless; Torino earned a famous 2-1 victory. With all the attention, as well as the obvious talent, that summer of 1967 Juventus made a 750 million lire (£435,000) bid for Gigi but Meroni remained a firm favourite with Torino fans, who mobilised en masse when the bid was accepted by Torino president Orfeo Pianelli as the club were in financial difficulties, even workers at Fiat even threatened strikes. The Agnelli mansion and the home of Orfeo Pianelli, were the scenes of demonstrations and the roads that lead to Torino’s headquarters were barricaded off and the transfer was eventually rescinded.
On 15 October 1967 tragedy would strike Torino less than 20 years after Superga; Gigi Meroni, aged 24 had died. Shortly after the game between Torino and Sampdoria, in which Torino had won 4-2, Luigi Meroni was hit by a car while crossing Corso Re Umberto in Turin with his teammate Fabrizio Poletti. The two went into town to celebrate, not only the teams victory but also the news that girlfriend, Christina Uderstadt’s annulment had been finalised, which would finally allow the couple to be married. The pair had decided to head to a bar in the city-centre. They had to cross the very busy road to reach the bar, and decided against using the zebra crossing, ignored the traffic lights, despite the low lighting and it being almost pitch black. They had to cross two lanes, with traffic in both directions. After beating the first lane, Meroni took a step back to avoid a fast car to his right but was then struck by a FIAT Coupe that was overtaking at speed and travelling to his left. Both men were hit, with Gigi being struck on the leg and thrown onto the other side of the road where an oncoming Aprilla also hit him. Meroni’s injuries were fatal. His cranium, pelvis and legs were broken while his chest collapsed. Poletti managed to leave the scene with only minor injuries. The ambulance got to Meroni while he was still alive, and the doctor believed his life could be saved but the winger died at 22:50.
The driver of the FIAT was Attilio Romero, a Torino season ticket holder who was at the game earlier that day and who had a poster of Meroni in his room. Incredibly Romero went on to become Torino’s president in 2000. “My life has always been intertwined with the history of Torino, in times of both happiness and tragedy, Gigi was my idol. I had posters of him plastered all over my bedroom and that day I also carried a picture of him in my car.”
Meroni’s funeral was attended by around 20,000 people in Turin and led by Ferraudo de Francis, Torino FC’s chaplain. The priest told those present that Gigi “was not just body, muscles and nerve, but also genius, courage, understanding and generosity.” Gigi Meroni was criticised in various quarters and de Francis was derided by the Roman Catholic Church for “celebrating a sinner.” The club still celebrated Meroni’s achievements and in the Derby della Mole against Juventus on 22 October 1967 (the first match after Meroni’s death) a helicopter dropped flowers on the right wing of the pitch. The fans also paid their tributes, alternating between chants of “Gigi Gigi” to keeping silent throughout the match. Clearly inspired, Torino hammered Juventus 4-0, with Meroni’s attacking partner Combin scoring a poignant hat-trick.
Gigi Meroni had a number of nicknames, perhaps most suitably the “beat” footballer. The beatnik in him was not only shown in the way he played to express his creativity, but he lived an artist’s life in a roof top flat in Turin, where he would return after matches to paint, write poetry, or read. He didn’t take instruction from anyone and did whatever he felt right. The saddest part of the story is that maybe that the world never got to see him reach his full potential…
By Chris Nichols, a football obsessive, researcher and writer, presenting tales from footballing antiquity, urging the underdog and hailing the perpetuity of the beautiful game. Follow Chris on Twitter.