Enigmas in Calcio – Christian Vieri
It's one of life's many wonderful idiosyncrasies that some people just don't get the credit they deserve. We can certainly move the analogy over to football, and any fan of any club can reel off names of players whom they perceive, never receive the sort of praise and acclamation their efforts merit. More often than not these players take the form of diligent fullbacks, marathon-men midfielders or selfless front-runners. Rarely do such accolades escape ridiculously prolific goalscorers.
Remembered he certainly will be, but whether Christian Vieri will be regarded in time as one of the true modern greats is another matter. The case of the Italian-born Australian-raised striker is a curious one where sentiments attached to his name invariably focus on his nomadic club career and merciless quest for money, rather than his outstanding goalscoring exploits.
Despite an inauspicious start to his career and an injury-plagued finale, in his prime and at the peak of his fitness there was no more dynamic or devastating a striker than Vieri. At the end of the 1990s and into the new millennium his record showed his goalscoring prowess, hitting the back of the net with ferocious regularity in all competitions, including five goals at the 1998 World Cup with the national team. Vieri was simply a goal machine, with a goals-to-game ratio almost peerless in modern day Italian football. However, rarely does he get mentioned in the same breath as such luminaries as Ronaldo, Gabriel Batistuta or Marco van Basten as one of the greatest forwards of our generation. But why? Analyse his record and for a time 'Bobo' was as good as they come.
By the age of 26, he had already passed through the doors of ten professional clubs, following an almost ritual-like format of moving on each pre-season having spent only one season with each employer. Before hitting the big-time with a move to Juventus, Vieri could already list the services of Prato, Torino, Pisa, Ravenna, Venezia and Atalanta on his résumé. From such humble beginnings did great things grow, and after linking up with Marcello Lippi at the Stadio delle Alpi, Vieri embarked on a scoring spree lasting almost a decade utilising every inch of his 6ft 3in frame to combine incredible strength with the grace and mobility of a dainty winger, all in an effort to unleash a left foot packed with power and panache.
The 1996/7 campaign saw Vieri arrive in Turin, largely to play understudy to the Croat international Alen Boksic. Despite this he managed to become joint top-scorer at the club with eight Serie A goals, enough to persuade Atlético Madrid to take him to Spain. Acclimatising didn't take long, a now familiar one-year stint at the club saw him produce a hugely impressive return of 24 league goals in 24 games to land him the Pichichi trophy as the Primera División’s top goalscorer. Following on from his season in the Spanish capital came the 1998 World Cup in France - not the Azzurri's finest hour it must be said - but still Vieri managed an impressive return of five goals, prompting a move to Sven-Goran Eriksson's upwardly mobile Lazio outfit.
Hitting another 12 league goals in only 22 games, Vieri almost shot the Biancocelesti to the Scudetto only to see them miss out on the final day to Milan. Nevertheless, silverware was brought back to the Olimpico that season in the form of the Cup-Winners Cup, with Vieri scoring in the final victory over Real Mallorca. Another summer prompted yet another move, with Inter splashing a then world record transfer fee of £30m to take Vieri to his ninth Italian club in little over 10 seasons. However, after this move, the San Siro would witness the best of Vieri's services during an uncharacteristically long six-season stay.
Here you could say Vieri finally found his niche and settled, or one could argue he'd ran out of clubs to play for. Regardless, over the next 144 Serie A games he plundered home an incredible 103 goals. However, his potentially unstoppable partnership with Ronaldo never materialised due to a succession of injuries to one party or the other, but that did not stop Vieri's personal goals quest. He notched 13 goals in 19 games in his first season, 18 in 27 in his second and his third season in 2001/02 season saw him rifle home 22 goals in just 25 games - an amazing record that he somehow managed to beat the season after by scoring 24 goals in only 23 games. Catenaccio? Somebody should tell the big man.
After four seasons with the Nerazzurri, his record stood at an 77 goals from 94 appearances, in arguably the most difficult league in Europe to score. It is this record that should see Vieri’s name mentioned in the same breath as his goalscoring peers, yet he rarely features. Criticism rather than credit more attributed.
Within the game Vieri is seen as a mercenary. Multi-million pound moves from club to club, wage increase after wage increase, signing on fees and contractual clauses galore. His huge transfer from Lazio to Inter was described as an "offence to the poor" by the Vatican. Admired but not endeared, Vieri cuts a lonely figure, a man who seems hard to love. His club-hopping antics mean fans have never taken to him and championed his cause as one of the greats. Before he became loved he was on his way again, leaving behind many memories but no emotion. Even at Inter the bond with the Interisti was not strong. He went through a spell of not celebrating goals in protest at criticism from the terrace. He was seen as a playboy - landing a string of beautiful girlfriends - as well as opening bars, restaurants, launching fashion lines and even bringing out a brand of contraceptive. After six goal-laden years with Inter, the San Siro could be classed as a house and not a home. He launched a lawsuit against the club after President Moratti admitted the club had tapped Vieri's phone to keep tabs on him. His association with il Biscione ended when he accepted a reported £6million contract pay-off in 2005, before repaying the club by signing for rivals Milan almost immediately.
Herein lies the problem with Vieri. He has always managed to constantly alienate himself from almost all admiration. It is difficult to be loved when loathed, praise will not follow when opinion is so low and friends so few. His on-field performances will forever be overshadowed by his off-field attitude, and as a result his goalscoring abilities will never be fully appreciated. Vieri's actions are synonymous with greed and glamour, two of the most gauling distinctions for the common football fan. Vieri is not alone in this field, but he is one of the most identifiable.
The perceptions about Vieri are ones still largely based on old-fashioned footballing principles of loyalty and commitment, but his career path could be seen as the pre-cursor to a changing pattern of club and player loyalty in the modern era. Long gone are the days of young boys going from terrace to pitch. Teams nowadays largely consist of players with little geographic or sentimental ties to their employers, and clubs are just as ruthless in their treatment of players as players and agents are to clubs. The Carlos Tevez ownership situation illustrates how players are now just a commodity, essentially owned by no-one, ruled by no-one. Changing employment laws and rights could vastly shape the face of football transfers in the future, and the career path of the next Christian Vieri will certainly become more familiar than that of the next Paolo Maldini.
Whether Vieri saw himself as some sort of pioneer of player freedom is highly doubtful. What is more likely is that he will always be remembered for the frequency of his clubs just as much as the frequency of his goals. The great irony for Vieri is, that by the time his frequency of clubs becomes the norm, his frequency of goals will be forgotten.