Sport

Gianluca Vialli on beating most cancers, his new objectives, and lacking soccer

There is a photograph hanging on the study wall behind Gianluca Vialli. Only one corner of it is in shot through the camera on his laptop computer. It looks like a team photo but it is sepia tinted and the players are wearing shirts that place them in the late Victorian era. A little dog sits proudly at the feet of the footballer standing on the end of the back row.

Vialli stands up, turns around and lifts the picture carefully off the wall so he can show me the entire photograph. The picture brings happy memories flooding back and a smile spreads across his face. ‘It’s Sampdoria 1990,’ he says. ‘The season we won the Scudetto [the Italian title]. We did a Christmas card for charity and we came up with the idea of wearing this old-fashioned costume.’

The dog, he says, is a ‘carlino’. A pug. It belonged to Pietro Vierchowod, the Italy central defender, Vialli’s friend, the man on the end of the row. Vialli gazes at the picture again. It was the season he was Serie A‘s leading scorer, too.

Gianluca Vialli has opened up on beating his second bout of pancreatic cancer last month

Gianluca Vialli has opened up on beating his second bout of pancreatic cancer last month

Vialli won the FA Cup and League Cup with the Blues before going on to become the manager

 Vialli won the FA Cup and League Cup with the Blues before going on to become the manager

‘We look a bit like the cast of The English Game, don’t we,’ he says, talking about the recent Netflix series. ‘That was a very happy time.’

Things that make him smile are more important to Vialli now than they ever were. ‘We are our own placebo,’ he says. Last month, the former Chelsea player and manager announced that after more gruelling rounds of chemotherapy for a second bout of pancreatic cancer, his doctors had given him the all-clear. And now he feels like he is seeing his life with new eyes.

He feels as if his three-year struggle with cancer has given him a second chance. It made him pause. It gave him time to look at what he was becoming and realise that he did not much care for his direction of travel. He realised he needed, and wanted, to speak to his parents more. He wanted to be a better father to his two teenage daughters and a better husband to his wife Cathryn. He felt he had been standing still. He wanted to learn more about himself.

When the conversation gets too serious, he leavens it by reverting to poking fun at himself. ‘I still get upset if the pasta is not cooked how I like it,’ he says, ‘but I’ve learned to put things into context. There were things maybe I took for granted and now I realise how valuable they are.’

The release last week of the English version of his book, Goals, a collection of 90 inspirational stories from the world of sport, seems particularly timely as society tries to cope with the ongoing agonies and disruption of the coronavirus crisis. Vialli’s story is the last chapter. It is number 90+1, a nod to the idea he has been given the gift of time added on.

The 55-year-old says cancer gave him a second chance, and now looks at life differently

The 55-year-old says cancer gave him a second chance, and now looks at life differently

His recovery from a form of cancer that is notoriously hard to survive feels like a shaft of light, too. English football always loved Vialli. When he arrived at Stamford Bridge in 1996, we loved him for his humility and his fierce dignity and the eyes that sparkled with self-deprecating humour. Vialli was still a fine player when he came to London even if the best years of his career were behind him but, most of all, he was a man who had class. He has not lost it.

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‘Something I think that I’m good at is that I don’t complain,’ says Vialli. ‘I don’t like thinking ‘Why me, why me, why me?’ when I was diagnosed with cancer because that would be hypocritical. I didn’t say ‘Why me?’ when I was one in a thousand who made it as a professional footballer. It is something I needed to go through to become a better person. Maybe, for me, this is what I needed.

‘Have I been brave? I don’t know if that’s the right word. I think I am determined to succeed. I don’t know what brave means. It is only when you are afraid that you can be courageous. So if you don’t overcome any fear, how can you find out who you really are?

‘I was in a place where I was stagnating. My life has always been incredibly exciting: footballer; manager; even the 15 years I have spent as a game analyst at Sky Italia. Preparing yourself before a show, the light of the camera goes off and you need to start passing on your message and you end up talking about football, which I love. I suppose, spiritually, I was into a routine.

‘I wasn’t sort of moving forward. I had stopped searching inside myself. I wasn’t growing. I took cancer as an opportunity to keep growing. This is just my point of view. I don’t expect everybody to share it.

‘Everybody faces cancer in their own way. It was a chance to do stuff I haven’t done for a while. It is about showing gratitude, showing empathy, being scared, wanting to find out how you face a tricky situation, working as a team with your family.

‘I have learned that I had so much to learn about myself. I was in a place where, looking back, I wasn’t particularly pleased. I was not in a good place. By learning that, I hope I am in a better place. I was taking things for granted. Gratitude is one of the most powerful emotions and I wasn’t grateful enough for what I had. Now I’m much more grateful.

Vialli spent the last few years of his career at Chelsea where he became a well-loved player

Vialli spent the last few years of his career at Chelsea where he became a well-loved player

‘I’m sorry if I’m sounding like a guru but I wasn’t spiritual enough. I was too superficial. I was getting upset about trivial things and now I put things into context and I know what’s important and what matters and what I should forget.

‘But I also realise I am so far away from being the person that I want to be. I know that every day I get tested and I fail test after test but by realising it, I know I get closer and closer to what I want to become and where I want to be one day.’

Vialli’s recollection of his diagnosis and his treatment is pockmarked with nightmarish recollections of his long journey back to health. He recalls how his eyes were ‘a pale, ugly, yellow’. He recalls looking in the mirror at his skeletal frame. After the initial surgery, he lay semi-conscious in his hospital bed, hearing voices around him saying that the procedure had been a failure and that the cancer had spread throughout his body.

‘I hear them say the operation was useless,’ he writes in Goals, ‘that it has spread everywhere: to the lungs; to the brain; to the stomach. And so I scream, ‘I hear you. I can hear you. I’m awake. I know what you’re saying about me.’

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The voices sound alarmed. They say they are not talking about him and fade away but it is a haunting sequence that does not make it clear whether it was real or the dark imaginings of a man afraid that so much that was dear to him might be taken away.

Last week, Vialli, 55, was candid about how scared he still feels. Every time he feels an ache or a pain he thinks ‘it’s back’. It is the curse of anyone who has had cancer; this fear that it has returned. Every time he goes to bed with a temperature he thinks ‘it’s back’. He says that that fear will probably be with him for the rest of his life.

Then there was his dread that he would expose his parents to the horror of losing a child. He could not bear that thought, more for the pain it would cause them than for his own fate. They are in lockdown now at their family home near Cremona, close to the epicentre of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, but long before that, he made them a vow. ‘I made a solemn promise to my father,’ Vialli says. ‘I told him: ‘I am not going before you or mum.’

Vialli, who has been a pundit for Sky Italia for 15 years, says he is missing football a lot

Vialli, who has been a pundit for Sky Italia for 15 years, says he is missing football a lot

I ask him how he could promise that when his prognosis was uncertain and he pauses in the midst of his answer. ‘My father is 90 and my mother is 85,’ says Vialli, ‘and I consider myself extremely lucky that I still have them. Now that I am a parent, I know there could be nothing more painful than losing a child. It was a promise. I didn’t want them to… I wasn’t… I was trying to be unselfish.

‘Of course, I want to live for as long as I can but I definitely didn’t want them to go through the grief of losing a child. That was one goal I set myself: to outlive my parents. It was good for them but it was also a goal for me to achieve and it gave me some strength and desire to be even more positive and do everything possible in order to stay alive.

‘One of the things this journey made me realise was that I have to be closer to my parents. Selfishly, my priority is my children. But I put myself in my parents’ shoes. I am a father, a husband but I am also a son so I need to do my very best in order to make them happy. I didn’t feel this way before I got cancer. It has been an opportunity for me to realise these things.’

And so, despite everything, Vialli is content in lockdown. He still lives in Chelsea. He moved to Hampstead for a short time when he was manager of Watford so he could be closer to the training ground but after he was sacked in June 2002, he moved back to west London. He smiles at the idea that lockdown life is just about standing still and smelling the roses. He disagrees with that. He still has goals.

He is fit enough now to work out every other day with his wife. He is planning to learn to play the drums. He is learning to type ‘with 10 fingers’. He is trying to read more, to think, to meditate, to learn. The front cover of his book is striking. It is his face against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, his eyes closed, a smile playing on his lips. It suggests a man who is emerging from darkness into the sunlight.

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And amid it all, he is missing football. It is 18 years since he was fired by Watford but he has worked for Sky Italia for most of the interim and recently he linked up again with his old friend and Sampdoria team-mate, Roberto Mancini, now the Italy coach, when he was named head of the Italian national football team delegation.

Vialli says he promised his 90-year-old father he would not die before him and his mother

Vialli says he promised his 90-year-old father he would not die before him and his mother

‘I have missed the game a lot since the coronavirus crisis began,’ says Vialli. ‘When we are involved in football, we sell memories and we sell emotions. We become addicted to this both in what we give and in what we get back from being part of this.

‘All of a sudden, you can’t witness something live and get that back. It is like an addiction and all of a sudden, it is taken away from you.

‘For one week or two weeks, it is OK because you think it is a chance to recharge your batteries, I will miss it and then when I come back I will enjoy it even more because even something as exciting as football can become something of a routine and now that we have got football on our screens every day, it is like eating caviar every night.

The English version of Vialli's book, Goals, showcasing inspirational stories, is out now

The English version of Vialli’s book, Goals, showcasing inspirational stories, is out now

‘So maybe we needed a bit of time off but now it has been far too long. What I really miss is being able to hug people.

‘After 15 years, I have gone back to working in football and I have been able to go back on to a bus on the way to the stadium, with the music pumping and trying to look at the players’ faces and then talking to the manager.

‘And then you hug the players before they go on the football pitch and then the national anthem starts and you’re so excited and so emotional and then after the match you hug the players again. That was something I was missing when I was out of the game and now I miss it a lot. I got a taste back and now this virus has taken it away from me.’

But lockdown has given him gifts, too. One of the mantras in his book says that life is 10 per cent what happens to you and 90 per cent the way you react to it. He is putting that into practice.

‘For me,’ says Vialli, ‘it is an opportunity to find out about myself and other people.’ Even in Chelsea, there is less traffic. Now he can hear the birdsong.

Goals: Inspirational Stories to Help Tackle Life’s Challenges by Gianluca Vialli is out now, £18.99, Headline.

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