There has always been something romantic about seeing a footballer playing the beautiful game, seemingly on another planet, but still relating to the common individual as the bloke you who could have a pint with. Today, those days are largely gone, but there was a time when players like George Best, Rodney Marsh and Robin Friday appealed to men and women alike for their silky skills, cheeky demeanour and good looks.
During the mid-1960s, Italy also had a ‘darling’ who matched that description. His name was Luigi ‘Gigi’ Meroni, and he made his name at Torino, where he played from 1964 until his untimely death in 1967. Born in Como, Lombardy, Gigi Meroni was Italy’s first playboy.
His football career began in the Como youth team, where he also made his debut for the first team in Serie B. He was then sold to Genoa and the story of Meroni began. His first moment of notoriety occurred on the last match of the 1962-63 season, when Meroni refused to undergo examinations for doping control, saying that he had forgotten the test in a hotel. The results came back and three of his team-mates tested positive for amphetamines. Meroni was suspended for five games for his misdemeanour.
In 1964, despite the disgruntlement of the Rossoblu fans, Gigi was sold to a Torino team under the guidance of coach Nereo Rocco and still in transition after the Superga tragedy
Meroni was a modern right winger. Wearing the number seven shirt, his biggest strength was his excellent dribbling ability, which allowed him to trick and beat opposing defenders with feints. His technical skill allowed him to embark on virtuoso dribbles past opposition defenders, eventually coming face to face with the goalkeeper in one on one situations.
He was the atypical footballer, who did things his own way and made headlines for his passions outside the world of football such as art, The Beatles, poetry, fashion and a famous and public relationship with a married woman
In an era where he had to battle with the likes of Sandro Mazzola, Gianni Rivera and Gigi Riva to be the Italy’s poster boy, Meroni is often forgotten outside of the peninsula. This is largely because he only played six full seasons and only made six appearances for the Azzurri, never fulfilling his true potential.
Yet his graceful style of play and unique fashion sense earned him the nickname ‘La Farfalla’– the butterfly. Meroni’s talent combined with his antics off the field meant he was often the focus of the Italian press and he loved the attention. He would satirise the press’ obsession with him, whether it was pretending his long-term girlfriend Christina Uderstadt was actually his sister (satisfying the requirements of disciplinarian coach Rocco) or the bizarre incident which involved Meroni and his best friend, fellow Granata teammate Fabrizio Poletti, walking a chicken (on a leash) and trying to dress it in swimming trunks.
Meroni’s six appearances for the Azzurri came between 1966 and 1967, during which he scored two goals. His first call-up for Italy was in a qualifier against Poland in 1966. He was then selected for the disastrous tournament, led by coach Edmondo Fabbri, at the World Cup in England later that year, which culminated with the incredible 1-0 defeat to North Korea, and Italy's elimination in the first round. The continuing differences with the coach meant Meroni only featured once more, during the second group game against the USSR.
However the 23-year-old Meroni did not let the disappointment of the World Cup affect him and he went on to help the Granata finish third in the 1964-65 season. One of his most defining moments in a Torino shirt came on March 12, 1967 against league leaders Inter at the San Siro. Under the tenure of legendary tactician Helenio Herrera, Inter were unbeaten at home for over three years and boasted a formidable defence.
However this only inspired Meroni who scored one of the finest goals of his career, curling the ball round both an Inter defender and a helpless Giuliano Sarti in the Inter goal. Torino earned a famous 2-1 victory and Meroni would go onto enjoy his most successful season in a Granata shirt. Along with striker Nestor Combin, he formed a successful attacking partnership, amassing nine goals in 31 matches.
That summer, Juventus made an extravagant bid for Meroni with some media reports quoting a bid as high as 750 million lire (£435,000). Despite their bid coming from their fiercest rivals, Torino were struggling financially and were very willing to accept the offer. On hearing news of the potential transfer, Torino fans launched a mass protest across the city and workers at Fiat even threatened strikes.
Torino’s president, Orfeo Pianelli, attempted to appease the fans but his words fell on deaf ears and, unsurprisingly, Pianelli eventually announced that Meroni would stay. Torino kept their hero, but tragedy would soon strike this famous club for the second time in less than twenty years.
Meroni and the Granata started the new season in fine form with a 4-2 win over Sampdoria on 15 October, 1967. After the game, Meroni and team-mate Fabrizio Poletti decided to celebrate victory in Turin’s city centre. There was another reason for this celebration, with Meroni celebrating Christina Uderstadt’s annulment which would finally allow the couple to be married. The teammates decided to head to a bar in the city-centre after parking their car nearby at Corso Re Umberto. They had to cross the very busy Corso to reach the bar, but the pair fatefully decided against using the zebra crossing and ignored the traffic lights – despite it being near-pitch black.
They had to cross two lanes, with traffic in both directions. Upon crossing 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 the other way 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 onrushing Aprilla also hit him. Meroni’s injuries were fatal. His cranium, pelvis and legs were broken while his chest collapsed. Poletti fortuitously escaped with 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 local time.
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. In an incredible twist of fate, Romero was later appointed Torino’s president in 2000. Due to the dangerous actions of Meroni and Poletti in crossing such a busy road without using the zebra crossing, Romero was aquitted. "My life has always been intertwined with the history of Torino, in times of both happiness and tragedy," Romero said. "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 an incredible 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.” In death Gigi Meroni was criticised in various quarters and de Francis was derided by the Roman Catholic Church for “celebrating a sinner.”
The club, though, 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 his right wing position. The fans offered their own tributes, alternating between chants of “Gigi Gigi” to keeping respectively silent throughout the match. Clearly inspired, Torino hammered Juventus 4-0, their biggest derby victory to this day, with Meroni’s strike partner Combin scoring a poignant hat-trick.
His death also marked a significant turning point in world football’s history: being the precedent for insurance pay-outs to clubs who lost players through injury or death, which had been shamefully ignored by the judiciary when Torino had sought assistance after the tragic loss of Il Grande Torino in 1949. The fans and city of Turin have never forgotten their Farfalla Granata, erecting ‘La stella del Calcio Granata e Nazionale’ monument on Corso Re Umberto in 2007 upon the 40th anniversary of Meroni’s death
Meroni will never be forgotten among Torino fans. As a player, he was a phenomenon, but he came to stand for so much more. As the legendary journalist Gianni Brera had observed in the wake of his death: "He was a symbol of bizarre skills and social freedom in a country where almost everyone else was a mischievous conformist."
Follow Ian Such on twitter: @insearchofluca