Pierluigi Casiraghi arrived in England in May 1998. Bought by Chelsea manager and Italian compatriot Gianluca Vialli, the Italian arrived from Lazio as a then club record of £5.4million. However Casiraghi’s time in England is a story which inspires regret and pathos, a career cut short by injury after having scored just a solitary goal for the Blues.
Born in Monza in the Northern region of Lombardy, Casiraghi played for his hometown club between 1985 and 1989 in both Serie C and Serie B, scoring 28 goals in 94 appearances. These performances attracted the attention of Italian giants Juventus.
Trophies came at La Vecchia Signora with two UEFA cup wins in 1990 and 1993 as well as a Coppa Italia. A modest goal scoring record was compensated for by a great work ethic and this was enough for the striker to earn an international call up in 1991. But a total of 20 goals in 98 games did not match Juve’s lofty standards and by 1993 Casiraghi was on the move. A subsequent transfer to the capital followed and the Monza born forward joined Lazio for the 1993-94 season. His spell with the Biancocelesti was the best of his career.
Although the Italian international took time to find his feet, netting a paltry two goals in his first season, he eventually settled and formed an effective partnership with Croatian forward Alen Boksic. Under the tenure of the iconic Czech coach Zdenek Zeman, Casiraghi contributed 12 goals in 34 games during his second season at the Aquile. As importantly, the former Juve man also cemented his popularity among the Laziali after scoring an acrobatic bicycle kick in Lazio’s 2-0 victory over eternal rivals Roma.
During the 1996-97 season, Casiraghi enjoyed his most successful campaign during his time in the sky blue of Lazio, scoring 14 goals and helping the club to a fourth place finish in Serie A. However the dynamics changed when Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson took charge in the summer of 1997. Eriksson favoured Roberto Mancini over Casiraghi, leaving the Monza born striker to play cup games both domestically and in Europe.
Despite struggling for a league place, Casiraghi found the net four times in ten European games which took the Biancocelesti to the final of the UEFA Cup. They lost 3-0 to an Inter side inspired by a rampant Brazilian by the name of Ronaldo. However consolation did arrive in the form of Casiraghi’s third Coppa Italia win that season.
It was the May of 1998 when Casiraghi made his ill-fated move to Premier League side Chelsea. It had already been a disappointing summer for the then 29-year-old. Despite sealing Italy’s qualification for the World Cup in France, scoring the only goal of a play-off tie against Russia in November 1997, national coach Cesare Maldini chose to leave Casiraghi at home in favour of emerging forward Christian Vieri.
Thus Chelsea offered the possibility of a fresh start. They were a team with growing ambitions and having won both the League Cup and UEFA Cup Winners Cup the previous season, Blues coach and former Italian international Gianluca Vialli was hoping to build a squad that could mount a title challenge.
In typical Casiraghi style, his debut consisted of hard work but no goal as Chelsea lost to Coventry City, in large part due to the inspired performance of Coventry keeper Magnus Hedman, who denied the Italian striker on three occasions.
His debut set the tone for his all too brief career in England as despite his characteristic work rate, the goals evaded him. Frustration continued in the next fixture as he was substituted against Arsenal after having a blatant penalty against him turned down. Casiraghi watched on as his replacement Tore Andre Flo scored twice to give the Blues a win.
Salvation finally arrived for Casiraghi after he scored his one and only goal in a 1-1 draw against Liverpool. It was goal which Chelsea fans will remember fondly, the Italian rounding the goalkeeper and passing the ball into an empty net as defender Phil Babb collided rather painfully with the post in a desperate attempt to clear the ball.
However the Italian’s first goal did not signal a turn in fortunes. During Chelsea’s next game against London rivals Charlton, goalkeeper Sasa Ilic fouled Casiraghi as he was through on goal and about to roll the ball into an empty net. Ilic was not dismissed for the foul and the former Lazio man was denied his second goal for his new club. But a lot worse was to come.
Casiraghi’s final game as a professional came against West Ham United. A goal down and chasing an equaliser, Casiraghi threw himself at a front post cross colliding with Hammers goalkeeper Shaka Hislop. The effects of the collision proved to be devastating as he tore his cruciate ligaments in his knee.
A battle to regain fitness proved to be fruitless and after two years, ten operations and a conclusion that nerve endings in his knee had been damaged beyond repair, in March 2002, Chelsea chairman Ken Bates released a statement. “We have been paid £4,050,000 insurance, which will mean he (Casiraghi) can't play top-level football again. We gave him 20 months, but he was still walking with a limp, so we had no choice."
It was a bitter blow for the player who had been overjoyed to embark on a new beginning in London. Still in love with the game, Casiraghi trained as a coach and took his first position in 2002 back where it all began, becoming a youth coach at Monza. His first head coach position arrived just a season later with Serie C2’s Legnano, however that lasted just one season before returning to Monza and their youth system.
In July 2006 Casiraghi, took control of the Italian U21s alongside Gianfranco Zola. When his former teammate departed to take the reins at West Ham in 2008, Casiraghi remained in charge of the Azzurrini for a further two years. Yet failure to qualify for the 2011 European Championships saw the former Chelsea man resign.
Casiraghi teamed up with Zola again when they embarked on an ill-fated three month stint at Cagliari in December 2014. It would seem the two are now inseparable and Pierluigi can now be found at Zola’s side, this time coaching in Qatar at Al-Arabi.
A hard working player without the natural talent of some Italian players of his generation, the signing of Casiraghi was still a coup for Chelsea as the English Premier League started to integrate big foreign signings. Unfortunately for both club and player his success is poignantly measured in ‘what could have been’.
By Mark Neale: @neale_mark