Pietro Vierchowod. It’s not a name that rolls off the tongue. When remembering the great Italian defenders of the 1980’s and 1990’s, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Bergomi and Alessandro Costacurta are some of the names that spring to mind. But Vierchowod was also up there with the very best. It is a fact former England striker Gary Linker knows all too well and when asked to pick the toughest defender he had ever played against he responded: “Pietro Vierchowod, who played for Italy. He was absolutely brutal, and lighting quick. He gave me a few digs”.
Vierchowod was a tough tackling, physical centre half who began his career as a man marker and was later used as the central defender in a back three. His reading of the game was incredible, indeed Vierchowod was not just a physical presence but he was also blessed with blistering pace and there were few forwards he couldn’t catch. Even while he was still playing at the ripe old age of 40, he was no slouch.
Vierchowod was the son of a Ukrainian Soldier and was given the nickname ‘Lo Zar’ (The Tsar) during his playing career. Born in Calcinate, a little town located in Bergamo, ‘Lo Zar’ qualified to play for the country of his birth. During the 1989/1990 season, a wave of excitement swept Italy as this footballing mad peninsula prepared to host football’s biggest prize, the 1990 World Cup.
Vierchowod had been a member of Enzo Bearzot’s 1982 World Cup winning squad and at the age of 29, he remained a regular starter for Sampdoria in Serie A. Thus, his selection for Azeglio Vicini’s Azzurri came as no surprise. However, due to the quality of the host nations back line, Vierchowod would only make three substitute appearances in the tournament. Vicini opted for a back four consisting of Baresi, Maldini, Bergomi and Riccardo Ferri, a defence that any player would have been hard pushed to break into.
After Italy’s Semi Final defeat to eventual finalists, Argentina, ‘Lo Zar’ returned to Serie A and the heart of Sampdoria’s defence. The World Cup winner continued to terrorise some of Europe’s most dangerous front men and helped the Blucerchiati to the European Cup Final in 1992, where they were narrowly beaten by Barcelona. He spent five more years in Genoa making over 300 appearances for Samp before moving on to brief spells at Juventus then AC Milan. At 40-years-old, Vierchowod retired in 2000 after guiding Piacenza to Serie A safety. This spelled and end to his 24-year career, much to the delight of some of his opponents.
Given his leadership skills and the respect he commanded on and off the field, it was no surprise that Vierchowod tried his hand in management following retirement. His first position in the dugout came in 2001, as Vierchowod was handed the reins at Catania when the Sicilians were in Serie C1. Unfortunately, ‘Lo Zar’s’ first experience in coaching was not a successful one and he was fired before the end of the season. Following Fiorentina’s financial troubles in the early 2000’s, the newly formed Florentia Viola of Serie C2 offered the former Samp man a shot at redemption, but yet again Vierchowod would find himself out a job before the season was out. This would be an all too familiar story during the Italians coaching career and in 2005 more failure blighted his résumé after failing to impress once again, this time at Triestina in Serie B.
This third set back appeared too much to bounce back from and it seemed that the Ukranian-Italian had abandoned hope of forging a successful career as a manager. However, after almost a decade out of the game ‘Lo Zar’ made a surprise comeback. On June 13th 2014, he was unveiled as the new coach of Hungarian club Budapest Honved FC, a team responsible for producing one of the greatest footballers of all time, Ferenc Puskas. Unfortunately, it would prove to be a fleeting return as Vierchowod’s poor managerial career continued and he was sacked just four months into his tenure.
Who knows what the future holds for the one time World Cup winner. Although his experience in coaching has been a far-cry from his successful playing career, Vierchowod is not the kind of character who will give up in a hurry. Perhaps he will turn his fortunes around. Perhaps one day we’ll see him on a Serie A touchline. Whatever happens, he’ll always be remembered as a true Serie A and Azzurri great.
By Giovanni Dougall