Fans of Italian football in the early 1990s will remember the name. After Italia 90 when British fans tuned into watch James Richardson’s Football Italia, they were hoping just to get a glimpse of those spectacular players they had seen at the World Cup. What they found was a global superstar in the making and a player who blew Serie A apart for a short time blew before disaster struck.
In 1969 in a small town near Turin called Carmagnola, Gianluigi Lentini was born. After joining the Torino youth system he spent time in the lower leagues with Ancona developing skills that helped him later in the incredibly tough Serie A of that era.
Torino had been relegated to Serie B in 1959 and, after a succession of coaches fell victim to the wrath of president Gian Mauro Borsano, Emiliano Mondonico was given the job in 1990. No one knew it at the time but the new manager would bring with him a period of success not seen at Torino since the 1940s.
By now Lentini was a starter for Toro and soon scored his first goal in the top flight against Inter in 2-0 win. This was the start of a love affair with the Granata and the long-haired winger that would result in adulation and inevitably a transfer away. Before then however, there was a golden period when Lentini’s pace, skill, speed of thought and execution made him almost unplayable.
He was not a great goalscorer but he was great at creating them. He plagued opposition defences with an unnatural pace on the ball and could play on either flank, often doing so in the same game. Torino won the Mitropa Cup in 1991 and reached the final of the Uefa Cup in 1992, finishing third in Serie A that year.
Along with Enzo Scifo and Roberto Policano, Lentini was forming a lethal partnership that would allow the Torino fans to dream once again about Il Grande Torino and hope that a new glorious era was upon them. The fans were watching their team take on Ajax and Real Madrid now in Europe while domestically they were going toe to toe with Milan, Juventus and Internazionale.
At the heart of all of this was Lentini and it was not long before the big clubs began to circle, as they always to. Milan would be the destination after some fierce transfer negotiations Fabio Capello would get his man. He said of him years later “He was a really big talent. Fast, strong, physical. Really good.”
The price back then in 1992 was £13m, which was staggering and made him the world’s most expensive player. The Vatican were outraged at the price paid for a mere footballer but Milan had recognised just what this skilful, charismatic player could bring them.
Only a year later, in 1993, Lentini was involved in a near-fatal road accident after he flipped his Porsche 911 at nearly 200 km/h seeing it burst into flames. He survived but the injuries would always stay with him. He played again for Milan and Torino, and did not retire from football in the lower leagues until 2012. Plagued by “memory loss” and “dizzy spells”, he was never the same player and those who played with him before and after noticed this the most.
It is a sad story for a player with so much potential and nobody more than ‘Gigi’ wonders more about what could have been. Interviewed for the (Newcastle) Chronicle Live after a charity match in 2013 he said “I was lucky to be alive. I was just so lucky to survive so many injuries. After it happened I always wanted to do better when I played, but I am still happy how my career turned out.”
There is no doubt that Torino had the best of him and for a player that represented them for just 111 games before the accident, it could be argued that none have been bigger since the players for Il Grande Torino who also fell foul of a tragic accident.
By Richard Hall