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Gigi Meroni – the butterfly whose wings were clipped

9th May, 2011

Of all the great figures enshrined in Italy’s footballing pantheon, none has stood so prominently at the nexus of individuality, progressivism, talent and tragedy as Gigi Meroni, who for three short years gave the fans of Torino reason to dispense with the  defeatism precipitated by the loss of the marvellous team of the 1940s in the Superga aeroplane crash. It was perhaps with an especially heightened sense of Schadenfreude that the Fates took his life too, at the age of 24, depriving the world of one of its most entertaining footballers and a young man the chance to explore his dreams.

On the 15th of October 1967 two young footballers had ample cause to celebrate, having just led their club, Torino, to a 4-2 victory over Sampdoria. One of the young men was even more elated; his girlfriend’s marriage had just been annulled meaning that she was now free to marry him. The two young men decided to cross the wide Corso Re Umberto in Turin to wait for their girlfriends’ arrival. They had reached the centre of the boulevard when one of them took a step backwards to avoid a car coming from the right and was promptly struck by a vehicle travelling in the other direction. He was sent into the path of a third car which dragged him along the tarmac for over 50 metres.

The other young man, Fabrizio Poletti, though also hit was fortunate enough to escape with light injuries. The first, Torino’s star winger  Gigi Meroni, was taken to a hospital by another driver when no ambulance arrived and declared dead an hour and a half after the incident. The two men had been crossing the road near Meroni’s flat, and it had been Meroni’s girlfriend, Cristiana Uderstadt whose marriage had been annulled. Meroni didn’t have the keys to his flat with him and so he and Poletti had decided to wait in a bar on the other side of the Corso Re Umberto. The car that first struck Meroni had been driven by Attilio Romero, a nineteen-year-old student and Torino fan.

Luigi ‘Gigi’ Meroni was born 1943 in the Lombard province of Como, near Italy’s border with Switzerland. Meroni first developed his skills with the local parish youth team before joining the professional outfit Como in 1960 and, two years later, Genoa. Genoa had been one of the pioneers of football in Italy; in 1898 they had become the country’s first league champions, and they were to go on to win the scudetto on a further eight occasions before being cruelly denied a tenth title in 1925 by the machinations of local Bolognan fascist squad leader and later Italian football federation president Leandro Arpinati.

Genoa, however, were no longer a dominant force and could not hope to keep the mercurial Meroni, who had by now established himself as one of Italy’s outstanding young talents, for long and due course Torino made a successful bid for the winger’s services, bringing him to the city where his star was to shine brightest.

Torino’s trophy cabinet may not have been as full as Genoa’s, but the club had been home to a team that had won five consecutive league championships and seemed set to dominate Italian football for some time to come before the tragic events of Superga in 1949. If the crash had knocked Torino from its perch atop the Italian game, the economic boom of the 50s was to condemn the club to second position in its own city. Juventus, Turin’s other major club, had begun life as the FIAT works team, an association from which it was now profiting greatly. In addition to the largesse of the Agnelli family, who ran both club and company, the team enjoyed the devoted, if clientelistic, support of countless economic migrants, primarily from southern Italy, who had moved north and found employment with the FIAT corporation. Torino, however, though not the force they had been, were in 1963 able to coax to their stables the coach Nereo Rocco, who had the previous year led AC Milan to the scudetto and who was in the process of perfecting the approach which came to define Italian football for decades: catenaccio.

Even a fundamentally negative strategy, such as catenaccio, which comes from the Italian word for bolt or padlock and suggests a securely locked gate or portcullis, requires a player who operates near the other end of the field and is capable of doing the reverse, that is of unpicking the lock with the precision of his passing or his ability to skip around defenders. At Milan Rocco had had (and would have again) Gianni Rivera. At Torino he now had Meroni, who joined the club in 1964 and whose trickery consistently made excellent footballers look like rank amateurs. In a well-drilled, thoroughly disciplined system designed to stop the opposition at any cost, a player capable of introducing moments of chaos, of disregarding the authoritarian structure, can have an almost revolutionary effect. Meroni was the player who provided the moments of fantasy and unpredictability that both won matches and delighted Torino’s beleaguered fans. His ability to flutter left and right, backwards and forwards seemingly at will, eluding opponents and beguiling fans earned him the name farfalla, or butterfly, and at times he must have seemed similarly elegant and enchanting.

Meroni’s free-willed expression, which presented such a stark and delightful contrast to the conservative and authoritarian football played around him, was to make him a target for physical abuse. Opposing defenders, offended by his spontaneity, were determined to curb his progress by fair means or foul and the punishment meted out to the young winger was often severe and malicious.

The hostility felt towards Meroni on the pitch was to be mirrored off it. His long hair and beard, his flamboyant attire, and his dark glasses incurred the wrath of many conservative elements of the Italian sporting press, who cast the blame for Italy’s World Cup failure in 1966 on his shoulders, calling him a ‘squalid personality’ and accusing him of having ‘devalued’ the nation’s colours.[1] Meroni’s own involvement in the tournament had been minimal, but his appearance, his manner and his erudition made him a convenient scapegoat at a time when footballers, primarily young men from poor backgrounds like Meroni’s, were supposed to do as they were told.  Italy was a country where football clubs were almost as regimented as the military and Meroni’s disregard for their strict regulations saw him depicted as a rabble-rouser and hedonist. He also became the recipient of various racial nicknames, including gypsy and Calimero, the latter a reference to television commercial featuring a little black bird whose ‘dirtiness’ is cleaned away with laundry liquid.

In spite of the ever-growing chorus of detractors, Meroni remained a firm favourite with Torino fans, who mobilised en masse when a bid from Juventus was accepted in the summer of 1967. The Agnelli mansion and the home of Orfeo Pianelli, Torino’s president, were the scenes of demonstrations and the roads that lead to Torino’s headquarters were blocked off. Eventually the transfer was rescinded. The following October Meroni was to lose his life.

One of Gigi Meroni’s more flattering nicknames was the ‘beat footballer’. On the pitch it was easy to see how the term applied, so exuberant were his dribbles and so unkempt his appearance. The truth was that if Meroni had something of the beatnik in him it was not simply on the pitch that he expressed his creativity. Meroni lived something of a true artist’s life in a mansard flat in central Turin with his girlfiend Cristiana, to which he would return after matches to paint, write poetry, or read. Among his favourite authors were Joseph Conrad, Guy de Maupassant and F. Scott Fitzgerald, all, like him, masters of style.

Meroni had been born two years before the end of the Second World War and come of age during the Italian Economic Miracle of 1958-63. He was amongst the first generation to have grown up almost entirely in post-war Italy and its comparative prosperity, and though he loved football, he was a pragmatist who realised that the sport offered him the means to escape a life of relative poverty and enjoy the fruits of Italy’s economic risorgimento. He strode uncowed to take his place amongst a generation of Europeans seeking to redefine a continent that had been the seat of two world wars and consciously defied agents of the old conservatism who sought to bend him to their will.

To Torino’s fans he was and remains an icon; some 20000 of them attended his funeral, and they still chant his name at matches. When in 2000 Torino appointed as president Attilio Romero, the man whose car had first struck Meroni on that fateful night 33 years earlier, many fans expressed their displeasure. Yet Meroni’s own feelings towards them must have been mixed. The rise in real wages of the post-war era led to increased attendances and to a sense of proprietorship felt by fans towards their clubs’ players. Torino’s fans were no exception. It was they who took to the ‘Calimero’ nickname which Meroni reportedly loathed, and perhaps their adoption of it was indicative of a twisted affection for him. Calimero was a small chick who, upon hatching from his egg falls into a muddy puddle from which he emerges black. A series of characters, including his own mother, then shun Calimero because he is black. “Would you love me if I were white?” is Calimero’s plaintive query. Torino’s supporters on the other hand were willing to love their Calimero in spite of his blackness. In other words they recognised the reasons for his vilification, reasons which, had Meroni not been their player, they might gladly have shared. The Torino fans were tolerant because he represented a promise of the sort of genius not seen in a Torino shirt since Valentino Mazzola had lost his life in the Superga crash, and by extension the hope that the club might, if not repeat its feat of five consecutive championships in the middle and late 40s, at least return to the forefront of the Italian game. Meroni brought them close in the 1964-65 season when they finished third, which no doubt endeared him to the fans even more. Whatever others thought of him, he was theirs. Their butterfly. Their gypsy. Their little black bird. His genius on the pitch allowed him the leisure to explore myriad interests off it, but had to be forfeited to the supporters who claimed it for their own. This renunciation of the ownership of the talent that had brought him renown may have fuelled his passion for art and literature, fields where he would not have to suffer such indignities for the sake of success.

What direction his life would have taken had he not died so young will never be known. Though his closest comparison on the pitch was the mercurial George Best, who became best known for his exploits away from the stadium, perhaps his career would have more closely mirrored that of another contemporary, Gianni Rivera, whose smooth skill and long hair won him the distrust of the media and whose career with the national team was largely unsatisfactory, but who enjoyed great success at AC Milan under Nereo Rocco, Meroni’s coach at Torino. Perhaps if Meroni had made the move to Juventus he would have gone on to write his name indelibly in the annals of the popular history of football. Juventus are one of a few teams that enjoy a fanatical following throughout Italy, and success there, much like for Rivera at Milan, may well have turned him into a national rather than regional icon. Away from football it would be nice to think of him as a latter-day renaissance man, devoting his wealth to the cultivation of his artistic and intellectual interests. All speculation, however. Perhaps it would be best to end this look at one of football’s great nonconformists with something more concrete. Here is an all too brief compilation of some of his best moments on the football pitch:


[1] For more information see John Foot’s excellent history of Italian football, Calcio.

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