Published On: Fri, Oct 26th, 2012

Legend of Calcio: Gianfranco Zigoni

During the modern era, calcio has been blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an array of wonderfully talented footballers who do not conform to the rules of football, and society as a whole. The likes of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, with their antics using props such as fireworks, women, and pastries, have been able to entertain the public on and off the pitch over the last few years.

Footballers with immense ability, but with a severe lack of respect for the rules, are not uncommon in 21st century calcio. However, in the 1960s, there was one footballer who single-handedly attempted to desecrate the system – Calcio’s original Jim Stark… Gianfranco Zigoni.

Born November 25 1944 in the provincial town of Oderzo, into a working class family, Zigoni always seemed to be more than a stones throw away from the life he was born into. Even whilst playing in the local park, the immeasurable footballing gift that he possessed was obvious even though his parents struggled financially, they had wealth in the shape of their son’s god given talent.

It wasn’t too long before calcio’s seven sisters took notice of Zigoni’s prodigal skill set. By 1961, the biggest club in the land, Juventus, had signed the youngster on his first professional contract and gave him a first team debut against Udinese just fifteen days after his seventeenth birthday. The young Italian seemed to have the footballing future of the peninsula tucked away in his back pocket.

However, whilst his physical talents were on the verge of propelling him to exceptional professional heights, his rebellious psyche was on the verge of destroying his Juve career. In a transitional period for the club, a player of Zigoni’s calibre coming through the ranks would have appeased the fans during this time but Gianni Agnelli and his numerous managers did not see it this way. After making just four appearances in three years; Gianfranco Zigoni was sent to Genoa on loan.

Seen by many as a step backwards, a move down the peninsula pecking order was what Zigoni needed to finally kick start his career.  In just a two year loan spell, the prodigal son of Oderzo became the king of the Artemio Franchi’s north stand.

Zigoni was given the keys to Genoa, given a chance to express his talent, and finally given an opportunity to prove to the whole of Italy that he could be the player they were waiting for. With two goals, he masterminded double league victories over city rivals Sampdoria – one of the first and only times in Genoa’s history that this feat was achieved.

Although Zigogol was unplayable during the two Derby della Lanterna’s of the 1964/65 season there was another game during the same campaign that went on to define his time in the Rossoblu of Genoa.

A performance which prompted Giovanni Trapattoni to state that Zigoni was “a stronger player than Pele”, and prove to the whole of the peninsula populace that the young Oderzo man was a thoroughbred, a prized asset, was at the San Siro against the might of AC Milan. His hat trick in front of 40,000 Milanisti and ten out of ten performance, even though it showed the beauty of Zigoni’s talents, it also showed the flaws of the man.

The victory, the hat trick and the glory was his, not the club’s. Zigoni’s individualism, although it made him stand out from his Genoa contemporaries, was detrimental to Genoa’s form and they were relegated at the end of the season, a demotion that was blamed on the Italian for missing a decisive penalty against Roma.

Zigoni described Genoa in Serie B as “like seeing your son sick” and it was this pain which prompted a second season at the Artemio Franchi. During the campaign in the second division, Zigogol had moments of brilliance, but the inconsistency of he and his team mates was the undoing of their promotion campaign.

His two years at Genoa, though simultaneously painful and triumphant, had little real significance in the molding of Zigoni’s mind. At times he was unplayable, but womanizing and drinking heralded Zigoni’s preliminary skirmish with his own generation. Zigoni has said, “I was young; I wanted to start a revolution.”

After arriving back at Juventus in 1966, the still budding talents of the Italian were put through a rigorous training regime under Heriberto Herrera. Described by Zigoni as a “concentration camp”, the authoritarian management style did not compliment the lackadaisical genius of Zigoni. A player that would be displeased if he was not substituted during a game, in case his impeccable bianconneri stripes were tainted with muck, was not the genre the “Iron Sergeant” could ever be a fan of.

Zigoni was driven to the edge of complete insanity by Herrera and their hate/hate relationship spilled over in epic proportions during one particular meeting between the pair.

During a heated debate, Herrera presented Zigoni with a cold right hand in the midriff, prompting Zigo to lift his manager by the scruff of the neck and make an example of him in front of the whole Juventus squad.

However, Zigoni winning an argument with Herrera was a rather rare occurrence. Forced to track back by the rigid system Juventus were playing, Zigogol could not be the individual influence he wanted to be. Even the Scudetto victory of 1967, although a wonderful achievement and the only major trophy the Oderzo native would lift as a professional, was not a satisfactory victory due to the team ethic, rather than individual superiority, which allowed Juventini to sew the Scudetto crest onto their chests.

During his time in Turin though, Gianfranco Zigoni was able to play to his full potential in one particular game, in which he made the great Jose Santamaria look childlike at times. After Zigoni’s match winning performance against Real Madrid in Europe’s elite competition, the Madrid defender went to Omar Sivori and said, “that boy [Gianfranco Zigoni] is better than the Brazilian”.

A momentary lack of rational thought seemed to be a more regular occurrence during the Italian’s time in Turin, than a performance in the same genre as the Real Madrid game. In the second half of a fixture against Lazio in the Stadio Olimpico, the Italian, in typical maverick fashion, ran onto the field with his shorts clinging to his ankles to make a mockery of his marker’s inability to get within ten feet of him.

This was the reason calcio fans loved Zigoni, he wasn’t a footballer, and certainly did not see football as a job. Gianfranco Zigoni was an entertainer; his japes were for his adoring audience. He saw football in its purest form… as a form of entertainment.

It was at Juventus that the Italian gained his solitary appearance for the national side. In Belgrade, Zigoni donned the azzurri of Italy for only forty-five minutes… due to the heat of all things. Zigoni in typical fashion, felt that he should not be the one sweating on the field, whilst the likes of Gianni Rivera were comfortable on the bench.

Zigoni’s four years with Herrera at Juventus almost destroyed the “White Pele” mentality. The Italian said, “I felt like a number. I was not used to a haircut imposed on me by society and the monitoring of my phone calls after ten in the evening.”

At the beginning of his final season in Turin, Zigoni openly told the club management he did not want to play, and after a disappointing final season; he was sold to Roma in 1970.

Under another Herrera in the shape of Inter legend, Helenio Herrera, Zigoni failed to make a real impact in a footballing sense. His two years in the eternal city have been better remembered for antics with a Colt 45 rather than a ball.

Between 1970-72, arguably the most unfortunate inanimate objects in Europe were the streetlights which illuminated the streets of Rome… until Zigoni shot them out.

Still known as the “White Pele” in Italy, Gianfranco Zigoni was convinced his talents were superior to the Brazilian legend. During his time at Roma, Zigogol had the opportunity to finally prove himself as the greatest in the world, he stated before the game, “Oh justice will be done. Today the world will understand that Zigogol is better than Pele.”

On that fateful day however, Zigoni witnessed the immeasurable ability of Pele. The Italian suffered from a bout of depression during the Santos friendly at the Stadio Olimpico, he even mentally wrote a footballing epitaph, “Zigoni leaves football. He can’t bear to be on the same planet as someone better than him.” The only thing that saved Zigoni’s career that day, was Pele’s missed penalty in the second half, had Pele not missed that penalty, the peninsula would have been deprived of Zigoni’s wondrous six years, in the blue and yellow of Hellas Verona.

Once Gianfranco Zigoni walked the cobbled streets of Verona, seeing the Arco dei Gava, Porta Leoni and the Torre dei Lamberti, threw Zigogol into a passionate love affair with the people and walls of Verona.

It was the city and club that allowed Zigoni to be a free spirit, to be a long haired lackadaisical hero… to be Zigoni. The Oderzo native soon became the Veronese of the 20th century.

Living with monks on the beautiful banks of Adige one day, then holding the club president at gun point for rise in wages the next, it’s fair to say that Verona was a place where Zigogol could do as he pleased.

Even when his manager attempted to stamp authority by not playing Zigoni in the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi, the fan favourite sat on the bench wearing a fur coat and fedora hat, prompting his adoring fans to scream “Zigo! Zigo!” for 9o minutes.

Similar affection towards the Oderzo native was shown on a regular basis. During a friendly against Vicenza, after beating four defenders and rifling the ball into the top corner, instead of celebrating Zigoni walked to the changing rooms, got dressed and left the stadium. Without the talents of their hero to watch for the last twenty minutes, the stadium was left eerily silent.

When Gianfranco Zigoni did play however, he was irrepressible. Relegated due to a scandal involving club president Saverio Garonzi, the solitary season spent in Serie B by Zigogol’s Hellas Verona in 1974/75 proved to the Italian’s greatest in his beloved blue and yellow.

He played with passion and a winning mentality never before, and never again, seen during his volcanic career. Zigoni stole the hearts of every member of the Verona population, when he almost single-handedly propelled Hellas Verona straight back into the top division… uncharacteristically sweating in the process.

Such was his love for Hellas Verona, that he once imagined dying in front of his adoring fans wearing blue and yellow. He imagined the stadium name being changed from the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi, to the Stadio Gianfranco Zigoni.

Zigoni, “I feel like the blue and yellow jersey is sewn on, and so it will be for life.”

After his six year tenure in the colours of Verona, Zigoni wound down his career with two years at Brescia before finally retiring at the age of 43 at US Piavon.

Gianfranco Zigoni is not just a “Legend of Calcio”… he is calcio. A chaotic storm that may have been nonsensical at times, even torrentially miserable, but there were also times of unrivalled joy, passion, and genius. His career was operatic, the peninsula was the stage on which he provided his audience with a microcosm of Italian football.

The beautiful innocence and passion of Italy and their national sport was in Gianfranco Zigoni, it ran through his veins.

There is only one summary of calcio, and why it means so much to me and the rest of its admirers… it’s Zigogol.

Follow Jack Gallagher on Twitter: @calciolovesjack


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