Enrico Chiesa spent his playing days alongside some of the greats of the game, during a career that spanned over 20 years, 10 clubs and 190 goals.
The hardworking forward endeared himself to the terraces wherever he showcased his talents, with a five year spell in Siena elevating the player to cult hero status in Tuscany.
Few strikers possess the vast array of skills exhibited by Chiesa. As one of the forwards that defined the 1990s alongside such greats as Gabriel Batistuta, Giuseppe Signori and Alessandro Del Piero, Chiesa was capable of changing games by himself through a rare combination of beguiling finesse and straightforward pace and power. His instinct and intelligence was matched only by the elite, in what was the world’s most demanding league.
Yet it’s easy to forget that the player described by Fabio Capello as a cross between Gigi Riva and Paolo Rossi, spent much of his twenties playing in Italy’s lower leagues. A modest man, Chiesa refined his talent amid the humble environs of the second, third and even the fourth division.
Born in Genoa in December 1970, the youngster’s career began with amateur side Pontedecimo aged 15 before he was spotted by hometown club Sampdoria in 1987. Chiesa made his first-team debut for the Blucerchiati in April 1989 in a 1-0 loss to Roma. It was his only appearance that season and he was subsequently loaned to Serie C2 minnows Teramo for the 1990/91 season.
Chiesa performed well as an attacking midfielder but was loaned out again the following season to Chieti in Serie C1. Another decent season earned a recall to Sampdoria but once again the club were unimpressed as he scored just once in 26 matches.
In 1993/94, second-division Modena took the 22-year-old on loan, and it was here that Chiesa’s true potential was unlocked. Coach Francesco Oddo wanted to utilise his blistering pace and rare two-footed shooting ability and thus converted him to a striker. The rewards were instant. Chiesa scored 14 goals despite the team’s poor form.
Another loan spell followed with Chiesa’s move to Cremonese giving him another chance to shine in the top division. The striker rose to the challenge, scoring 14 goals, including a penalty against Sampdoria at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.
Finally, Sampdoria were convinced that the product of their youth academy was worthy of a first-team place. Having caught coach Sven Goran Eriksson’s attention, Chiesa would soon captivate the football world with a stunning display against the defending champions, Juventus.
On a Sunday afternoon in December 1995, he donned the famous blue and white banded shirts as Sampdoria took on the Bianconeri. Marcello Lippi’s side were expected to saunter to a routine victory, but with the no score and just minutes remaining in the first half, a hopeful counter-attack sent Chiesa marauding down the right flank.
With no teammates in support and three Juventus defenders – including the ruthless Ciro Ferrara – in pursuit, the threat appeared minimal. However a devastating burst of pace allowed Chiesa the time to unleash an unfathomable finish. A ferocious right-footed strike from an acute angle that swerved and dipped, leaving Michelangelo Rampulla bewildered and marooned as the ball blazed over him and crashed into the Juve net.
Chiesa wasn’t finished. Eight minutes into the second half, with the Sampdoria fans still rocking from his first goal, Chiesa struck again. He charged the penalty area from the right, feinted and shimmied past Massimo Carrera, before beating Rampulla with a crisp left-footed shot into the bottom corner to seal a famous win.
A new hero was born. Such a majestic performance against the soon-to-be European champions would forever symbolise Chiesa’s ascent to greatness, a coming-of-age set starkly against his humble beginnings in the doldrums of Italian football’s outer regions.
The remainder of the season allowed Chiesa to cement his status as Italy’s most promising and exciting striker. Forming a brilliant partnership with Doria legend Roberto Mancini, Chiesa’s phenomenal record of 22 goals in 27 matches placed him third in the scoring charts, while another brace – this time against newly crowned champions AC Milan – added to his giant-killing reputation. Fabio Capello’s Rossoneri boasted Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi in defence, yet it took less than a minute for Chiesa to open the scoring. He added another in a 3-0 rout, emphatically humbling the Milanese superstars.
Chiesa’s exploits were rewarded with his first Italy cap and he marked the occasion by scoring in the Azzurri’s 2-2 draw with Belgium. He also scored in Italy’s defeat to the Czech Republic at Euro ’96, prompting interest from numerous top clubs.
Calisto Tanzi’s ambitious Parma outfit tempted Sampdoria into selling their new-found star and Chiesa joined the Crociati in the summer of 1996. Carlo Ancelotti had assembled a team intent on winning the Scudetto as Enrico joined new signings, Lilian Thuram and Hernan Crespo, in a side that already included Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro and Gianfranco Zola.
He immediately formed a successful partnership with Crespo that forced Zola’s departure midway through the season. The duo combined to score 26 times with Chiesa being the club’s top scorer with 14 goals. Parma finished second, just two points behind Juventus.
The following season was dispapointing as Chiesa contributed an underwhelming 10 goals to his sixth place side, while Ancelotti was sacked at the end of the season.
In 1998/99, Chiesa scored only nine league goals, however his stellar performances in the UEFA Cup led Parma to the trophy. Eight goals in the competition, including a thunderous half-volley in the final against Marseille, proved that he was still instrumental to the team that also lifted the Coppa Italia that year. These trophies would be Chiesa’s final gift to the Ducali as he subsequently joined Fiorentina to form a mouth-watering partnership with Batistuta.
However, the Viola fans were initially disappointed. While ‘Batigol’ was his ever-brilliant self, Chiesa struggled. For the Fiorentina faithful, Chiesa had wilted in the presence of their talismanic captain.
When Batistuta left for Roma in the summer of 2000, the striker found himself under even greater scrutiny. The departure of Fiorentina’s greatest-ever goalscorer left a gaping hole in the side, and a void in the hearts of the supporters.
But Chiesa was no stranger to playing the underdog and repsonded to the task, hitting 22 league goals and adding five more during the Viola’s triumphant Coppa Italia campaign. Batistuta would never be forgotten but the passionate Florentine fans had a new idol.
By the beginning of the 2001/02 season, Fiorentina’s financial troubles had escalated. The club was forced to sell their star playmaker, Manuel Rui Costa, to AC Milan in order to survive. Despite the loss of his main provider, Chiesa started the season in excellent form as he struck five times in the opening five matches.
But with Chiesa seemingly en route to another 20-goal season, a serious knee injury meant he would never play for Fiorentina again as the Viola were relegated and declared bankrupt.
Chiesa’s next stop was Lazio where his best form and fitness eluded him. He could only muster two goals in 12 matches in his only season in the capital.
His decision to join Tuscan minnows Siena in 2003 for their first ever season in Serie A, was perceived as nothing more than a swansong for the 32-year-old. It proved to be a shrewd decision. Chiesa demonstrated his versatility by becoming the main play-maker for the Robur. The veteran’s sublime vision, creativity and wealth of experience defied his ailing legs as he split opposing defences with pin-point passes in addition to scoring ten goals himself.
The Bianconeri became adept in winning relegation battles under the leadership of the new fan-favourite, remaining in the top flight for the entire five seasons Chiesa spent there. Nobody expected the enormous contribution he made towards establishing the club’s long-term Serie A status. The affection the Robur fans hold for Chiesa is embodied by the supporters group named in his honour: Siena Club Enrico Chiesa.
After struggling in 2007 and 2008, Chiesa finished his playing career with Lega Pro side Figline in 2010, retiring at the age of 39. He took over as coach before returning to his roots to preside over Sampdoria’s Primavera youth team. After three successful years he stood down to pursue a career in first-team coaching.
All in all, Enrico Chiesa made 517 professional appearances for 11 clubs, scoring 190 goals. But despite his fame and fortune, he maintained his unassuming demeanour both on and off the field.
Chiesa’s talent proved that no club was too big for him, while his humble disposition meant that no club was considered too small. His illustrious career was bookended by stints in the lower leagues and his willingness to accept moves to provincial clubs in between allowed him to reignite and prolong his career.
Compared to Gigi Riva for their similar playing style, it’s fitting that Riva himself would also reflect on their shared personal characteristics.
“Chiesa has that same speed and a powerful shot. He is a complete player. Another thing I like about him is that he’s an introvert, as I was. He speaks little, but demonstrates clear ideas and creativity [on the pitch].”
Two modest men that let their football do the talking.