The Rise and Fall of Gianluigi Lentini

 • by Frank Smith
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In Italy, football is seen as an art form. It is ninety minutes of individual expression and collective organisation, a testament to human creativity and endurance. Footballers on the peninsula are revered, and the finest of them transcend the pitch, becoming Godlike beings. With such a mythical aura surrounding them, it is easily forgotten that these individuals are just as fragile as everyone else. They too bleed, bruise and breathe.

Gianluigi Lentini was 24 years old when he crashed his car in August 1993. It was pre-season, a time for physical rejuvenation, but he would spend much of it merely trying to survive and then recover after his Porsche 911 veered off a road near the small town of Villafranca D’Asti. One minute he was an esteemed young footballer, a Champions League winner, a member of Fabio Capello’s unstoppable AC Milan side and subject of the world record transfer fee. The next he was a vulnerable human being with a future in limbo.

Lentini’s had had new tyres fitted to the car the previous day but was unaware that he was not to go above 70 kilometres per hour. His car was travelling at around 200 kilometres per hour before the crash, at which point it flipped over and burst into flames. The player fractured his skull near his eye socket and was found unconscious by a lorry driver. He was taken to Turin hospital, where he spent the following two days in a light coma. Not only did Lentini survive this, he would soon return to a football field. In this respect he was lucky, but in others he was not.

Born in Carmagnola in 1969 to Sicilian parents, Lentini grew to be a shy, introverted boy. However his predilection for football offered him outlet, on the pitch he could show his true flair and personality. At a young age he had trials with Torino and eventually enrolled in the club’s youth system. It was there that he received tips from former striker Gianni Bui and coaching from Sergio Vatta, who was responsible for nurturing an exceptional generation of players from youth team to first team. Yet, while initial signs were promising, Lentini didn’t climb the ladder quite as smoothly as some of his peers.

Having made his debut for the club at the tender age of 17 in a 2-0 defeat to Brescia, Lentini struggled to make an impression and, by 1988, he was sent out on loan to Ancona, a Serie B outfit in the Marche region of Italy. Clearly talented, the winger’s main issue was being aware of that very fact, something he later admitted in an interview with La Stampa, saying: “My worst fault is precisely that of not being able to get rid of the ball at the right time, (and) always adding that extra touch which aggravates the situation…I think this (trait) is shared by many young players…it is an unconscious attempt to show what you can do and what you are worth.”

Lentini’s time with Ancona saw him grow physically as well as begin ironing out such technical deficiencies. After one season away he returned to Torino a more mature professional, though he would remain a Serie B player for the time being due to the relegation of his parent club from Italian football’s top tier.

At the same time as he returned to Torino, the club’s hierarchy was changing. Wealthy businessman Gianmarco Borsano had bought the club for 8 billion lire and promptly set about buying players and sacking coaches until he perceived the formula to be perfect. This meant that, while Eugenio Fascetti gave Lentini regular game time and led the club back to Serie A at the first attempt, he would soon be fired. Eventually, Borsano settled on former Toro player Emiliano Mondonico. It was an appointment that heralded the dawn of an exciting new era in Torino history as well as an important next chapter in the story of Lentini’s burgeoning career.

With Mondonico at the helm, Lentini became a regular starter for Torino. The player and the team adapted well to the rigours of Serie A life, finishing fifth in 1991 to ensure that, in their first season back at calcio’s top table, they had qualified for European competition.

Leaning towards a 4-4-2 system, Mondonico had a strong pool of talent to call upon. In goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani, centre-back Roberto Mussi and defensive midfielder Sandro Cois, he had a hard-working spine of future Italy internationals. Alongside them stood the personality of Enrico Annoni and the elegance of Spanish international Rafael Martin Vazquez, a central midfielder who had joined from Real Madrid. That pool would be further augmented ahead of the 1991-92 season, as Borsano financed the signatures of Belgian playmaker Enzo Scifo and Brazilian striker Walter Casagrande.

Mondonico was also able to tap in to the work of Vatta, whose youth team had produced not only Lentini, but Gianluca Sordo, Roberto Cravero, Giorgio Venturin, Silvano Benedetti and Dino Baggio.

This concoction of experienced Italians, foreign internationals and youth team graduates would see Torino finish third in Serie A in 1992. Mondonico’s team also dispatched Real Madrid to reach the UEFA Cup final, where they lost on away goals to Louis van Gaal’s Ajax after drawing 2-2 at home and 0-0 in Amsterdam. Away in the Olympisch Stadion, Torino came closer than ever to what would have been their only major European honour, only to thrice be denied by the woodwork, something which caused Mondonico to raise a chair to the skies in disbelief.

After the game, team captain Cravero summarised the overwhelming feeling of frustration. “We are cursed, I do not know what to say.”

Despite the unfortunate UEFA Cup final defeat, Torino had enjoyed two glorious seasons back in the top flight. For that, the Torinesi were grateful, but they would soon be left even more frustrated than Cravero. Within a month they would watch on helplessly as one of their finest talents was sold.

By this point in time Lentini was not only an established fixture in the Torino side, he was an Italy international and one of the most coveted players in the country. More prestigious clubs were circling and Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi agreed to shell out a record amount to convince Borsano to part ways with the player. In truth it was a bid Torino couldn’t reject. The £13 million fee was the biggest in football history, breaking that set by Juventus’ £12.5 million purchase of Gianluca Vialli earlier that summer. Ironically, Vialli’s career had also been launched by Mondonico when the pair worked together at Cremonese.

Gianluigi Lentini controls the ball

Mondonico was accepting of the decision to sell Lentini, understanding the circumstances that surrounded the transfer even before an agreement had been reached, saying: “(I’d be) sorry to lose him, but now the reality is that Milan and Juventus do that they want, the other teams do what they can.”

While the coach’s reaction was somewhat stoic, the Torino fans were more aggressive in their response. Because of Milan they would be losing Lentini’s shimmying runs and bursts of speed. The deal was particularly difficult to come to terms with given the player had come through the club’s own youth ranks. However their protests at the club headquarters – quelled only by police tear gas – could not withhold the inevitable. Lentini became a Milan player, in turn joining the most successful and ambitious club on the planet at that time.

Fabio Capello had taken over from Arrigo Sacchi in Milan’s dugout in 1991 and set about continuing on the historic groundwork laid by his predecessor. In his first campaign the Rossoneri won the Scudetto for the first time in four years, but the 1992-93 season was where he would begin to build the team in his own image. The team’s attack was reinvigorated by the lavish acquisitions of graceful Montenegrin winger Dejan Savicevic, prolific French forward Jean-Pierre Papin and the integration of Zvonimir Boban, who had spent the previous year on loan at Bari.

Lentini’s expensive capture was crucial to this process of reinvigoration as far as Capello was concerned, but others were outraged. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, had declared the fee paid to sign the player as “an offence against the dignity of work”. Lentini was nonetheless unreserved in admitting his motives for joining Milan, saying, “Of course, it was the money that changed my mind, that got me to leave Turin. It seems to me a very good reason”.

His willingness to confront the subject of his transfer fee with such outspoken honesty led to a pejorative connotations of Lentini as a money-grabber, a mercenary. This view was only bolstered by his interest in fashion and foppish dress sense, which was described by some journalists as “transgressive”. With his shiny shoes, ear piercing and self-confidence, he had all the airs of a player interested in the glitz and glamour of his flourishing celebrity lifestyle, and the media didn’t seem to take well to it.

Money continued to be the overarching topic of conversation throughout the winger’s first season at San Siro. Although he didn’t look out of place next to the likes of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, which was in itself a form of compliment, his performances were constantly saddled with the transfer fee, making it almost impossible for Lentini to live up to expectations. Nonetheless, he was an important member of the team, scoring seven goals and setting up 14 as Milan won a second straight Scudetto. He was also a key player in the team’s run to the Champions League final, in which they lost to Marseille. In that final, playing in his white boots, he showed flashes of who and what he was at his best; a refined improviser with a delicate touch, an elegant technician, a good crosser and a good dribbler. But that would prove to be the last game of his prime.

Within a few months Lentini crashed his car and, after the crash, he was never quite the same. Carmelo Del Giudice was the medical director at the Turin hospital where Lentini was treated. While the budding star was recovering, Del Giudice spoke about his prospects. “There should be nothing to prevent him from returning to football but please don’t ask me when”, he told the press.

Truthfully, the Lentini football fans had come to know and appreciate never fully did return. He would play again, but not in the same manner. The crash had distorted those mesmeric skills, transforming him from superstar to squad member. That Lentini the person had survived was a blessing, but the footballer was unrecognisable. Marcel Desailly had played against him in the 1993 Champions League final before joining Milan. He of all people knew first-hand the effects of the accident on the player. “You could see the skills, how he was before…and after”, he remarked. “The balance was completely different”.

Following the crash the Italian media tastelessly continued to focus on matters more financial than personal in nature, wondering how Lentini would be able to pay back that world record transfer fee. It was hurtful and haunting talk for a player who had become accustomed to his star status. He remained with Milan but failed to reproduce his best form, eventually re-joining his old coach Mondonico for a loan spell with Atalanta in 1997.

That loan spell wasn’t enough to change his course, however. Some of Lentini’s words from an interview with La Stampa at the start of the loan deal offer a poignant insight into a man who was struggling to come to terms with a career spiralling in the wrong direction. “When I left Milanello I felt a great sadness, like when I left Torino. But I’m sure that next summer, when I return to the Rossoneri, I will be regenerated. I am confident, but if things go differently? It will mean that the bloody incident really has taken everything. And then I can stop insisting and fantasising”.

Lentini’s time with Atalanta didn’t convince Milan and he was sold back to Torino, where his career had begun, for a £2 million fee that, while not paltry, was representative of his fall from favour. By then, however, he was in his late 20s and was not the sparkling, inventive wide man of the early 1990s. And his beloved Toro were back in Serie B. Encountering difficulties with memory loss and moments of dizziness, Lentini helped Torino back into Serie A before ending his career in Italy’s lower leagues.

He eschewed the more traditional path of the ex-football superstar, continuing to play even when his gifts were not as polished as they once were. He still preferred the green grass over a commentary box or a gameshow set. Instead of yearning for the past, he accepted his circumstances and thrived in spite of his decline. When asked about the headlines of his younger years, Lentini did not seem overly melancholic, recalling simply, “It means I did something important in my life”.

He became an idol of Cosenza, turning out for them even after relegation to Serie D. He then joined up with Diego Fuser, a friend of his from their days in Torino’s youth team, at Canelli in their native region of Piedmont. They played together in the amateurs for four seasons, aiding the club to promotion. Lentini scored 37 goals in 74 appearances, leaving the club at the age of 39. He ended his playing days in Carmagnola, his hometown, before operating a pool hall there with friends.

At times in a young footballer’s life the lines between work and play, football and celebrity, can be blurred. Perhaps then the greatest aspect of Lentini’s career was not how good he once was, but how much he persevered in the face of adversity. Even when the money and the fame deserted him, he carried on out of love for the game.

Through his experience, he found out more than most about the perils of the Godlike aura that can envelop great Italian footballers. “Sooner or later, the balloon is deflated”, he warned. “And then you go back to being an ordinary mortal”.

Image Credit:

Featured Image: Phil O’Brien / EMPICS Sport

Article Image: Rui Vieira / EMPICS Sport