Whether it was the sunglasses perched on the end of his nose, his Aprilla convertible, his flashy suits, his number seven shirt or his ‘revolutionary’ Beatles haircut and designer facial hair, Gigi Meroni was football’s first playboy – despite playing in the Heleino Herrera ritui era in Serie A, with incredible tactical discipline and army-like retreats before matches.
In an era where he had to battle with Sandro Mazzola, Gianni Rivera and Gigi Riva to be the Azzurri’s posterboy, let alone George Best, Pelé, Luis Suárez and Eusébio as world football’s great attraction, Meroni is often forgotten, outside of Italy, when looking back on the 1960s. While this is in part down to him playing just six full seasons of professional football and making just six appearances for Italy, it also originates in the fact that Meroni never fulfilled his full potential but rather than this being down to injury, drugs or a lack of motivation, it was something even more poignant: a tragic car accident on 17 October, 1965.
Luigi Meroni was born in the beautiful, but conservative, seaside resort of Comoin Lombardy in North Italy on 24 February, 1963: the same year the soon to be lauded Rivera and just a year before Italy’s record goalscorer in waiting, Riva, were born. With Meroni’s father dying when he was just two years old, the Italian, and his elder brothers, were raised single-handedly by their mother and despite his future immaturity, Meroni certainly grew up, be it doing housework or caring for his mother, at a rapid rate. An ardent free-spirit in an Italian society smothered by years of the Christian Democrat party being in power, Meroni was a free-spirit and a keen painter as a youth, something that he continued as a pastime throughout his career, but it was clear that he had the natural gifts, be it his pace, mesmirising footwork with his gangly and spindly legs or his soon to be signature chip shot, to become a professional footballer. From this, he signed his first professional contract with lowly Como at eighteen years of age in 1961.
Meroni had an impressive debut season in professional football: making 26 appearances, scoring 3 goals and wowing the crowds with his stylish dribbling, untrackable movement and love of nuttmegging his opponents. This helped Como to a respectable 14th place position in Serie B, keeping them safe from relegation, and Serie B champions Genoa snapped the nineteen year old Meroni up for their return to the top-flight. Meroni took time to adjust to the high standard of Serie A, scoring just 1 goal in 15 matches as Genoa narrowly avoided relegation in 1962/1963. Then, Meroni’s preparations for the 1963/1964 campaign were overshadowed by the Italian ‘forgetting’ to attend a doping test, in which three other players tested positive for amphetamines, and he was handed a five-match ban at the beginning of the season. Despite this, Meroni firmly established himself as one of the country’s hottest talents and his 6 goals in 27 games in 1963/1964 helped Genoa to an admirable 8th place finish.
It led to a call-up to the Italy B squad, no mean feat given Meroni’s twenty year age and the difficulty in winning caps for ‘A’ squads back then, but such was the conservatism in Italy at the time, Italy B’s manager, Edmondo Fabbri, requested that Meroni cut his hair – despite it only being ear length. Regardless of Genoa’s rich history, as one of Italy’s first leading clubs and the first winners of Serie A, they faced an uphill struggle in trying to hold onto Meroni and Torino offered 450 million lira for the winger in the summer of 1964. Torino, managed by the great disciplinarian Nereo Rocco, who had just won the European Cup with Milan, had stagnated since the tragic Superga plane crash that wiped out effectively all of the magnificent, Azzurri-laden and revolutionary (innovated the 4-2-4 tactic ten years before Brazil’s popularisation of it at the 1958 World Cup) Il Grande Torino that won five Serie A titles between 1942 and 1949. Meroni would soon become the saviour that Sandro Mazzola should have been, as a Torino youth player who was tempted and poached by Internazionale in 1960.
Idolising Omar Sívori, the great oriundi who played for Italy after being banished by Argentina for joining Juventus from River Plate, Meroni wore his socks low and no matter how hard he was kicked by defenders, he always got up and played the game in an honest fashion. This was partly why he was so popular with Torino’s fans, earning the nickname La Granata Buttefly (the purple butterfly), and that is without even mentioning the devastating and telepathic partnership that he struck up with striker Nestor Combin. Meroni was always targeted by the press, however, for the simple reason that he was different. It was the era of the brilliantine-doused footballer, with a uniformity of short and sensible haircuts, and even though, in hindsight, Meroni’s hair and facial hair do seem out of the ordinary, Italy was a country that prided itself on its clean-cutness and was weary of ‘the other’ – with constant press links between Meroni and Communism, sometimes simply and ludicrously being based on the fact that Fidel Castro and Che Guevera both had beards.
Meroni loved the attention, however, and constantly lampooned the presses obsession with him, whether it was pretending his long-term girlfriend Christina Uderstadt was his sister (appeased the disciplinarian Rocco) or the bizarre incident at Como’s main plazza where Meroni and his best friend, fellow Torino teammate Fabrizio Poletti, walked a chicken (on a leash) and tried to dress it in swimming trunks. One certainly can look back on Meroni’s individuality with fondness, particularly when he refused to cut his hair upon being called-up to Italy’s senior squad for his debut by Fabbri on 1 November, 1965. Torino fans took pride in their free-spirited hero, rather than jeering him, and in an Azzurri warm-up friendly against Argentina in the Stadio Communale in June 1966, Sandro Mazzola was naturally booed by his hometown fans and Meroni emphasised his class by scoring upon replacing Mazzola at half-time. Meroni’s cult status did leave him open to the role of scapegoat, though, and even though he continually dazzled for Torino and made just one appearance at the 1966 World Cup, the winger was blamed for Italy’s abysmal showing in losing 1-0 to North Korea and going out in the first group stage.
The 23 year old Meroni did not let the disappointment of the World Cup affect him and having helped Torino finish 3rd and 10th (still an admirable finish, regardless of the fall, considering Torino’s steady rebuilding process) in 1964/1965 and 1965/1966 respectively with his 12 goals in 78 (played in every single league match of the two seasons) appearances, the Italian set his sights on cementing Torino’s status as a top seven side. Perhaps the moment of Meroni’s career came on 12 March, 1967 against league leaders Internazionale at the San Siro. Inter, who had been unbeaten at home for over three years under Helenio Herrera, were a near-impregnable force with the likes of Giacinto Facchetti, Aristide Guarneri and Tarcisio Burgnich in defence and Giuliano Sarti in goal. Unfazed, Meroni scored one of the greatest goals in the history of Serie A: Meroni hooked the ball over Facchetti before slamming it past Sarti to give Torino a famous win. Meroni had his best season to date, scoring 9 goals in 31 matches, and the 1967/1968 campaign seemed destined to be Torino’s first title tilt in decades.
Before that, however, Torino’s eternal rivals, Juventus, made a whooping 750m lira offer for Meroni which was accepted by Torino president Orfero Pianelli. Such was the outrage, from certain Juventus fans too, that FIAT strikes were threatened by the Turin-based workers and Pianelli’s and Gianni Agnelli’s (Juventus’ owner) respective houses were called to by thousands of supporters in protest. The deal collapsed, but the 24 year old Meroni beared no grudges and was happy to remain at Torino. Meroni and Torino started the season in a positive fashion and after a 4-2 win over Sampdoria on 15 October, 1967, Meroni and Poletti decided that they would celebrate their victory in Turin’s city centre. There was another reason for this celebration, with Meroni celebrating Christina’s (married an assistant director in 1962, in a short and ill-fated marriage) annulment which would allow him to finally marry her. Having been, more than likely, drinking already, the pair decided to head to Bar Zambon after parking their car nearby at Corso Re Umberto. They had to cross this busy and vast Corso to reach the bar, but the pair crucially decided against using the zebra crossing and ignored the traffic lights – despite it being near-pitch black.
Meroni and Poletti had to cross two lanes, with traffic in both directions, and upon crossing the first, Meroni took a step back to avoid a fast car to his right but was then struck by a FIAT Coupe that was overtaking at speed and travelling the other way to his left. Both men were hit, with Meroni being struck on the leg and thrown onto the otherside of the road where an onrushing Aprilla also hit him. It was a devastating death: Meroni had broken his cranium, pelvis and legs, and his chest collapsed. Such was the noise of the crash that Lido Vieri, one of Meroni’s teammates who lived nearby, heard the commotion, rushed to Meroni’s side and was the last friend to see Meroni alive. Poletti, luckily, escaped with minor injuries but even though the ambulance got to Meroni while he was still alive, and the doctor believed his life could be saved but that he would never play football again, the winger died at 22:50.
Somewhat even more poignantly, the driver of the FIAT was Attilio Romero, a Torino season ticket holder who was at the Sampdoria game earlier that day and who had a poster of Meroni in his room. Due to the near-reckless actions of Meroni and Poletti in crossing such a busy road without using the zebra crossing, Romero was aquitted. Meroni’s funeral was attended by an incredible 20,000 people in Turin and celebrated by Ferraudo de Francis, Torino FC’s chaplain. Incredibly, even when deceased, Meroni was criticised by numerous quarters and de Francis was lambasted by the Roman Catholic Church for “celebrating a sinner.” Torino FC, a club who had seen enough tragedy to last the club’s whole history, let alone just thirty years, celebrated Meroni’s achievements and in the Derby della Mole against Juventus on 22 October, the first match after Meroni’s death, a helicopter dropped flowers on his right wing position and the fans continually shifted from chanting “Gigi Gigi” to keeping respectively silent for the whole match. Clearly inspired, Torino hammered Juventus 4-0, their biggest derby victory to this day, with Meroni’s strike partner Combin scoring a poignant hattrick.
Meroni’s death marked a significant turning point in Torino’s and world football’s history: being the precedent for insurance payouts to clubs who lost players through injury or death, which had been heinously ignored by the judiciary when Torino seeked assistance after the tragic loss of Il Grande Torino in 1949. In an incredible twist to the story, Attilio Romero, the man who accidentally hit Meroni, was appointed as Torino’s president in 2000 but the club have never forgotten their La Granata Buttefly: erecting the La stella del Calcio Granata e Nazionale monument on Corso Re Umberto in 2007 upon the 40th anniversary of Meroni’s death.