Thursday, August 23, 2012
Gigi Meroni: Fashion victim
In the 1960s, Luigi Meroni was an Italian celebrity. He had an infatuation with style and fashion, just as the public had an infatuation with him.
In a conservative society, Meroni found himself a symbol of rebellion, idolised by his supporters and reviled by his detractors. His shaggy hair and unshaven chin became a cause of national obsession - in June 1967, for example, Turin's La Stampa newspaper ran a story entitled simply "Meroni si è tagliato la barba" ("Meroni has shaved off his beard").
The older Torino fans affectionately called him Calimero in honour of a cartoon chick who wore a broken eggshell on his head, and he would face chants of "Gigi, go and wash your hair", but - beyond the jokes - he was forced to contend with a very genuine sense of anger over his refusal to conform. "Why should I change? I look this way because I like it," he said. "I'm not just swimming against the tide. It's my taste." Few would doubt that he took pleasure in provoking the traditionalists, though. He had a pet hen that he would walk around publicly on a leash, once taking it to training and, on another occasion, attempting to dress it in a bathing costume at Lake Como. "Others have a dog, I have a hen," he would explain. "What's all the fuss about?"
Born in Como in February 1943, Meroni lost his father at the age of two; his mother, with three children, struggled to cope financially. Gigi, as he was known, was a hyperactive youth but found expression in the arts. He loved poetry, jazz and literature, and once described painting as his "real job". Before getting his break in football, he had worked as an apprentice in one of the many silk and garment factories around the region, specialising in silk ties.
He was not particularly enthusiastic about sport on the whole - he made that much clear when discussing his reasons for not wanting to partake in the 1964 Summer Olympics - but as a footballer he had a true gift. Invariably compared to George Best, he was a fast, creative and skilful player, capable of playing on the wing, in midfield or as a centre forward. He was fearless, too, despite the punishing tackles he would inevitably attract. "Believe me, he's not afraid of anyone," Italy coach Edmondo Fabbri said ahead of the 1966 World Cup. "Even the Devil."
He began his career with local side Como, making a solitary appearance in Serie B in the 1960-61 season and 24 in the following campaign. It was not a vintage season for Como, who narrowly avoided relegation, but Meroni impressed, and newly-promoted Genoa were convinced enough to pay 40 million lire (£23,000) for his services in the summer of 1962.
He quickly established himself as a fan favourite at Genoa, who had struggled to recreate their early glories in the post-war years, but his first season was not without its problems. He had broken up with his girlfriend, Cristiana Uderstatd, and she responded by marrying a much older man. Still in love with Meroni, though, she ran away and, even though she did not consummate the marriage, the rekindling of her romance with the footballer would come to represent a major scandal in Italy.
It was also a poor season for Genoa on the field as they avoided relegation by a solitary point, and at the end of the season the club was hit by a doping scandal as three players tested positive for amphetamines. Meroni was perhaps fortunate: he claimed to have forgotten to submit his sample and was given only a five-game punishment, which he served at the start of the 1963-64 season. Even so, he made substantially more appearances in that campaign - 27, compared with 15 the year before - and the club reaped the benefits, finishing eighth.
Other sides were taking notice. In the summer of 1964, he joined Torino for a substantial fee, believed to have been around 300 million lire (£171,000). Meroni said upon signing that he felt "at ease" at Torino and was confident of success. The team's dominance in Italy had come to an end in 1949 with the Superga air disaster but, having brought in Nereo Rocco, the European Cup-winning former AC Milan manager, a revival was in sight. The club's best players were defenders and Rocco, a renowned disciplinarian, was a famous advocate of catenaccio; Meroni - who had an avowed disinterest in tactics - was there to provide the magic.
Despite an impressive debut in which he was received rapturously by the fans, it took time for Meroni to bed in. The supporters who had been overjoyed at his arrival started to lose faith when he went 13 games without scoring; he was failing to meet expectations for the first time, and expressed great relief when he finally netted a brace against Napoli during the festive period.
He was an ever-present member of the Torino team during his first two seasons, and helped his new club to a third-place finish in 1964-65. He also received a last-minute call-up to the national set-up for a World Cup qualifier with Poland in April 1965. However, an extraordinary controversy that was to rage for some time emerged: Meroni had been told he must have a more respectable haircut if he was to represent his country. The story created quite a storm - many in the media were scathing about his image - but Meroni refused to bow to the pressure. "I hope I might play well even with long hair," he said.
He did not play for Italy at all for many months, but Fabbri finally moved to calm the controversy in February 1966, saying the matter had been "exaggerated on purpose". It was reported the following month that Meroni had actually volunteered to visit a barber but, without losing his locks, he made his "half-debut", as he put it, as a second-half substitute in a 0-0 draw with France that March.
He scored after coming on as a substitute in Italy's next friendly, a 6-1 win over Bulgaria, and was involved in each of the warm-up games ahead of the 1966 World Cup. At the tournament itself, he missed the opener - a 2-0 victory over Chile - but was selected for the 1-0 defeat to USSR that followed. For the final group game, a must-win encounter with North Korea, he did not play. Giacomo Bulgarelli, who had been struggling with injury, took to the field instead but soon had to be withdrawn and Italy - unable to make a substitution - were on the wrong end of one of the most famous upsets in football history.
The World Cup exit prompted genuine outrage in Italy, and the squad had to fly home in the dead of night to avoid angry mobs. Meroni suffered particular vilification in the media. Word had filtered through that he had not featured against North Korea because he had again refused to cut his hair, and the media needed little encouragement to savage him (a more logical explanation for his exclusion - that he had failed to follow Fabbri's on-field instructions against USSR - emerged when the coach issued a 14-page report on the World Cup failure a couple of months later).
Despite his hardships, Meroni was one of the few Torino players to begin the 1966-67 season in any sort of form. The club's president, Orfeo Pianelli, announced in November that, after a run of one win in nine games, he would withhold the players' salaries. Rocco argued in vain that Meroni in particular did not deserve such punishment, but it was meted out equally. "I'm sure the president has his reasons," Meroni shrugged.
Torino eventually finished seventh, and Meroni produced the standout moment of their season with one of the most famous goals in Italian football history. In March, Torino had visited the San Siro, where Inter Milan had not been defeated in three years, and came away with a 2-1 victory. Meroni's 17th-minute goal had been the key: from just inside the area, he hooked the ball over his marker's shoulder and into the top corner of the net, leaving the Inter defence dumbfounded. "They say I'm a bit crazy," he said afterwards. "Maybe that's why I score goals like that - I do crazy things to spite my opponents and cheer the spectators."
That summer, Juventus made an extortionate bid for Meroni - some reports suggested it was as high as 750 million lire (£435,000). Though it came from their local rivals, Torino were less than comfortable financially and wanted to accept the offer. In late June, Torino fans launched a mass protest across the city, mainly in cars. Torino-supporting workers at Fiat are said to have threatened strikes. Pianelli's attempts to placate the fans on the grounds that he would "still be representing the city" were, needless to say, doomed to failure, and Torino eventually announced that he would stay. In July, they rejected a 500 million lire offer from AC Milan. Torino kept their hero, but tragedy would soon rob them of his presence.
On October 15, 1967, after a 4-2 win over Sampdoria, Meroni had gone out in Turin with team-mate Fabrizio Poletti. Crossing the road without due care, the pair were both struck by a Fiat driven by an unfortunate 19-year-old Torino fan. Poletti survived the impact, but Meroni was also struck by a motorbike and dragged 50 metres along the road. Later that night, after having been taken to hospital, Meroni was pronounced dead.
Less than two decades after Superga, Torino, and millions across the country, had been plunged into a new period of grief. People openly wept in the streets in the days after his death, and over 20,000 people turned up to his funeral, among them Torino fans, Juventus fans, even elderly ladies with no interest in football. The Torino team chaplain, don Francesco Ferraudo, led a full religious service, describing Meroni as a talented and selfless individual, paying tribute to his regular donations to charity. He said Gigi and Cristiana had "lived together but without sin", stressing that her marriage had been annulled and that the pair were due to marry at Christmas.
The following week, Torino defeated Juventus 4-0 - their biggest victory in Turin derby history - with Meroni's friend, Nestor Combin, netting a hat-trick. Alberto Carelli, wearing Meroni's No. 7 shirt, scored the final goal.
It was a fitting tribute, but the grieving process was not made easy. The church had called for disciplinary measures to be taken against Ferraudo for leading a religious service in the player's honour, which - given the perceived immorality of his relationship with Uderstadt - was deemed unacceptable.
More disturbingly, a man described as "criminally insane" had dug up Meroni's corpse on Christmas Eve. Unable to accept the player's death, he came to believe that a dummy had been placed in the coffin and said the "powers of darkness" had compelled him to find out the truth. He cut out Meroni's liver and gave it to police on December 27. "I could not believe Meroni was dead," he explained. "I had to make certain."
In 2000, the tale took another twist when Attilio Romero, the Torino fan who had knocked down Meroni and Poletti, became the club's president. "My life has always been intertwined with the history of Torino, in times of both happiness and tragedy," he said. "Gigi was my idol. I had posters of him plastered all over my bedroom and that day I also carried a picture of him in my car."
Meroni would not be soon forgotten. As a player, he was a phenomenon, but he came to stand for so much more. As the legendary journalist Gianni Brera had observed in the wake of his death: "He was a symbol of bizarre skills and social freedom in a country where almost everyone else was a mischievous conformist."