October 15, 1967, is one of the darkest days in Italian football history. Gigi Meroni, the symbol of a Torino side challenging for their first Scudetto since the Superga air disaster in 1949, was tragically killed in a road accident aged just 24. His premature death robbed Italy of one of its most outstanding young talents and cut short a career that would surely have produced greatness.
Born in 1943, the same year as Gianni Rivera, on the banks of Lake Como in Lombardy, Meroni started his career at his hometown club – just as the Milan legend had done. After two seasons he was snapped up by fallen giants Genoa, where he caught the eye of Torino Coach Nereo Rocco. The tactician had taken the reins in Turin after leading Milan to the European Cup and was constructing a squad that were finally laying to rest the ghost of Superga. Rocco saw Meroni’s potential and signed the 21-year-old for the start of the 1964-65 campaign.
He was an instant hit for the Granata. An elegant right-winger with awesome dribbling skills and searing pace, Meroni was at times unstoppable and he often took terrible punishment from opposing defenders who were unable to curb him legally. His nickname was ‘La Farfalla Granata’ – The Granata Butterfly – due to his graceful playing style. He always played with his socks rolled down by his ankles and he was an expert at nut-megging opponents.
While Meroni may not have been a great scorer, he certainly scored great goals. His most celebrated strike was against Inter in a 2-1 victory at San Siro in March 1967. The Nerazzurri were leading Serie A and had not lost at home for more than three years. The brilliant winger surprised everyone, notably his marker Giacinto Facchetti, by hooking a stunning lob over his own shoulder and into the far corner of the Inter net. The picture of a stunned Facchetti standing with his hands on his hips after seeing the ball go in perfectly reflects that moment of genius.
Meroni made his international debut in Paris against France in 1966. He was part of the Italy squad who were humiliatingly knocked out of the World Cup that year in the first round after losing to North Korea. Meroni was made a scapegoat for the disaster, even though he had played just one game and had not been selected against the Koreans. In all he made just six appearances for his country.
Meroni’s style and ability led to comparisons with George Best. Like the Manchester United legend he was a bit of a rebel, he had long hair which was often accompanied by a beard, dressed bizarrely, listened to The Beatles and drove flashy cars. He also had the odd run-in with Coaches. After Italy boss Edmondo Fabbri asked him to cut his hair before a World Cup qualifying match in Poland in 1965, Meroni refused. “I hope I might play well even with long hair.”
Similarly to Best, Meroni displayed the odd moment of outlandish behaviour. After being on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism in the Como Press, Meroni decided to respond in a way only he knew how. Accompanied by friend and teammate Fabrizio Poletti, he drove to the town’s main piazza, took out his pet chicken and then began walking around the square with the animal on a leash before attempting to dress it in a bathing costume. “He was a symbol of bizarre extrovert style and social liberty in a nation almost entirely made up of conformists,” noted journalist Gianni Brera.
Meroni was worshipped by the Torino faithful like a God. So it was no surprise that Toro fans took to the streets outside President Orfeo Pianelli’s house in protest after he accepted a bid from Juventus in 1967 for the star. It is even claimed that FIAT, owned by then Juve President Gianni Agnelli, would have gone on strike as most of their workers were Torino fans.
Meroni remained, but he was to play just four more games before tragedy struck. He was out with his good friend Poletti celebrating a 4-2 home win over Sampdoria when Meroni was struck by a 124 FIAT Coupé as he was crossing the road. He died later in hospital. In a strange twist of fate, the driver was a 19-year-old Torino fanatic called Attilio Romero. Meroni was his idol – he had a poster of him on his bedroom wall and even copied his haircut. Bizarrely, in 2000 Romero would become President of Torino.
Meroni’s funeral was attended by 20,000 people. The priest told those present that Gigi “was not just body, muscles, nerve, but also genius, courage, understanding, generosity.” A week after his death, it was the Turin derby. Torino won 4-0, which remains their biggest victory over Juventus, with the final goal scored by Alberto Carelli, who was wearing Meroni’s No 7 shirt.