Only in Serie A: Italy’s fifth Beatle, Gigi Meroni had attention and style on and off the pitch at Torino. And, as Martin Mork recalls, a pet chicken
Tragedy is woven into the history of Torino. The greatest Italian team in history perished in a plane crash and their most talented, exciting player of the post-Superga era died at the age of 24. Gigi Meroni was Italy’s equivalent of George Best, a 1960s maverick who embodied the break from convention both on and off the field. He enjoyed flouting societal norms of the time, with his beatnik haircut and facial hair, cohabiting with a married woman in a country where divorce was still illegal.
The Swinging Sixties took a very long time to reach Italian shores, so the player who also painted, designed his own silk cravats and clothes, was not so much an outsider as a freak to Serie A followers of the era.
Meroni returned from a disappointing excursion at the 1966 World Cup in England, back to his hometown, Como, to find himself in the middle of an unwanted and fierce discussion between friends and foes.
The Farfalla Granata had been restricted to one appearance against the USSR due to his non-existent relationship with rigid coach Edmondo Fabbri, refusing to obey orders, including trimming his Beatles moptop, and on his return, he couldn’t get the Como press off his back.
Both Torino and Italy tifosi protested that the star player wasn’t allowed to express himself in the world’s biggest tournament, but his critics hit back just as hard. His personal style was attacked in the newspapers, with suggestions he had communist links merely because of a similar beard to the mutineers like Che Guevara.
He grasped the attention and reacted the way only Meroni would react. Taunting the press, he pulled up in the main square of Como (often recounted as Turin in the re-telling of this story), prepared to give them something else to talk about.
Out of the car stepped a stylish Gigi, dressed in his own design, followed by his best friend and teammate Fabrizio Poletti. With them, Meroni had brought his pet chicken, on a leash. Meroni and Poletti walked around the square with the hen following her trusted friend in picturesque surroundings, seemingly not minding the string tied loosely around her neck.
People looked on askance, as if Gigi had gone crazy. Trying to understand the whole story of the first Rockstar of Italian football, you might sometimes think he must have been a little crazy, but never ill-intentioned.
Meroni and Poletti made sure they were observed, gaining attention from onlookers by rounding the square a few times with the chicken calmly passing time with the two footballers, before taking his pet to the lakeside where Meroni tried, unsuccessfully, to dress the animal in a bathing suit. “If others go around with their dogs, why can’t I go for a walk with a hen?”
The superlatives used when describing Meroni would take forever to recite and his skills and abilities were commended by the Filadelfia Curva where they are still sing his name to this day. The Goal Beatnik was not recognised merely as an icon or adored footballer; he was embraced by his people as something unique. He dribbled the whole country on his path to articulate the arrival of the modern footballer.
His status at Torino can be summed up by the rebellion that occurred when Juventus put in an unthinkable bid above 700m lira and Torino President Orfeo Pianelli wanted to accept the offer, not only tempted by the amount of cash such an exchange would make him, but also because his companies worked for FIAT – owned by the same Agnelli family running the Old Lady.
The Toro fans demonstrated that Meroni can’t be bought. Many of them working for FIAT threatened to strike to stop the transfer from being materialised, forcing Gianni Agnelli to surrender.
Despite the press dubbing him ‘Mister Half a Billion’, Meroni paid no attention and kept away from the reporters, never suggesting his own preference. He would keep on walking the streets with his hen on a leash, designing clothes, painting, listening to the Beatles and writing poetry. His partner was the beautiful and already married girlfriend (bizarrely referred to as his sister when talking to the press) Cristiana Uderstadt.
The Granata’s No 7 notched 22 Serie A goals in his short-lived Torino career, but it all ended in heartbreak on October 15, 1967. Life was good on and off the pitch for the 24-year-old superhero at the time.
Out celebrating a 4-2 win over Sampdoria with his ever-present friend and teammate Poletti, he was halfway across the famous Corso Re Umberto road in Turin when taking a step backwards, not realising a car was coming in the other direction. Meroni was struck by a FIAT 124 Coupé, knocked to the other side of the road, where a Lancia Appia crushed him. He died soon after arriving at the hospital.
Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. The driver of the FIAT that struck Meroni was 19-year-old Attilio Romero, who would go on in June 2000 to become President of the club. Tragedy is woven into the history of Torino.
Image via: astebolaffi.it
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