Just before Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, the Blues didn’t have the plethora of stars we associate with them these days, but they certainly had some seriously talented players.
Stars like Marcel Desailly and Gianfranco Zola were propelling the club into the top four and their first Champions League appearance came in 1999.
One of the forgotten names from this era under manager Gianluca Vialli was Italian striker Pierluigi Casiraghi, who signed for a then club record fee of £5.4m. What happened to the forward? And why did he only play ten league games for the Blues? Let’s revisit this rather sad tale.
Casiraghi grew up in the Lombardy region of Italy and started his footballing career for his hometown club Monza, whom he rose up the Serie B & C leagues with for three seasons, scoring 28 goals. This form caught the eye of Juventus and the Bianconeri snapped him up in 1989.
Major European honours followed, including two UEFA Cups and a Coppa Italia, and despite not being prolific in front of goal, his work rate was admirable and highly regarded by the management. He was called up for his country in 1991 and ended up with 13 goals in 44 appearances for Italy.
Juve needed more goals from Casiraghi and they weren’t forthcoming, so he was soon surplus to requirements. So, in 1993, he headed to the capital to join Lazio where he would have the most and ultimately only sustained success during his career. He cemented his popularity among the Laziali by scoring an acrobatic bicycle kick in Lazio’s 2-0 victory over eternal rivals Roma in 1995. His best season followed in 1996/97, as he scored 14 goals in helping the side finish fourth in Serie A.
Casiraghi scored twice in Italy’s only win of the European Championships of 1996 alongside his future teammates Zola and Roberto Di Matteo. However, domestically he was struggling to get a look in under new coach Sven-Göran Eriksson at Lazio. Despite being confined to cup and European games in the following Italian season, Casiraghi responded with four goals in the UEFA Cup campaign that saw the side reach the final where they lost to a Ronaldo inspired Inter.
However, a lack of playing time and an urge for a new challenge led Casiraghi to make his move to England with Chelsea in May 1998. Player-manager Vialli was building a potential title challenging squad in west London and needed further reinforcements up front to challenge the very best in the Premier League.
Casiraghi was given his chance on the opening day of the 1998/99 season against Coventry but couldn’t find the net, spurning several chances. He eventually found his goal in dramatic fashion against Liverpool at Anfield, where Reds defender Phil Babb famously collided with the post.
Casiraghi found goals hard to come by in subsequent fixtures and remained on the fringes of selection as Tore Andre Flo was preferred up top. But any chance of his career taking off in England was snuffed in a deeply unfortunate afternoon away at West Ham in November 1998.
A goal down and chasing an equaliser, Casiraghi threw himself at a cross coming towards the front post and collided with Hammers goalkeeper Shaka Hislop. The effects of the altercation proved to be devastating as he tore cruciate ligaments in his knee.
A battle to regain fitness proved fruitless and after two years, ten operations and a conclusion that nerve endings in his knee had been damaged beyond repair, Chelsea gave up and terminated Casiraghi’s contract in 2000. Chelsea chairman at the time Ken Bates stated: “We have been paid £4.05m insurance, which will mean he can’t play top-level football again. We gave him 20 months, but he was still walking with a limp, so we had no choice.”
It was bitter pill to swallow for the striker who, at just 31, thought he had many more years left in the game. Speaking to the Daily Mail in September 2019, Casiraghi reflected on his time at the Bridge and speaks mostly of fond memories despite the sad ending.
He said: “Hislop never wanted to break my knee, he was very unlucky that day for me. An incredible physical and mental pain…but now it is useless to go back to thinking about it because it still hurts.
“Italian football has always expressed great talents and great qualities. Chelsea had the merit and luck of choosing Di Matteo, Vialli and Zola: champions of great international level. Without injury I would have scored a lot, I’m sure.”
We will never know if those last sentiments would have bared fruit but one thing is for sure; Casiraghi was much loved by his peers, fans of the clubs he played for and admired for trying to carry on despite his body failing him.