"He was a really big talent... Fast, strong, physical. Really good." - Fabio Capello
A simple internet search of Gigi Lentini garners sparse results, and what crumbs that do manifest the majority have one of two addendums attached, namely "Car crash" or "Transfer". In telling his story I hope to show how those to subjects whilst defining his life did not define the man. This is the story of Gianluigi Lentini.
In the commune of Carmagnola - a small town within the shadow of industrial giant of Turin - every March, the residents of this former castle town celebrate the 'Fiera di Primavera' a spring fair to give thanks for the harvest ahead and to celebrate the agricultural heritage of the town. It was during this festival in 1969 that Gianluigi 'gigi' Lentini was brought into the world.
Progressing through the youth system Gigi did not make an immediate impact and only achieved fleeting Serie A appearances under coach Luigi Radice. With Torino's top tier status becoming more uncertain with each passing season Torino was no place for a an unproven 18 year old to learn his craft and Gigi was sent on loan at the start of the 88/89 season for a campaign at newly promoted Serie B charges Ancona. The regular football (37 appearances) at the lower level did wonders for Lentini's game, adding upper body strength and greater guile to his game after a season of hard pitches and even harder tackles.
Torino had baled the water insufficiently. Gigi was now expected to be a starter in a team which had been asset stripped in wake of their relegation. It was a responsibility that he lived up to and the following season Torino ran away with the Serie B title and were promptly back in the big time.
Keen to not only stay, but flourish in the big time club owner Millionaire Gian Mauro Borsano promptly sacked the next five managers in just one year finally settling on former player Emilliano Mondonico. It would signal not only the rise of Gigi's star but also the most successful period in iL Toro's since the 'Il Grande Torino' of the 1940s.
Gigi hit the ground running and within three starts had bagged his first goal of the season in a 2-0 win over Internazionale that showed not only his trickery but also the sheer speed at which he could dribble the ball. The plaudits rolled in and it was obvious to see why – he was fleet footed, skillful, could switch flanks with ease, provided numerous assists, he was also blessed with classic Italian good looks all of which made him a hero of the Torino Tifosi. Torino ended the season in 5th place, qualifying for the Uefa cup in the process and, almost as importantly, two places above city rivals Juventus.
The following season Lentini continued his ascent towards Serie A superstar. The purchase of Belgian Enzo 'Little Pele' Scifo from Auxerre was the final piece in Mondonico's jigsaw who along side Lentini and Roberto Policano formed a midfield 'Triumvirate' that terrorized Serie A defenses and amassed 20 goals in a league campaign that saw Torino finish 3rd their best finish of the 1990s.
Serie A's defenders were not the only ones to incur Torino's attacking wrath, a successful Uefa Cup campaign resulted in Torino beating Real Madrid over two legs in the semi-final before facing Ajax in the final. Despite two goals from Brazilian Walter Casagrade the Dutch team, which included Danny Blind, Frank De Boer and Denis Bergkamp, came out victorious in a game mainly remembered for Mondonico chair waving protest. A bittersweet end to what had been an unprecedentedly successful season for Torino. Gigi's influence in Torino's success had not gone unnoticed and soon after the season had finished the two big fishes of Italian football were circling.
A transfer 'arms race' had already seen the transfer record being broken twice with Papin going to Milan then youngster Vialli going to Turin and Gigi was the clincher. The bidding war lasted over a month and when complete Fabio Capello, keen to build a team outside the shadow of Arrigo Sacchi, had convinced club owner Silvio Berlusconi to part with £13m Gigi Lentini was now the most expensive player in the world.
The reaction from nearly all sides was unprecedented. The Italian press wrote of Italian football's money train being out of control, whilst the Vatican called the transfer fee “An offence to the Dignity of Work”. In Turin the Torino faithful were incandescent with rage that their local hero had been sold. Club president Borsano was essentially a prisoner in his own home for days as fans of Il Granata took to the streets to voice their rage.
One can only speculate at the levels of anger that would have registered if Lentini had been sold Juventus. What is know is that not long after the transfer allegations surfaced of illicit payments from Berlusconi to Torino Borsano via foreign bank accounts.
Whatever the politics around the transfer the media attention now turned to how long it would take to pay back Milan's massive investment? Lentini responded to any doubt with a handsome return of 7 goals and plentiful assists as the Rossoneri steamrolled their way to the Scudetto only losing 2 games in the process.
Lentini's season ended in bittersweet fashion with a shock defeat to Marseille in the newly formatted Champions League Final. Whilst the final is remembered for the scandal that followed it in terms of the Gigi Lentini narrative it will be remembered as the high watermark in his career.
In August 1993 Lentini's Porsche 911 left the road just outside the town of Villafranca d'Asti. Travelling at an estimated 200km per hour the car flipped before bursting into flames. After being found unconscious by a lorry driver he was taken to hospital in Turin with severe injuries to his eyes and head.
Despite the near fatal injuries the national press, obsessing with the previous years transfer fee, grotesquely fixated on the likelihood of Lentini's short-term ability to repay Milan's investment rather than the mere fact that Gigi was lucky to be alive. “There should be nothing to prevent him from returning to football but please don't ask me when” replied an exasperated Director of Medicine, Carmelo del Giudice. Tabloid rumors of an affair involving Toto Schillachi's estranged wife also sullied what was in truth a personal tragedy.
Miraculously by the start of 1994 Lentini was back in training. However it was not the same player that had once glided effortlessly on the wings of Serie A - dogged by memory loss and blurred vision off the pitch his form suffered on it. It was becoming clear to the Milan hierarchy and teammates that he was not going to return to the electric heights his early career had promised. Marcel Desailly retrospectively commented “You could see the skills, how he was before the accident and after the accident, the balance was completely different”.
How far he had fallen in estimation was plain to see in the 1994 Champions League final where Milan, depleted by injuries and the foreign player quota, deigned Lentini only worthy of a place on the bench; Enough to allow him a medal but a bittersweet moment for a man who once had the world at his feet.
The next two season at Milan relegated Lentini to a bit-part player amassing a mere 26 appearances. Albeit enough to receive a medal for the 1996/97 Scudetto, it was his last act for the Rossoneri. Gigi was loaned out to Atlanta the following season and then in 1997 was sold back to Torino for a 'mere' £2 million.
The logic of Gigi Lentini's career would suggest it ends here. However the following season, back at the club that had started his mercurial rise, and once again under Mondonico's stewardship, Lentini shined in Torino's successful Serie B campaign in 2001.
Still not out of love with football but perhaps knowing Serie A too high a platform Lentini was granted a free transfer to the red and blue of lowly Cosenza Calcio where he played out his professional career before joining up with old friend and fellow pro Diego Fuser in the amateur tier of the Italian game at the grand old age of 40. Since then despite talk of a come back via coaching Gigi has enjoyed a quiet life, in contrast to the rock star life he enjoyed in early 90s Milan.
The icarian narrative that has dogged Gianluigi Lentini's career is one easily sold to the general public – But as we have seen only tells half of the story. And whilst the success that came to him may not have been as stellar as his early career may have suggested his unique career is one that I feel we should celebrate and that Gianluigi 'Gigi' Lentini can be rightly proud of.