While Giuseppe Meazza's name is synonymous with Italy's FIFA World Cup™ dominance in the 1930s, arguably a more modest figure who dazzled in the second of their triumphs can lay claim to the crown of Italy's greatest forward, a striker Gli Azzurri have not seen equalled since.
Fans of the Italian Serie A will be reminded of Meazza's legacy whenever Inter Milan play at home, but you have to cast your eyes down a couple of divisions for Silvio Piola's to become instantly recognisable, having not one, but two stadiums baring his name. Pro Vercelli in Serie B and Novara in the Lega Pro both made the gesture after his death in 1996, such was his impact there.
Still the all-time top-scorer in Serie A with 274 goals in 556 games, despite playing his last match in the league over 60 years ago, Piola has returned to the headlines in recent years with Francesco Totti targeting the record. Piola, however, is also the only man to hold the top-flight scoring record for three separate clubs, with Totti's rivals Lazio adding to the aforementioned pair.
It was those smaller clubs which really reflected his character as a salt of the earth Italian, though. While Meazza was a man of the elites, dazzling the masses in the cathedral of football in Milan, Piola was happy plying his trade in the parish of the people, such was his modest, hard-working nature, and he was lauded by the Everyman for it.
Characterised by his effort and bravery, he was a new breed of centre-forward. He could score from inside or outside the box, was clinical with his head and had that innate knack of knowing the perfect moment to arrive in the penalty area.
His long legs were said to eat up the ground in front of him and he was so memorable the echoes of his talent reverberated around strikers for decades, becoming the yard-stick by which they were all judged. “For a long time it was impossible to talk about a centre-forward in positive terms without someone saying: 'You are only saying that because you didn't see Piola play',” journalist Gian Paolo Ormezzano explained.
Far from a superstar
He was everything that Meazza was not off the field – humble, reclusive, enjoying the quiet life. He enjoyed nothing more than going hunting with his three dogs, while flaunting none of the playboy characteristics (he did not drink or smoke) of his exalted compatriot.
The nation took him to heart without the superstar lifestyle thanks to his five goals at France 1938, when Italy became the first side to retain the World Cup. He was key during the wins over Norway and the hosts, with local media dubbing him 'the Executioner of France' such was his performance. “He not only threatened the French goal,” journalist Brian Glanville recounts, “but distributed the ball superbly with head and both feet, and moved cleverly to the flanks, lithe and explosive.”
Winning a crucial penalty in the win over Brazil they faced Hungary in the Final. Meazza had been playing a more receded role as an inside-forward, as Piola shone in the centre, but the Inter man's prowess as goal-maker came to the fore, setting up his striker to put Italy ahead for the second time on 16 minutes as one of three assists that game. However it was Piola who put the icing on the cake by earning his brace in their 4-2 win with eight minutes to go.
After the game, Piola's name was roundly praised, with Hungarian goal-scorer Pal Tykos particularly complimentary. “[He] had a fantastic physique and constantly overran his opponents. He was a man of great versatility and a centre forward without fear. He exploited any opportunity for shooting on goal.”
The man on the street looks upon you as an example to be followed. You must remain, for us what you have always been... a superman, an idol.
Piola himself, however, was more humble in his recounting of that game years later: “We were the predecessors of modern, athletic football. However, after this final we had to admit that the Hungarians were technically the better football players.”
To get to those heights, though, his start was equally humble. Pro Vercelli had won the title seven times in between 1908 and 1922, but their decline from the upper echelons of Italian football began after that final triumph. However, Piola was to help keep them afloat during his five seasons at the club, making his debut in 1930 while still just 16.
During 127 appearances for the club he scored 51 times, though he could only help guide them to a seventh-placed finish in what turned out to be his final season at the club. The club's president had said of their blooming young striker: “We will never sell Piola, not even for all the gold in the world. Once we sell him, the decline of Pro Vercelli will begin.” Only half of that statement proved true, unfortunately for the provincial side, who sold him to Lazio for between around 300,000 lire – a huge sum, with them finishing bottom on 15 points the following season.
He finished as Serie A top scorer on two occasions while wearing the Biancocelesti and this man of simple pleasures was given a simple nickname by the fans in Rome – Piola-gol – because “goals and Piola were equivalent in Italy” according to journalist Gianni Mura.
A meeting with Mussolini
Following his triumphs in 1938, he was called to meet Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, who was supposedly drawn to support Lazio in part because of Piola. While not a supporter of fascism, Piola was a proud Italian, and as such did what was required of him during Mussolini's regime. “In those days the love for one's country was strong, not like today... this had nothing to do with fascism,” he said years later. “It was an emotional moment to be received by the Prime Minister and to be told, 'well done... Italy is proud of you'.”
His career was badly hit during the war, being separated from Lazio after a trip home to Vercelli as Italy became split during the conflict. After spells for both Torino and Juventus he dropped into Serie B to appear for Novara – where many believed his career would tail off. In fact, he saw them promoted immediately and carried on for seven further seasons, adding 70 top-flight goals to his overall tally.
While he did not make his national team debut until 1935, Piola made up for lost time scoring the first two of 30 for his country. While not as technically gifted as Meazza, volleys, scissor and bicycle kicks littered Piola's game, though his most famous effort is one where he misjudged it entirely. In a 2-2 draw with England in Milan, he attempted an overhead kick, only to punch the ball into the net, with the unsighted referee giving the goal. He also managed to give defender George Male a black-eye in the process.
Piola denied the fact for 15 years, and it was censored from initial press reports, but latterly admitted: “I brought my hand up towards my head and the ball just flew in.” Male was quite forgiving also, insisting on the injury: “He didn't mean it, it was just an accident.”
Fans slept in cinemas and 95,000 were in place four hours before kick-off for his final game in 1952. Journalist Gianni Brera wrote him an open letter, pleading for him to retire gracefully, and encapsulated what he meant to the people of Italy. “The man on the street looks upon you as an example to be followed. You must remain, for us what you have always been... a superman, an idol.”
Did You Know?
Piola scored 27 goals in 23 games in his one year at Torino, but the season was annulled because of disruption due to the war.
His uncle was goalkeeper Giuseppe Cavanna – reserve stopper for Italy at the 1934 FIFA World Cup.
Piola bagged six goals in one game against Fiorentina in 1933, a Serie A record he still shares today.
Piola was wrongly declared dead by a Rome newspaper as a result of WWII bombing, meaning Lazio wore black armbands in his honour twice – more than 50 years apart.
Piola was discovered by a football-loving priest by the name of Don Sassi, who got him his first trial at Pro Vercelli.