Goals, goals, goals. That must be what Alberto Gilardino thinks of about 90 % of the time he spends awake. When asleep, he definitely dreams of scoring. For Parma. For Milan. For Fiorentina. For Piacenza, Verona, Genoa, Bologna, Palermo, Empoli and Pescara. For Italy. And for Guangzhou Evergrande. This is the brilliant story of one of Italy’s best prima punti in modern times. A true bomber di razza. This is the story of Alberto Gilardino.
Alberto Gilardino was born on the 5th July 1982, the same day as Italy famously beat Brazil 3-2 in the second group round to qualify for the World Cup semi-final. On 4th July 2006, almost 24 years to the day since his birth, Gilardino assists one of the classic Italian goals when setting up Alessandro Del Piero’s clincher against Germany. Sometimes it’s funny to look at little things like that and feel that destiny plays a part in the life of some people and of course also footballers.
It’s arguable Alberto Gilardino was destined to become a footballer after being born on that particular day. You could also feel Gilardino was destined to become one of Italian football’s greatest goalscorers as on the day of his birth Paolo Rossi scored all three goals to defeat the strongly favoured Brazil. It’s even said his father Gianfranco made sure he found a TV just after Alberto had been born to watch that famous game. When he came back to his wife and child, he was ecstatic and certain little Alberto would become a footballer. Not even Gianfranco could have imagined how right he would be proven by his son.
At only 12 years of age, Alberto left home to to give him the best chance of a good education in football and joined Piacenza’s academy where he would eventually make his Serie A debut. Simultaneously as his football education, Gilardino studied organic chemistry and economy. The debut came in January 2000 and the 17-year-old striker impressed in the spring with three goals in seventeen appearances. The season ended with relegation into Serie B for Piacenza, but Gilardino had done enough to earn a move to stay in the top flight as Hellas Verona signed the young striker in a co-ownership deal which became a permanent one the following summer. At Verona, Gilardino managed five goals in 39 Serie A appearances where many came from the bench. During his time at Verona, Gilardino also experienced a life-threatening experience as his car was hit by a truck and thrown into the river Sile. Gilardino managed to break out of the car before it sank, but fractured his sternum in the crash and was ruled out for the last month of the 2001-02 season.
“The biggest Italian attacking talent of the last 30 years”
Despite not setting the world alight, yet, with his goalscoring exploits, Parma coach Cesare Prandelli had seen enough and advocated strongly for his club to sign the young striker. Parma duly did, and the recently turned 20-year-old was joined in Parma by his Verona teammate, the maverick Romanian Adrian Mutu. During his first season, Gilardino was a back-up to Mutu and the brilliant Brazilian Adriano as the two of them formed a terrific partnership which saw Mutu net 18 goals and Adriano 15. Gilardino managed four in Serie A, but the summer sale of Mutu to Chelsea gave Gilardino the opportunity to become first choice.
He took his chance well, striking up a good understanding with Adriano who scored eight goals in nine games before being sold to Inter in January 2004. Gilardino’s form saw him net an impressive 23 goals in 34 appearances as he enjoyed a breakthrough season in Serie A. The following campaign saw him continue his strong form, scoring 23 goals again in 38 appearances (playing every league game of the season). His performances was noted by the national team and Gilardino made his debut for Italy under Marcello Lippi on September 4th 2004. A month later he scored his first international goal, and established himself in the Gli Azzurri with Lippi often partnering Gilardino up front with Fiorentina hit man Luca Toni.
The summer of 2005 saw AC Milan come in for the prolific striker and Gilardino signed for the rossoneri for a reported fee of 25 million euro. In his debut season, Gilardino scored 17 goals in 34 appearances but Milan couldn’t stop Juventus winning the title. The summer of 2006 saw the Calciopoli scandal hitting the news, which led to Juve being relegated to Serie B and removed of its last two titles. Milan were allowed to stay in Serie A, but forced to start the 2006-07 campaign with points deducted. Italian football were in a state of chaos, and expectation was low of the national team, with Gilardino included, that would go to Germany for the 2006 World Cup.
Italy had a very strong squad though. Gianluigi Buffon was in goal and the defensive options included Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Marco Materazzi, Andrea Barzagli and Fabio Grosso to name a few. In midfield, coach Marcello Lippi could call on players like Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Simone Perrotta, Daniele De Rossi and Mauro Camoranesi while the attacking options were truly remarkable; Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Filippo Inzaghi, Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino. In the group stages, Gilardino started all three games and scored against the USA. He also started the last 16 against Australia, but was substituted at halftime and lost his place in the quarter final to the hero from the last 16, Francesco Totti. He was an unused substitute in the quarter final win over Ukraine and was again on the bench in the semi final, but came on and assisted Alessandro Del Piero’s clinching goal against Germany. In the final against France, Gilardino remained on the bench throughout, but had undoubtedly played his part in Italy winning their fourth World Cup.
On his return to Milan, as mentioned the points deduction meant Milan couldn’t catch city rivals Inter who won the Scudetto. However, Milan would lift the biggest prize of all. In May Milan clinched the Champions League title, beating Liverpool in the final in Athens. Gilardino only played two minutes of the final, but scored one of the goals in the 3-0 thrashing of Manchester United in the return leg of the semi final. In the space of a year, Gilardino had secured the World Cup and the Champions League and ended the 2006-07 Serie A campaign as Milan’s top scorer with 12 goals.
Despite the success on the pitch, Gilardino endured difficult times off it. In September 2006 he had given an interview to gay.it, an internet network for homosexuals. He didn’t shy away from tough questions (in Italy) surrounding gay marriages or adoptions and said he believed in everyone’s equal rights and that he wanted the government to find a solution to these issues, he quoted Voltaire and his open mindedness caught the eye when teammates Cannavaro and Gattuso had actively campaigned against gay marriages. He really did stand out with his views and was refreshing to listen to.
Almost two months later, Gilardino found himself in the middle of a police investigation surrounding a blackmail case where the paparazzi Fabrizio Corona had hired escorts, both male and female, to pick up married celebrities while he photographed the whole thing at its most compromising moments. Gilardino was one of these celebrities (although not married at the time) and he paid Corona 7.000 euro. After being interrogated by police, Gilardino immediately called Corona to tell him to destroy all evidence, unaware that his phone was bugged by police. The story quickly hit the press, and the speculated conclusion was that Gilardino’s eagerness for the pictures not to go public wasn’t because he’d cheated on his partner with another woman, but that he’d done it with a man. This was never proven, but the speculation took its toll on Gilardino and his performances deteriorated with the striker only managing seven goals in 30 appearances in 2007-08.
“In Milan, everything became worse and worse. The end of my time at Milan was the worst in my life.”
Mutu and Gilardino at Fiorentina.
A summer move to Fiorentina and his mentor Cesare Prandelli was needed for Gilardino to get back on track. At La Viola he also joined up with his former teammate Adrian Mutu with whom he struck up a well-working partnership. Gilardino scored 19 league goals in his first season and led Fiorentina into the Champions League where they reached the last 16 before losing to eventual finalists Bayern Munich. With Prandelli, Gilardino found a coach who knew everything about him as a footballer and, perhaps more importantly, as a person.
“Gilardino is a great footballer, and a very sensitive person. He is a nice boy, and that shouldn’t be seen as a negative. Sometimes the nice boys are shut out from football since they don’t fit in. They don’t have that confidence or that arrogance. So the most important part is working with the human side.”
“Sometimes I think I came into football at the wrong time. A few years ago there was a lot less pressure, a lot less worries. Sometimes I think that I should just step aside and focus on my chemistry instead.”
In between his first and second season at Fiorentina, Gilardino married his sweetheart Alice, incredibly on July 5th, and everything seemed to fall into place in his life. Gilardino followed his first season by scoring 15 in his second and 12 in his third. In his fourth though, he started to struggle and was sold to Genoa in January 2012 after only scoring two goals in the first half of the season. He didn’t fare much better for the rossoblu with four goals in 14 league games. In the summer of 2012 he was on the move again, joining Bologna on loan. During a successful season in Bologna, Gilardino scored 13 goals to help the side finish comfortably in mid table.
After that successful spell, Genoa brought him back to the club and Gilardino picked up where he left off at Bologna, firing 15 goals in the league for Genoa in 2013-14. He then embarked on an adventure in China, joining Guangzhou Evergrande to play under his former World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi. Gilardino missed Italy though, and returned in time for the second half of 2014-15, joining his former club Fiorentina. With Vincenzo Montella at the helm, Gilardino played in 14 games, scoring four goals. In the summer of 2015, he moved yet again, this time to Sicily and Palermo to replace Paulo Dybala. He struck up a fruitful partnership with trequartista Franco Vazquez and scored ten goals as Palermo eventually avoided relegation. Gilardino didn’t stick around though, since he moved back to Tuscany to join Empoli, but 14 league games in the fall without a goal saw him move again in January 2017, this time to Pescara. At the time of writing, Gilardino has only made one appearance for Pescara.
In total, Alberto Gilardino has scored 245 career goals for his clubs and for Italy, while scoring 188 times in the Serie A. He’s one of the most prolific Italian strikers of the last 20 years and a quite nomadic career has seen many sets of fans celebrate his goals while enjoying his classic violin celebration. A league title has eluded him, but he won the World Cup, the Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the Chinese Super League on top of personal accolades as Serie A Footballer of the Year (2005), Serie A Italian Footballer of the Year (2005) and Serie A Young Footballer of the Year (2004). At his best, he was a quick, agile, strong centre forward with excellent technique and positional sense. He was often likened to Filippo Inzaghi because of his ability to find the right position in the penalty area to score. His strength helped him hold off defenders and his link up play was excellent. In the air, Gilardino was largely unrivalled. These qualities made him a true number nine, the prima punta, of his teams. He was a true Italian bomber di razza (net bomber) who scored for fun. 188 Serie A goals is extremely impressive placing him level with Alessandro Del Piero and Giuseppe Signori as the ninth highest scoring player ever in Serie A.
Still, the feeling that Gilardino himself had, of not fitting in, remains. Should a player with his quality have achieved even more? It’s arguable. Personally, however, I feel Gilardino definitely fulfilled that destiny he seems to have been born into that night when his father celebrated a famous Italian success.
Alberto Gilardino became one, too.