Christian Vieri was a wonderful player for club and country, and he has the stats to prove it. Yet bizarrely this is a man remembered more for what he didn’t do than what he did.
The debate around underappreciated footballers is full of complexities.
Barely a day goes by without a debate on social media about the most underrated players in a certain league, while top-level clubs regularly honour club legends later in their life in a way few did during their actual playing careers.
When Guardian journalist Sachin Nakrani asked Twitter for players they enjoyed watching in their respective childhoods but who younger generations don’t appreciate fully, among the hundreds of answers were top defensive-minded players, set off by the initial suggestion of Marcel Desailly.
However, there was another name I was keeping in reserve: a man whose style of play and personal achievements point towards inevitable and enduring appreciation, but whose name rarely appears in such conversations.
That man is Christian Vieri.
That man did this, and a whole lot more.
Unlike plenty of his peers, a mere glance at Vieri’s stats paints a picture of a man who was rightly considered among the world’s best in his prime.
Similarly, any appearance of the Italian in the public eye these days has people falling over themselves to recall how talented he was in front of goal.
However, discussions of Christian Vieri’s greatness only seem to show up in conversations about Christian Vieri, rather than conversations about greatness – at least in the English-speaking world.
So then, let’s start with the numbers:
In his prime, Vieri hit double figures in eight straight seasons in Spain and Italy, including a better than one-per-game return during a 2002-03 Serie A season where no team – let me repeat that, no team – averaged even two goals per game.
That was off the back of the previous season, where the league was similarly subdued in front of goal and yet he scored more than a third of Inter’s 62 goals.
And they were varied goals, too, from towering headers to long-range blasts, with almost everything in between.
Take this, for example, a blend of strength, awareness and precision that really ought to be talked about a lot more.
His 24 goals in 24 La Liga games in his only Atlético Madrid season, meanwhile, is a higher tally than Fernando Torres, Sergio Agüero or Antoine Griezmann have ever managed in league action for the club.
He must have been unable to do it at international level, you’re thinking. Well, not quite.
Vieri has a good-but-not-great 23 international goals to his name, but nine of those 23 came in World Cup games.
No Italian has scored more, and the two who can match him – Paolo Rossi and Roberto Baggio – had far more games than Vieri’s nine in which to reach the magic total.
However, unlike Rossi, he doesn’t have a World Cup winner’s medal to his name, and he can’t even match Baggio’s run to a final. Instead, for some Italian fans, he’ll be best remembered for a miss which denied the Azzurri a run at just that.
Italy’s 2002 World Cup squad was one of its strongest among a strong bunch, having gone into the tournament unbeaten without having conceded a single goal at home.
Eventual champions France had stood in their way in the previous two major tournaments, on penalties in 1998 and very harshly in extra-time two years later, but this time could be different.
Injuries had restricted Vieri to just one appearance in that qualifying campaign, but his five goals in as many games in the 1998 tournament was enough to justify his inclusion on the plane to Japan.
That decision from coach Giovanni Trapattoni was made to look like a no-brainer when the Inter striker scored three of Italy’s four group stage games – including a game-winning double against Ecuador – and by the time they faced co-hosts South Korea in Daejeon their regular foes France were already out of the competition.
The coast seemed clear, and Vieri’s first-half opener made it seem like business as usual.
However, with the clock winding down, Seol Ki-hyeon equalised, only for Damiano Tommasi to break free and square for his team-mate to slot home.
I said for Damiano Tommasi to break free and square for his team-mate to slot home.
That game will predominantly be remembered for the controversy which followed, both on and off the pitch, but the story of Ahn Jung-hwan and Byron Moreno might never have been told had Vieri not failed to convert the sort of chance he’d have gobbled up 99 times out of 100.
And, while other members of that squad would redeem themselves four years later by lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in Germany, their attacking talisman would not have that opportunity.
Further injuries derailed his career, though not before that phenomenal season of 24 goals in 23 games. The confidence with which he converted some of those strikes gives the impression of a man fighting the demons of Daejeon, succeeding and failing all at once.
He may have proved to himself that the error of 2002 was a one-off, and shown watching crowds that he was still as lethal as ever, but what he did next would always matter that little bit less to those who saw him miss that chance the previous summer.
For that failure to win in 2002 may be exactly why Vieri is not remembered in the same way as others of the era. It shouldn’t matter at all, but it forms part of a pattern.
With Atléti, he won the Pichichi Trophy but picked up no club honours.
At Lazio he picked up a Cup Winners’ Cup medal, but nothing in the league.
And as for those six years at Inter, at first with an equally talented and even more injury-prone Ronaldo, and off the back of a world-record fee…that brought personal achievements aplenty, and repeated cracks at the Champions League, but just a solitary Coppa Italia.
Throughout his career, Vieri surrounded himself with top talents who achieved plenty, but they did so without him.
Ronaldo was a World Cup winner in 2002, while many of those with whom he failed in South Korea enjoyed a happier ending four years later.
However, while some looked back from 2002 and others forward, Vieri couldn’t help but end up stuck in the middle.
By Tom Victor