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 Vieri By Any Other Name ...

(c) Alison Netsel

     A man of few words but many nicknames, Christian Vieri has made a name for himself in the world of professional soccer. This third-generation footballer made headlines when he was traded by S.S. Lazio to F.C. Internazionale for a record amount of $45 million, and in the process brought down the wrath of the Vatican, which decried the amount of money spent on a sports player that could be used to help the sick and less advantaged. True to one of his Spanish nicknames, "il muto" -- the mute -- Vieri chose not to comment. However, il muto did comment on Lazio President Cragnotti's claim that Vieri had demanded more money from the Roman club.
     "Cragnotti has started all this confusion. He claimed I'd asked for a wage increase -- this is totally untrue. When this sort of thing happens, it makes you think whether or not you should be duty bound to a club, and I no longer felt like that toward Lazio. Yet I was contracted to Lazio and I would've given 100 percent if I'd stayed," explains Vieri.

How to Win Friends and Influence People
     Less than amicable departures are not uncommon for Vieri, who did not quietly leave Juventus or Atletico Madrid, his previous two teams. While at Juventus, Vieri and Coach Marcello Lippi had their disagreements, and at Atletico Madrid, Vieri and coach Radomir Antic also had their share of problems and perhaps some miscommunications. Antic was replaced by Arrigo Sacchi for the 98-99 season, but once again there were rumors of discord between Vieri and Sacchi. However, Vieri denies that he left Atletico because of an argument with Sacchi.
     "In the short time he and I were at Atletico, he was like a brother to me and he tried hard to persuade me to stay. He spent hours trying to talk me round, but I think in the end even he understood that it was no good -- that I missed Italy and wanted to come home," explains Vieri.
 Jesus Gil, the owner of Atletico got into the fray when Vieri was transferred from Atletico to Lazio. "The talk about us [Vieri and Sacchi] having a row was just made up by the president Jesus Gil, because he was so upset at my decision," says Vieri.
     Vieri and Lippi have managed to patch up their differences -- which should make Vieri's upcoming season with Inter easier now that Lippi is the team's newest coach. Past differences set aside, Vieri speaks glowingly of Lippi and seems happy with his move to Milan.
     Says Vieri of Lippi, "He's an excellent coach -- one of the best, and we do get on very well. But this was not always the case. I can remember us having an argument when we were at Juventus together. It was at half-time during a game with Atalanta and the outcome of it was I ended up leaving for Atletico at the end of the season. But since then we've sorted out our differences and we get on well."

Here, There and Everywhere
     The headstrong nature of Vieri is nothing new. One of his early nicknames was "il mostro" -- the monster. "They nicknamed Christian 'the monster,'" his mother Natalie recalls. "He couldn't stand still." His kinetic pace has also continued as he has worked his way through a number of teams in his career.
     He first began playing in Australia with the youth league of the Marconi team for which his father first played and then coached. Vieri joined his first Italian team, Serie C1's Prato, in 1989. By the next year he had moved up to Serie A, where he played with Torino. After three seasons with Torino, he moved to Pisa, a Serie B team. In 93-94, he spent a season with Ravenna, and the next season he was in Venezia. His years with Ravenna and Venezia proved to be some of his best -- he scored 23 goals and played for the Under-21 Italy team in 1994, which went on to become champions of Europe. His success led him to Atalanta, where he scored seven goals in 19 matches. Although he wasn't yet a prolific scorer, his skill brought him to the attention of Juventus, which signed him the next season. He was originally a reserve player with Juve, but through the misfortune of Boksic and Del Piero, who were injured much of the season, he was given a chance to play. He and Amoruso proved to be a formidable team during the latter half of the season.  His success brought him the affection of the tifosi and the interest of Atletico, which paid a high sum to obtain Vieri. With Atletico, Vieri became the top scorer of the Spanish league with 24 goals in 24 matches.
     "It seemed I had to keep moving to keep developing my game," says Vieri of his many moves. "It was difficult, changing teams so often, but, on the other hand, I think I also learned a lot from the experience of working in different clubs, learning from so many different coaches and team mates."

The Great Quiet Hope
     The experience Vieri gained through these various clubs helped bring him to the attention of Cesare Maldini, then coach of the Italian national team. While playing his first match for the azzurri against the Maldova team, he scored his first national goal and the azzurri's 1,000th goal. The azzurri made it to the 1998 World Cup, where amid all the hoopla about Del Piero and Roberto Baggio, Vieri snuck in and made an international name for himself with his five goals in four matches, making him a contender for the golden boot award until David Sukur finally pulled ahead during the match to determine third place.
     After the World Cup, Vieri returned to Atletico, but tempers flared and Vieri, who was ready to return to Italy, was sold to Lazio. His move to Lazio created headlines and saw Cragnotti's stock rise. However, some say his move also saw the price of milk rise. Some claimed that Cragnotti's big spending led to an increase in the price of milk and other products in Cragnotti's stores in order to make up for the expenditures.
     Vieri was just one of the players brought in by Cragnotti in hopes of finally winning the scudetto. Hopes plumetted when Vieri was waylaid early in the season with a knee injury. However, by the second half of the season, he was back on the pitch and scoring. His return seemed to coincide with Lazio's return to viability in both the scudetto race and the Cup Winners Cup competition. Lazio went on to win the Cup Winners Cup, the championship's last year. Although the team had a large point lead toward the end of the scudetto race, they faltered in the end of the season and lost the scudetto, one point behind Milan.

Growing Up Down Under
     For all his impassive facade, the Ice Man, as he has also been dubbed, has been known to melt. After Italy's elimination from the World Cup, and after Lazio's loss of the scudetto, the images of Vieri in tears have added a new dimension to this otherwise formidable player. Although Vieri may seem to be made of stone at times, he does have a sensitive side, which has not dissipated with his success.
     His close ties with his family also bring about his softer side. Vieri was born July 12, 1973, in Bologna, Italy, to Roberto and Natalie Vieri. Roberto was also a successful midfielder, playing professionally in Bologna at the time of Christian's birth. In fact, because of his father's connection with soccer, one of Vieri's most common nicknames is Bobo, in reference to his father, Bob. Bobo's French mother is Natalie, whom he often calls "Natalina." Vieri also has a younger brother, Massimiliano, who plays for Fano, Juve's young team. Veronica, Christian's younger sister, rounds out the immediate family.
     When Christian was three, the family moved to Sydney, Australia, where Bob played for the Marconi team, made up of Italian immigrants. When Bob's career as a player was over, he signed on as the team's coach. With his father's influence, Vieri developed an interest in soccer. However, he didn't play with a team until he was around 12 years old. In the meantime, he was also interested in track, swimming and cricket.
    "I used to bat left-handed at cricket and my idol was Allan Border. I preferred to bat rather than bowl," says Vieri. After his success in the World Cup, he exchanged jerseys with  Border.

Back to the Boot
     In the summer of 1988, Vieri returned to Italy on holiday to visit his grandfather, Enzo, who had also played profession football as a goalkeeper for the Prato and Pistoiese teams. Vieri was accompanied on the trip by an Australian friend of his, Paul Okon. Grandfather Enzo was impressed by both boys' skills with the ball. In a twist of fate, Christian and Paul would go on to play together professionally at Lazio. So impressed with Christian was Enzo that he spoke to the president of the Santa Lucia team with which he lended a hand.
     When the holiday was over, Christian didn't want to leave. He made it clear that he wanted to stay and play football with Santa Lucia. He did stay -- until December, when Bob made the trip to Italy to bring back his "monster." Just as Vieri is not easily thwarted in the box, neither were his plans to play professional football so easily thwarted by returning to Australia. Determined to return to Italy to play, Christian began calling his grandfather regularly, begging to return. Through Christian's perseverance, along with the assistance of Italian national star, Paolo Rossi, Enzo convinced Santa Lucia's president, Becheri, to call Christian's father and offer to pay for the monster's plane ticket back to Italy.
     "It wasn't easy to leave my parents, as a child," says Vieri. "When I was 14 I moved to Italy; I was staying at my grandfather's. I used to cry every day; I used to call home; I wanted to go back home. My dad took me back home. I was going to stay in Australia forever."

 However ...
     "After two weeks I felt the need for Italy again. I used to say to myself: If you want to be a footballer, you cannot stay here. My mum did not agree at the beginning. Then it went as it went. I am lucky to have such parents."

To be continued ...

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Vieri and FIFA
Football star Christian Vieri is Italy's ambassador for the "FIFA for SOS Children's Villages" alliance. At a ceremony held at the Cassiopea in Milan on 4 November 1999 which was covered by sixty journalists and a whole battery of cameras for TV stations from home and abroad, today's most expensive footballer in the world was presented with his credentials for his new mission. At the same time a formal agreement was signed defining the new Italian ambassador's precise role.

In his new function the Inter Milan star will next year present FIFA's Fair Play Prize 2000 to the winning team at the SOS holiday village in Caldonazzo/Italy, where 1,500 SOS Children's Village children will be spending their summer holidays.

On one subject the soft-spoken star speaks a clear language: "Wherever it is a question of holding out a helping hand to children and young people I need, I am always happy to play a part."

Vieri at Inter