In tennis and golf, the best players are always remembered for exactly what they were. They take the stage by themselves and perform to an audience captivated by their every move. When they play well, they win matches. When they play exceptionally well, they win championships. There are very few examples of truly talented players in either sport who did not win championships and trophies during their careers.
Footballers are not afforded that luxury. As individual players in a team sport, playing well does not always translate to success on the field and medals on your mantelpiece. You are dependent on the players around you, and if the team as a whole is not a good enough outfit you will not win trophies. It is a cruel and simple fact of life as a team sportsman.
It is even crueller, then, that we use medals to define a player’s success. Those who lifted league titles and championships are remembered forever, while those with empty trophy cabinets are often lost to the history pages and forgotten over time.
Everybody, for example, remembers Geoff Hurst; the West Ham and England forward who fired his nation to a World Cup victory in 1966. Very few people, on the other hand, have heard of prolific Italian goal-scorer Giuseppe “Bebbe” Signori, who scored more goals than Hurst in his playing days. Why?
Because despite his talents, Signori won nothing more than a solitary Intertoto Cup in his 22 year professional career.
A small man’s slow rise
Giuseppe Signori made a slow, quiet and unremarkable ascent in Italian football, but his story could have been quite different. He started out his career as a fifteen year old project in the youth ranks at Inter Milan. There, he began to display the dribbling skill and lethal left foot that would eventually lead him to greatness. Had he been kept on by the Nerazzurri, the name Giuseppe Signori may well have become a household name, synonymous with the very greatest names in Italian football.
As it happened, that was not Signori’s fate. The youngster was released by Inter in 1984 after being deemed too small to succeed in the professional game. At just 5 feet 7 inches tall, his coaches believed he would be bullied and dominated at the very top level.
It was to be a decision that Inter would come to regret, as the diminutive 17-year-old moved on to begin his rise to stardom elsewhere. After leaving Inter, Signori was not in high demand. He spent his later teenage years playing at clubs such as Leffe, Trento and Piacenza in the Italian lower leagues, before finally being given his chance to shine by Foggia manager Zdenek Zeman.
Zeman saw in Signori something that previous managers had not; his dangerousness in front of goal. He recognised that the diminutive forward possessed a predatory instinct in the box that had not been utilised by other managers. At his previous clubs, Signori had been limited to the left wing by coaches who were keen to use his pace and crossing ability. As a result, Signori had scored only 17 goals in 115 games before Zeman signed him in 1989.
As a striker in Zeman’s 4-3-3 system, Signori flourished. He bagged 46 goals in 100 appearances for the club, earning promotion to the top flight for the first time in 1991. Once he broke onto Italian football’s primary stage, Signori began getting some real attention.
The 11 goals he scored in his first ever Serie A season earned Signori his first cap for the Italian national team, but more importantly led to him being recruited and signed by Lazio in 1992. At 24 years of age, Giuseppe Signori was ready to take Italian football by storm.
Everything but the medals
From 1992 to 1997, Signori enjoyed an uninterrupted reign as the star striker at Lazio. Despite initial unease from some Lazio fans at the relatively unknown player’s arrival, Signori won the hearts and minds of the fans and the players with skillful play and a rich vein of goal scoring form. He even became the club’s captain.
What Signori wanted most of all, however, eluded him. Despite a deeply talented squad led by Signori and English sensation Paul Gascoigne, the team’s high point was a 2nd place finish they achieved in the 1994/95 season, when Signori was re-united with Foggia manager Zeman. Led by Signori, the team scored the most goals in the entire league that year, but still found themselves 10 points short of eventual champions Juventus. Signori would never come that close again.
When Sven-Göran Eriksson took over as Lazio manager for the 1997/98 season, things began to unravel for the Italian. Signori found himself out of favour behind striker Roberto Mancini, who Eriksson had worked with at his previous club Sampdoria. Signori ended up moving on loan to Sampdoria, and after an unsuccessful spell there he left Lazio for good, joining mid-table Bologna in the summer of 1998.
At 30 years old, it would not have been disgraceful for Signori to begin declining as a player. He was at the stage in his life where pace begins to wane and instincts start to dull, as has been seen in so many strikers before and since. Signori resisted that, netting 70 times in 142 matches for the Rossoblu. When the veteran Italian star finally left Bologna in 2004 the team was relegated the following season, perhaps symbolising Signori’s importance and value to the team.
Bologna was not Signori’s last stop as a football player. He played 15 more games before hanging up his boots; five games with Greek outfit Iraklis Thessaloniki and 10 appearances for Hungarian team MFC Sopron. It was there that he ended his magnificent 22 year career at 38 years old.
Lethal goal scorer
Giuseppi Signori should be regarded first and foremost as a terrific goal scorer. When Zdenek Zeman recognised Signori’s potential as a striker in 1989, the manager began the development of one of the most lethal strikers in Italian football history.
Signori went on to score an amazing 188 Serie A goals, which ranks as the 8th highest total in Serie A history. He takes his place in the history pages above superstars such as Filippo Inzaghi, Roberto Mancini, Gabriel Batistuta and Christian Vieri, who were never able to replicate Signori’s goal scoring prowess.
Signori also finished as the top goal scorer in the league on three separate occasions (1992-92, 1993-94, 1995-96), leading legendary goal scorers such as Batistuta, Roberto Baggio and Gianfranco Zola. His achievements match those of Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer in English football and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in German football as players who led their respective leagues in scoring three times.
In his prime, Signori ranked as one of the best goal scorers on earth.
Often, a great indication of how talented a player is lies in the attitude of the fans towards him. No one on earth is as fickle as a football fan, passing his allegiances from player to player based often on only very short stretches of form (or lack of it). If a group of fans remains loyal supporters of a player, chances are he is an excellent football player.
By this test, Giuseppe Signori was a true great. In 1995 Sergio Cragnotti, the President of Lazio football club, began negotiations with Parma for the transfer of Signori for a fee of 22 billion lire. More than 5,000 Lazio fans, upon hearing of this news, camped under Cragnotti’s corporate office all day, protesting vigorously against the sale of their hero.
In the late afternoon Cragnotti, at the urging of the fans, withdrew his acceptance of the transfer to Parma and the player remained in Rome. It was perhaps the first time in football history that the passion of a fan base prevented a president from selling a football player. Justifying the fans faith in him, Signori went on to lead the league in scoring that season for a third time.
Refusing his country
While Signori is forgotten partially because of his failure to win medals, another important reason for his absence from the football consciousness has to be his disappointing stint in international football. Signori’s international career was unfortunately short, and his lack of caps and goals often unfairly tarnishes his playing reputation.
The reason for Signori’s lack of exposure to the international stage was not talent. In fact, Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi selected the forward for the the 1994 World Cup, and started the Lazio man throughout the competition. Signori’s hard-working displays and confounding dribbling skills began to win the hearts of Italian fans worldwide.
However, what began as a great story for Signori would not end with a storybook ending. And it was entirely Signori’s own fault. Problems arose between player and manager when Signori refused to play as a winger for the semi-final against Bulgaria. Sacchi preferred to use him in this role to take advantage of his pace and dangerous left foot, as his previous managers had at Piacenza and Leffe. However, convinced that he should play only as a striker, Signori did not concede to his coach.
As a result, “Beppe” watched the World Cup final, the most important game he would ever have the chance to be involved in, from the bench. He did that because of his own stubbornness. After 1995 he never played for his country again, having made only 28 international appearances and scoring only 7 goals. Signori later admitted that he regretted his refusal to play where Sacchi wanted. His own mistake cost him the chance to be remembered far more widely than he is, and in a much better light.
This was not the only mistake Signori made to damage his reputation. On 1st June 2011, a retired Signori was arrested by the Italian police force for his involvement in a betting scandal involving other former players. In August 2011, it was announced that Signori was banned from holding any position within Italian football for a period of five years.
The scandal will likely mean that Signori, ironically, will now always be remembered. He will, however, be remembered for all the wrong reasons. By his own actions, he has compromised his reputation and re-written his name in the pages of the history books.
His crime cannot be forgotten or forgiven; such scams disgrace the name and integrity of football throughout the world. Signori’s name is now an ugly scar on the face of world football, and that cannot be undone.
However, it should be remembered that this was not always the case. A man’s faults should be remembered only if his achievements are also. Therefore, it should always be remembered that, for a brief point in history, Giuseppe “Bebbe” Signori was one of the most dangerous strikers in the world.