Part nine of this series looks at an ex-player who was once the world’s most expensive footballer. Winger Gianluigi “Gigi” Lentini starred for Torino before completing a then world record £13 million transfer to Milan. However, at just 24 years old he was involved in a serious car crash that left him in a coma for two days. He eventually returned to football but was never the same again.
For parts one to eight please click on the links below. For criteria please see part one.
They Could Have Been One Of Football’s Greatest: Gianluigi Lentini
Born in Carmagnola, a small town outside of Turin, Lentini began his career in Torino’s youth side. Although a young Lentini was progressing well and catching the eye of the then Torino coach Luigi Radice, it was believed that a place in the starting eleven of a team struggling to stay in Serie A was no place for an unproven youngster, no matter how talented he was.
To help him gain valuable first team experience, Torino sent Lentini out on loan to newly promoted Serie B side Ancona. The experience he gained at Ancona during the 1989/90 season was invaluable for his career going forward. He played 37 times, scoring four goals. He returned to Torino an all round better player after a tough but rewarding season in Italy’s second tier.
With Torino now in Serie B themselves, Lentini’s experience of the division plus his talent was seen as major plus as Torino, minus the assets they had in Serie A, attempted to regain their top flight status. The winger’s skills helped his side to run away with the title and after just one season they were back in the top flight of Italian football.
Over the next three seasons, Lentini with his pace, skill, work rate and creativity to name but a few of his fortes, helped Torino enjoy one of their most successful spells in their history. They finished third in Serie A, two places above their fierce rivals Juventus, and they also reached the final of the UEFA Cup. During their cup run they overcame Real Madrid in the semi-finals before facing Ajax in the final. It was a final that they would eventually lose on away goals over two legs but Lentini, who had become a hero of the Torino fans, and the rest of the side could hold their heads high.
It was during this period that he also made his debut for the Italian national side playing against Belgium in a game that ended 0-0. Previously he had been a member of the Italian U21 squad that reached the semi-finals of the 1990 UEFA European Under-21 Championship. He would go on to make thirteen appearances for the national side.
Lentini’s rapid progress was not going unnoticed. In 1992 the two biggest names in Italian football, Milan and Juventus, began actively trying to secure his services. A bidding war began, one that lasted over a month, and in the end it was Milan who secured his services in a deal worth £13 million. It made Lentini the world’s most expensive player. One wonders if the possibility of Lentini going to Torino’s rivals Juventus was ever likely, seeing as it would almost certainly have caused massive unrest between the fans and the club.
Lentini’s first season at the San Siro went almost better than he could have hoped for. The club won the league title and reached the final of the Champions League before being surprisingly defeated by Marseille. He contributed seven goals, a hatful of assists and wowed the Milan fans with his skilful play.
In August 1993, disaster struck. On his way home after playing in a pre-season tournament in Genoa, Lentini was involved in what could have easily been a fatal car crash. He suffered a fractured skull, a damaged eye socket and was in a light coma for two days. Even though he was lucky to be alive, the Italian media seemed more concerned about the high transfer fee and how Milan could ever get the money they invested back. Doctors where sure he would return to action but where understandably unwilling to say when.
Amazingly, at the start of 1994, he was back in training but it soon became apparent to everyone who saw him that things were not quite right. He began sufferring from memory loss and blurred vision. Team-mate Marcel Desailly said this when looking back: “You could see the skills, how he was before the accident and after the accident, the balance was completely different.”
Over the next two and half seasons, Lentini became merely a bit part player. He did gain a Champions League medal, another Serie A medal and several cup medals, but these were mainly due to sitting on the bench and making fleeting appearances on the pitch. A sad state of affairs for a player who once had the world at his feet.
In an attempt to get his career back on track, Lentini moved to Atalanta on loan for a season. He made over 30 appearances for them before moving back to Torino for just £2 million. He spent three seasons back at his first club, helping them once again to a return to Serie A. He left for the final time in 2001 and went on to play for several more years in the lower leagues with several clubs before finally calling time on his career after a spell with his hometown club Carmagnola.
Gianluigi “Gigi” Lentini without a doubt had the talent to be one of the world’s best players. Unfortunately he will mainly be remembered as once being the world’s most expensive player and for a car crash which stopped a potentially great career in its tracks. “Sometimes I think about how it could have been, but then I say, in the end I’m fine and I have to be happy.“