Luigi Meroni was born on February 24th 1943 in the sleepy town of Como just north of Milan. He was a magician with the ball, bandy legged, thin but incredibly fast and blessed with immense control of a football. He spent his formative footballing years with local side Como before being transferred to a Genoa side in decline.
At Genoa Meroni was to become an idol, scoring beautiful goals, entertaining the crowds with fantastic dribbling that dazzled defenders. Though in 1963 after only a year in Genoa he was at the centre of a doping case. He failed to attend a drugs test, claiming to forget. The three others who did attend were found to have taken amphetamines and Meroni was banned for five matches as a result.
Moving to Torino in 1964, he cemented his legendary status with some gripping displays. Playing on the right wing, Meroni would terrorise defenders, his pace was phenomenal and he was able to easily glide pass the opposition. He scored one memorable goal at the San Siro against Inter in 1967; he chipped the ball over the despairing keeper that helped Torino defeat Inter who had not been beaten at home for over three years.
His style earned him the nickname, the ‘Purple Butterfly’. He always wore his socks at his ankles and in the days before shin guards he took immense punishment, though not one to feign injury, he always got up and carried on.
Not only a notable presence on the field, his off field antics often got him onto the front and back pages. Interestingly his hair was often a point of note for the masses, fans would often shout at Meroni to cut his hair, he was also labelled a gypsy or tramp because of his long Che Guevara-esque locks.
There were a number of incidents involving his hair; it had become a national obsession. In 1963, he was selected for the Italian B team by manager Edmondo Fabbri, who asked him to cut his hair, he did, but was incensed for being asked to do so. He was again called up by Fabbri, this time for a World Cup qualifying match against Poland in 1965, and again he was asked to cut his hair, he refused, stating in a press conference: “I hope I might play well even with long hair.”
Meroni was flamboyant, he went against the grain, he dressed very odd for the time, he wore massive sunglasses pulled down on his nose, odd hats and garish suits, he even began to design his own clothes. He would also play up to his anarchic image as on one particular occasion he drove into the main square of his hometown with a chicken on a lead. He walked the chicken round the square a couple of times before going to the banks of Lake Como to unsuccessfully dress the innocent chicken in a bathing suit.
During the summer of 1967, Torino’s great rivals Juventus made a move for Meroni, offering 750 million lire, an astronomical sum. The bid was accepted. Torino fans were furious, demonstrating in the streets and outside the president of Torino’s mansion and also that of the Juve owner Gianni Angelli. It is even claimed that the FIAT factory would have gone on strike – The Angelli’s own FIAT – and thus the transfer bid was withdrawn.
The following season Meroni was back in the colours of Torino and in October 1967 the defeated Sampdoria 4-2 at home. While celebrating the victory over Samp, he and his Torino colleague Fabrizio Poletti went to find their respective girlfriends. Meroni was in a buoyant mood, as he just found out he could marry Cristiana Uderstadt, a woman he was deeply in love with and with whom he was in a relationship with for many years.
Both players were crossing the road and while waiting in the central reservation Meroni stepped back to avoid a fast car coming from the right, but as he did so another vehicle was coming from the left. Poletti was hit but only slightly, Meroni was thrown into the air and catapulted onto the other side of the road where he was hit by another onrushing car, dragging him along the ground for a full 50 metres.
The driver of the second vehicle was Attilio Romero, a nineteen-year-old student and Torino fan. He was at the match earlier that day, his favourite player was Meroni, and he had a huge poster of his idol in his bedroom plus a small photo of him in his car. Meroni had broken both his legs, his pelvis, cranium and suffered a collapsed chest.
Luigi Meroni died of his injuries he was only 24 years old.
The funeral was attended by 20,000 people, prisoners from a Turin jail clubbed together to send a wreath and the headline in next days paper read ‘all Turin cried’. Torino’s priest, Don Francesco Ferraudo told the crowd, ‘Gigi was not just a body, muscles and nerves… but also genius, kindness, courage, understanding and generosity.’
As with all Tornio’s tales there is an eerie twist. In 2000 the appointed a new president, his name Attilio Romero… the same Attilio Romero who ran over a club idol.