Unique. Unique is the main word to describe Luigi Meroni; not just for his footballing ability, but also for his inclusion in this series. The players are included for not living up to their footballing potential – and Meroni is no exception, winning just one Coppa Italia in his career – but he’s also someone who has not been able to live up to his potential off the pitch either.
Meroni was born in the Northern lakeside town of Como in 1943, and it was with his hometown club that he burst onto the scene, earning himself a move to Genoa in 1962. A quickÂ player with the typically bandy legs and dribbling of the great wingers, he quickly became a fan favourite, but the Rossoblu had been in terminal decline since the second world war, and Meroni moved on to Torino in 1964.
Under the stewardship of Nereo Rocco, Torino were finally starting to emerge from the post-Superga shadows, and Meroni fitted in well. His speed, infield dribbling from the right wing and penchant for scoring the occasional incredible goal, including a spectacular chip to end Inter’s lengthy unbeaten run that is considered among the best ever scored in Italy, drew the attentions of Juventus, who made a bid of 750 million lire for Meroni which, once accepted, caused demonstrations outside the Agnelli and Pianelli homes until the bid was withdrawn.
As much as he was loved for his ability, he also irritated many with his rebellious attitude – “a symbol of freedom in a country of conformists” according to Gianni Brera. His long hair (for the time) and beard resulted in chants of “go and get your hair cut” from opposition supporters, and he was obliged to cut his hair when called up for the Italian B team by Edmondo Fabbri, refusing to do so the next time he was asked. He dressed oddly too – arriving back from international duty in loud suits and sunglasses resting on the tip of his nose, and eventually he began designing his own clothes.
Adverse to Rocco’s disciplinarian style, Meroni was forced to hide the identity of his lover Cristiana Uderstadt, telling his coach she was his sister to avoid any problems. He met the Polish-Italian Uderstadt in Genoa in 1962 and stayed with her until his death, even when she briefly married someone else, with Meroni turning up at the ceremony in Rome. An artist without the ball too, Meroni painted a famous portrait of Uderstadt without eyes, claiming she was “as beautiful as an angel” and he couldn’t express it in the painting, as well as several self-portraits.
While celebrating a victory over Sampdoria in October of 1967, Meroni had gone out with teammate Fabrizio Poletti to find their girlfriends – Uderstadt had just had her marriage annulled, meaning her and Meroni could now wed. They parked their car and went to cross the road, taking no notice of the traffic lights or zebra crossing, stepping back to avoid an onrushing car, he was hit by another overtaking. Flung into the air, he landed on the other side of the road, where he was hit again and dragged for 50 metres along the road. Meroni was taken to hospital, where a doctor declared “Gigi will never play again, but he might survive.” He didn’t.
Aged just 24, Meroni was dead. The police investigated the incident, but as the players had been crossing the road away from the zebra crossing in the dark, neither of the drivers faced charges. His funeral was attended by 20,000 people, and before the next game against rivals Juventus, flowers were dropped down Meroni’s right wing by a plane, while his friend Nestor Combin scored a hat-trick to give Torino a 4-0 win, which remains as Torino’s biggest derby win.
Typically of Torino, there was another depressing side to the tragedy. Attilio Romero, the driver of the first car to hit Meroni, was a season ticket holder at Torino. His favourite player was Meroni, and he imitated his hairstyle – he even had a poster of him on his wall at home.
In 2000, Torino had a new president: a Mr Romero. Three decades on, the man who had killed one of the club’s greatest players was now president. For five indifferent years, he ran Torino, met by chants of “murderer” when results weren’t going their way, until Urbano Cairo took over in 2005.
After spending 22 years in Costa Rica, Uderstadt returned to Italy in 2003 and gave an interview to Tuttosport which suggested some bitterness towards Romero, but also served as a reminder that it was more than just a spectacular footballer that had been lost.