Gianluca Signorini: The tragedy of Genoa’s hero and Italy’s most underrated Libero

In the contemporary age of calcio, the libero is an obsolete position. This outdated defensive role, also known as the sweeper, was cleverly orchestrated by the following Italian legends: Armando Picchi, Gaetano Scirea, Franco Baresi, and Alessandro Nesta. However, calcio enthusiasts rarely discuss the underrated Gianluca Signorini, a deceased Genoa phenomenon who remodelled the libero position between the 1980s and 90s.

Signorini was born in Pisa – a Tuscan city recognised for the iconic leaning bell tower. For the Toscani (Tuscan people), little did they know their region would witness the birth of calcio’s future modern libero.

Signorini started playing football with his hometown club Pisa Sporting – now identified as AC Pisa – in 1978. His stint with the Nerazzurri did not last long as the Italian barely earned any game time. Keen to play football on a regular basis, the Pisano roamed in Tuscany between 1979 and 1983, playing for Pietrasanta, Prato, and Livorno, the latter being Pisa’s fiercest rivals.

While the former Pisa youth product was plying his trade at Tuscan clubs for five years, he gained valuable experience in the Serie C (now known as Lega Pro). By starting out as a semi-professional footballer in Italy’s third tier of calcio, this encouraged the Toscano to approach life and sport in a diligent manner, endlessly working his way up to the elite level.

In 1983, after making 65 appearances for Livorno, Signorini travelled 222km to Terni – a city located in the Umbria region. This is where the journeyman player made his debut for Ternana Calcio, starring on 29 occasions for the Rossoverdi. After only featuring one season with the fere (beasts), Signorini pursued his career down Italy’s south, this time landing a spot with Campanian side Cavese – only 10km from Salerno. The Italian played with the Aquilotti (little eagles) for the entire 1984/85 Serie C1 season, helping the minnows avoid relegation.

DEVELOPING UNDER SACCHI

After spending a year in Italy’s south, Signorini’s next football challenge arose at Parma, securing a spot in Arrigo Sacchi’s 1985/86 squad. With Sacchi at the helm, Signorini’s defensive skills became pivotal, assisting the Emilia-Romagna club to finish top of their Serie C1 group and achieve promotion. The following season, the Parma star remained to make his Serie B debut.

By this point, with Parma finishing the 1986/87 Serie B season in seventh place and with the best defence in the league, Signorini’s ability to tighten the back line, intercept passes, and build attacks from the back was truly appreciated by Sacchi. Not only did the Emilian club do well in the league, their underdog run in the Coppa Italia, including their two monumental victories over AC Milan, saw their boss gain interest from Milan’s owner Silvio Berlusconi. While the Rossoneri signed Sacchi as the new manager for the 1987/88 season, the Italian taction told a 28-year-old Franco Baresi to watch and learn the way Signorini played in the libero role.

Sacchi instructed Milan icon Franco Baresi to take note of Signorini.

Following his successful spell with Parma, Signorini’s talent enticed Roma to sign the defender in 1987. The Pisano’s dream to make it to the top division of calcio became a reality – one where he made his Serie A debut at 27 years old. For Roma, under the auspices of Coach Nils Liedholm – an AC Milan legend – the 1987/88 Serie A season was highly anticipated by the fans due to the wide variety of world class footballers the team had on display. Being teammates with Rudi Voller, Giuseppe Giannini, and Roberto Pruzzo was the long-term dream for Signorini, not to mention defending against the likes of Napoli frontman Diego Maradona and Milan duo Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten.

During his one-year stint with Roma Signorini became a key member of the defensive line-up, creating formidable partnerships with Antonio Tempestilli and Fulvio Collovati. The Pisano’s resolute work in defence played an integral part in this talented outfit, driving the Romans to a third-place finish in the table behind rivals Napoli and champions Milan.

POWERING A GENOVESE REVOLUTION

In 1988, Genoa required a revolution after years of languishing in Italy’s lower leagues. With the Genovese clueless on what would transpire, the oldest club in Italian football signed a Sicilian manager who went by the name of Francesco Scoglio. It was Scoglio who signed an unsettled Signorini from Roma for the 1988/89 Serie B campaign – a crucial signing that the club’s tifosi created a profound relationship. At the start of the season, Signorini was granted the honour of becoming Genoa’s captain in just his first year with the Rossoblu. He would wear the captain’s armband for seven consecutive seasons.

Genoa’s 1988/89 Serie B campaign proved to be a starting block for short-term success. With Scoglio known as Il Professore (the professor) for his pedagogy degree – a field that relates with theory and teaching strategies – this became a fundamental way on how the Sicilian used to implement tactics in football games. The systematic and conscientious approach the Italian manager used guided Genoa to triumph in 1989 by winning the Serie B title, resulting in a return to Italy’s top flight. Behind the Ligurian team’s success, star man Signorini – who left Roma and talented competition in Serie A – fought valiantly to deny any opposition attacking chances.

Signorini: Genoa’s Capitano

After steering Genoa back to the Serie A in just his first term at the club, Signorini immediately became a fan favourite. For the first time in his career, the central defender developed a peculiar attachment to the club’s fans and coaching staff.

During Genoa’s maiden campaign back in Serie A, the nine-time Scudetto winners clinched an 11th-place finish, leaving them two points above the relegation zone. Once again, Signorini excelled, making the Genovese side a tenacious opponent to break down. These were the years the centre-back perfected the modern libero role – diverting any attacking danger in the back before running up the other half of the field to take part in counter-attacks.

It was in the 1990/91 Serie A season that Signorini had his best time in Italy’s top flight, frustrating more talented midfielders and strikers with his defensive abilities. With new Coach Osvaldo Bagnoli building on from Scoglio’s methods and getting the ideal balance between the defence and attack, he took Genoa to UEFA Cup qualification via a fourth-place finish.

The 1991/92 side, known as the “dream team” due to their fairytale run in the UEFA Cup, was the strongest Genoa team after the Second World War. This squad possessed the following array of talent: Christian Panucci, Tomas Skuhravy, Branco, Carlos Aguilera, and, of course, Signorini. Their European run comprised clashes with Real Oviedo, Dinamo Bucharest, Steaua Bucharest, Liverpool, and Ajax – the Dutch club being the team that would eliminate the Italians in the semi-finals.

During Genoa’s European journey, Signorini was indispensable in defence, producing several goal-saving moments. One of his distinguishing traits was using his ability to read set pieces and his towering height to header incoming shots and corner kicks away from the 18-yard box. His most momentous stop came in the second leg of the quarter-finals against Liverpool, where he produced an emphatic header without the goalkeeper between the posts to deny the Reds of an away goal.

THE RETURN TO PISA

Three seasons after the European adventure, Genoa went downhill, consistently finishing in the bottom half of the Serie A table. In the 1994/95 campaign – Signorini’s last season with the club – they plummeted to a 14th-place finish, sending them into a relegation tie-breaker against Padova, who also finished with 40 points. In the cruellest of fashions, Genoa lost 4-5 on penalties, dropping them back down to Serie B. Losing key men like Aguilera, Panucci, and Branco created holes in the defence that proved too much for Signorini to handle single-handedly. His Genoa career ended here on 207 appearances; he left behind a legacy that the Genovese locals will never overlook.

In 1995, Signorini returned to restore pride in his hometown club, after Pisa were demoted all the way to the National Amateur Championship – the fifth tier – due to financial issues. He made an immediate impact in his first season back, driving the club back into Serie C2. The following season, Pisa ended in sixth place, with Signorini playing a caretaker role until 1998.

It was in 1999 that Signorini left Pisa to join Tuscan rivals Livorno in order to manage their youth sector. At 39 years of age, he also enrolled to undertake a Coverciano course to further his ambitions of becoming a professional coach. Unfortunately, his ambitions were cut short as he soon discovered he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This was a severe illness that slowly paralysed his muscles, making him immobile – something the physically strong former libero did not expect.

On a sentimental night at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris on May 24, 2001, Genoa organised a charity match in honour of their capitano to raise funds for ALS research. With his daughter pushing him in a wheelchair around the field, Signorini struggled to hold back the tears. He was overwhelmed as Genoa fans shouted: “Il Grande Capitano.” All who watched the broadcast were in tears, looking on in shock at how this talented athlete’s health had declined in such a short amount of time. But there was one thing this terrible illness could not take away from the former Genoa icon, and that was the infectious smile he always had on the field and for the cameras. It was painful for a helpless Signorini, who couldn’t move and chant with his beloved Genoa supporters, especially the Gradinata Nord.

“I would like to get up and run with you, but I cannot. I would like to shout with you songs of joy, but I cannot,” Signorini’s daughter Benedetta read from her father’s letter at the last visit to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.

This was the last time Signorini was seen in public before he died in his hometown of Pisa in 2002 – leaving his family and the footballing world at the age of 42. Signorini may be gone, but his footballing legacy remains intact within calcio to this day. The No.6 shirt is retired at Genoa in honour of him, while Pisa’s Arena Garibaldi stadium has a stand in Signorini’s name.

It took almost 10 years for Signorini to make his Serie A debut, as he sacrificed time in the lower levels of Italian football. But this built his character on and off the field – one of being a true gentleman and patient sportsman. The Pisano may have never represented the Italian national team, but he will always be renowned as Genoa’s capitano and one of calcio’s most talented liberos.

Words by Anthony Barbagallo @AnthonyB1996

Anthony Barbagallo is a sports journalism student studying at Charles Sturt University, Australia. His Italian-Sicilian culture and immense passion for football, particularly calcio, have inspired him to specialise in football journalism.