Silvio Piola, the star of 1934 World Cup and the all-time leading scorer of Serie A, juggling with the ball. PHOTO: DAILY STAR ARCHIVE
The 1930s were dominated by Italian football. Italy won the 1934 World Cup title at home, two years later they won the Olympic gold in Berlin and in 1938, they side successfully defended the World Cup title in France. Each of the winning team had an outstanding player: in 1934 it was Guiseppe Meazza, in 1936 Ugo Frossi, and 1938 was marked by Silvio Piola.
Piola made history with his performances at the 1938 World Cup. After two goals in the quarterfinals against the hosts, France (3-1), the French media baptised him 'Executioner of French'. In the final, Piola scored the goal to go ahead 2-1 and then the last in the 4-2 triumph over Hungary. The Hungarian international Pal Titkos later described his impressions of the final: “Silvio Piola had a fantastic physique and constantly overran his opponents. He was a man of great versatility and a centre forward without fear. He exploited any opportunity for shooting on goal.”
Piola was discovered as a youth by a football-enthusiast priest, Don Sassi, who was immediately impressed by the 1.78m, 77kg player because of his intrepid nature, his speed, and his jumping and shooting power. A good grasp of the game and quick reflexes in front of the opposing goal made Piola an outstandingly promising talent. Don Sassi procured the young forward for the then extraordinarily successful club US Pro Vercelli, a club in the bishop's city in the Po flats. The son of a cloth merchant, he played his first championship game for the 'Eagles' at the age of 16.
On March 24, 1935, Piola made his debut for the national team in Vienna. Italy defeated Austria 2-0. Piola stood in for Giuseppe Meazza and scored both goals. At the 1938 FIFA World Cup, he not only finished the second highest scorer with a tally of five goals, he was also elected the best player of the tournament. Piola, who scored two and assisted in one of the altogether four goals in the final in Paris, played his last international match as captain of the 'Squadra Azzurra' against England (1-1) in Florence on May 18, 1952. He earned 34 caps and scored 30 goals.
In between his first division debut on February 16, 1930, in Bologna and his farewell as a football professional on July 3, 1954, in Bergamo were 24 years in which Piola played for Pro Vercelli, Lazio Rome, AC Turin, Juventus Turin and FC Novara, achieving a total of 566 championship matches and 290 goals. He still holds the match-record in Italy. He became famous for his acrobatic overhead and falling side-kicks which were celebrated in stadia around the world as artistic sensations of that time. Even after his active career Piola remained linked to football. He became manager of Lazio Rome, then Italy's junior coach, adviser to the Italian Football Association in 1976, and was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Rome for his life merits in 1987.