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Born: Thursday 20 November 1902, Turin, Italy
Died: Sunday 12 August 1956, Turin, Italy (aged 53)
Italian legend Gianpiero Combi was one of the finest goalkeepers in the world in the pre-Second World War era. A one-club man throughout his career, he represented Juventus for more that 12 years during one of the most successful periods in the club's history. Famed for his remarkable agility which earned him the nickname 'Rubberman', he was also the first choice goalkeeper for the Italian national team for many years and was the first goalkeeper to captain a World Cup winning team.
Combi was born in Turin on 20 November 1902, and remained based in his home city throughout his life. His potential was quickly spotted by Juventus, and he spent much of his teenage years working his way through the club's youth system. By his late teens he was contending for a place in the first team, and his debut would come in a 2-0 defeat against Milan on 5 February 1922, at the age of 19. In the days before a national Italian league existed, he would go on to appear in 10 league games as Juventus finished joint fourth in their group.
Over the next few seasons, Combi was almost an ever present fixture in the Juventus goal, and the understanding that he developed with full-backs Virginio Rosetta and Umberto Caligaris would become a famous part of the club's history. On 6 April 1924 he was selected for the national team for the first team, for a match against Hungary in Budapest. His debut did not turn out as hoped - Combi was beaten seven times with Italy scoring just one goal in reply.
Although a member of the squad for the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris he did not play in any of Italy's games, with Genoa's Giovanni De Prà being first choice in goal. His second international appearance did not come for nearly a year after his first. When he did return to the national team, it was with considerably more success. Playing against France in his home city of Turin, Combi kept a clean sheet in a crushing 7-0 Italian victory. From that point on, he was a vital member of the national team for the next nine years.
Although Juventus were always a strong team in the early years of Combi's career, they had never been able to claim any major honours but the 1925-26 season would change all that. The season included a remarkable run where Combi kept ten consecutive clean sheets between 25 October 1925 and 21 February 1926, with Juve winning nine of those matches. In total the run without conceding a goal lasted for 934 minutes of play, a record in Italian football. With Combi conceding just 14 goals in 22 games, Juve won their group by eight clear points to enter the northern championship play-off. In a play off that went to three matches, they edged past Bologna and went on to face Alba Roma, where a crushing 12-1 aggregate win game them the title and Combi his first domestic honour.
The next few years brought several near misses at club level, as Juventus finished third, third and second in their league group and then third again in the first national league season in 1929-30. However, Combi did get the chance to play in a major international competition for the first time at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Unlike in 1924, he was unquestionably first choice and played in all four of Italy's matches. He was unable to prevent a narrow defeat in the semi-final against reigning champions Uruguay, being beaten three times in the first half as the South Americans went on to win 3-2. A comfortable win over Egypt in the third place match did however give Combi an Olympic bronze medal.
Italy chose not to enter the inaugural World Cup in 1930, but Combi did claim another international title in that year in the Central European International Cup. The tournament ran across three years, but in the final match on 11 May 1930 Italy had to beat Hungary to finish as champions. Combi kept a clean sheet in the match, and Italy's prolific forward line secured a comfortable 5-0 victory. The following year, he captained his country for the first time in a match against Czechoslovakia in Rome.
The early years of the 1930s also brought Combi his greatest run of success at club level. In 1930-31, he missed just five league games as Juventus won the Serie A title - their first in the national league era and third overall. The team would go on to win the league in each of the next three seasons as well, and Combi missed just five more league games in the whole of that run, having been ever present in both the 1931-32 and 1932-33 seasons. He was the first goalkeeper to appear in four consecutive league title winning seasons, and still one of just two to achieve that feat.
As the 1934 World Cup approached, which Italy were to host, Combi was beginning to think about bringing his playing career to an end. At the age of 31, he was beginning to lose his position as undisputed first choice goalkeeper with the emergence of Carlo Ceresoli, and it was by no means certain that he would play in the tournament. However, coach Vittorio Pozzo was keen to have Combi in his squad for the experience that he would bring to the team. As it turned out, Ceresoli was injured in training shortly before the World Cup and had to miss the tournament, meaning that Combi would indeed end his career with a final appearance on the world stage.
He appeared in every one of Italy's five games, and was captain for all but the first. The part that Combi played in leading his team to the final was crucial. When the quarter-final against Spain went to a replay, he kept a clean sheet in that second meeting as Italy won 1-0, and repeated the feat in the semi-final against Austria's highly fancied 'Wunderteam'. In that match he made several key saves to help his team through to the final. In the final, he was matched against another of the greatest goalkeepers of the era, Czechoslovakia's František Plánička. Although Czechoslovakia took the lead, it was Combi who came out on top as his team recovered to win 2-1 after extra-time giving him the honour of receiving the Jules Rimet Trophy as the winning captain.
The World Cup final would prove to be the last match of Combi's career. Despite being retired by the time the competition was won, he had played a part in Italy's second Central European International Cup win which was also secured in 1935. He retired not just from international football but also from club football, therefore missing out on Juventus' historic fifth successive league title in 1935. He played 369 matches for Juventus in a 13 year career, a club record which stood until the 1970s when broken by another great goalkeeper, Dino Zoff.
Combi stayed at Juventus after his retirement, serving as a technical advisor and a scout. In 1951, he was appointed as joint manager of the Italian national team alongside Carlino Beretta and Toni Busini, and led the team for five matches without suffering defeat. Five years later, he died in Turin at the age of just 53. He is still recognised by the club as one of its greatest legends, with at one point suggestions being made that the club's stadium should be named after him.
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- Published on Tuesday, 20 December 2011 13:32