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Born: Monday 29 September 1913, Robbio, Italy
Died: Friday 4 October 1996, Gattinara, Italy (aged 83)
One of the stars of the Italian team which retained the World Cup in 1938, centre-forward Silvio Piola is regarded as one of the finest goalscorers the country has produced. His performances across a long playing career meant that he set a goalscoring record in Serie A which remains unmatched almost 60 years after his retirement and his enduring fame means that not one but two of his former teams play in stadiums named after him.
Born in the city of Robbio in northern Italy on 29 September 1913, Piola was first spotted by a local priest who watched him play. Impressing with his speed, bravery, powerful shot and ability in the air, he was quickly signed up by nearby Pro Vercelli, one of the country's leading clubs at the time. Piola first appeared in Serie A in a match against Bologna in February 1930, when he was still just 16 years old.
After a handful of appearances at the end of the 1929-30 season, Piola became a regular member of the first team in 1930-31 and in his first full season the 17-year old striker scored 13 goals as Pro Vercelli finished in a solid mid-table position. He would remain with the club until 1934, reaching double figure totals of goals in every season. Although he was unable to break into the national team in time for the 1934 World Cup, he attracted the attention of 'bigger' clubs. In the summer of 1934, after helping Pro Vercelli to their highest Serie A positions of 7th, he moved to Lazio who had actually finished three places lower in the previous season.
Lazio were not Piola's first choice but one the transfer had been agreed, he went on to become one of the club's all-time legends. During his time in Rome he became one of the first European players to become known for using the 'bicycle kick' and had a reputation for regularly scoring spectacular goals. He scored 21 league goals in his first season, the second highest total in the league, and towards the end of that season made his international debut in a Central European Cup match against Austria. He scored both goals in a 2-0 win for Italy, a result which was critical to them eventually winning that competition.
Piola finished as Serie A's leading scorer in 1936-37 as Lazio finished a close second in the league behind Bologna and reached the final of the international Mitropa Cup competition, where they were beaten by Hungarian side Ferencváros. By the time of the 1938 World Cup he was regularly the first choice centre-forward for Italy as his fearless performaces made manager Vittorio Pozzo, who initially had not rated him too highly, change his views. Piola went into that tournament in fine form after grabbing a hat-trick in a 6-1 win over Belgium shortly before the finals.
In the first round of the World Cup, Italy faced Norway and although they were strong favourites found themselves taken to extra-time. It was Piola's goal early in the extra period that took them through to a quarter-final against France and after that match was level at 1-1 at half-time he scored twice in the second half to take his team through again. Victory over Brazil took Italy into the final against Hungary and after the teams exchanged early goals it was Piola who restored Italy's lead. They led 3-1 at half-time and although Hungary pulled a goal back, Piola scored his second in the closing minutes to seal a second consecutive world title for his country.
He remained a Lazio for another five seasons and although the club was never able to put together another serious challenge for the league title, he was able to finish as Serie A's leading scorer again in 1942-43. In the summer of 1943 Serie A was suspended due to the Second World War and Piola served on the front line, briefly being assumed dead after going missing in action. On his return to Italy he played briefly for Torino in unofficial wartime compeitions before moving on again in 1945, this time across Turin to Juventus but domestic success was still elusive. In his two seasons at Juve, the club could only finish 3rd and 2nd as Piola's old club Torino dominated the league.
By 1947 Piola was in his mid-30s and was drifting out of the national squad. He left Juventus for Serie B side Novara, his career seemingly in decline. There was to be a quick return to the top level however, as his 16 Serie B goals helped Novara to promotion. Remarkably, Piola then spent another six years playing at the highest level and was still good enough to score 18 league goals in 1951-52 to lead his team to their highest ever league position of 8th in Serie A. He even made a one-off return to the national team in a 1-1 draw with England in 1952, more than 17 years after his international debut.
Playing on past his 40th birthday, Piola's final season as a player was 1953-54. He scored five goals and became Serie A's oldest ever player and scorer. His record as oldest player stood until broken by Dino Zoff nearly 30 years later and his record as oldest scorer stood until 2007, when beaten by Alessandro Costacurta. Piola's 25 year career also gave him the record for the most appearances in Serie A until Zoff broke that record as well, but his record total of 274 Serie A goals still stands, with only one player (Gunnar Nordahl) ever having come within 50 of matching it.
In his retirement, Piola had a brief coaching career with Cagliari and with the Italian under 21 team, as well as being a coaching advisor to the Italian federation. In his later years he was rarely seen in public. He lived back in Vercelli, pursuing his lifelong hobbies of hunting and fishing. He made a rare public appearance when Lazio won their first ever Serie A title in 1974, the club allowing the man who is still today their record goalscorer to share in the success of a title which he never won as a player. Piola died in 1996, at the age of 83. The home grounds of both his first club Pro Vercelli and his last club Novara are named 'Stadio Silvo Piola' in his honour.
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- Published on Friday, 17 February 2012 21:01