The human memory can be selective and unforgiving. That the two things Gianluigi Lentini is most associated with is an inflated transfer fee and a near-fatal car crash are not the fault of the man himself. He was a very good player, even if he fell just short of being a great one. His ability to run with the ball at speed terrorised defenders and excited supporters, while making a mockery of all the preconceived notions some had about ‘boring calcio’. He remains a hero at Torino to this day and spent four years with arguably the best club side of his generation, though they were punctuated somewhat by personal tragedy.
A product of Torino’s youth system, Lentini made occasional appearances in the mid-table side coached by Luigi Radice between 1986 and 1988. He then spent a season on loan at Serie B Ancona in 1988/89 to gain sustained first-team experience, making 37 appearances in all competitions as the Marche club began a rise that would take them into Serie A a few years later. In his absence, Torino had been relegated by a 3-1 loss at Via del Mare in Lecce on the last day of the 1988/89 season, so Lentini’s know-how at the lower level would come in more use than had previously been envisaged. Fortunately for Lentini and Granata, the stay would be a brief one as his six goals contributed to them running away with the Serie B title in 1990.
Under new coach Emiliano Mondonico, Lentini’s career would go on an upward curve without which a piece of history would not have occurred. His first Serie A goal was the clincher in a 2-0 win over Milan in the third game of that season. His acceleration away from the flagging Nerazzurri defenders became a trademark of a player who would enjoy the adulation of the Torino tifosi (as well as his youthful good looks which endeared him to a certain section of the crowd). Lentini’s five goals and many more assists ensured European qualification and meant a rare feat that meant more to them, namely finishing above a transitional-phase Juventus. The 1991/92 season saw another key addition to Torino’s playing staff, the brilliant Belgian playmaker Enzo Scifo. A late charge saw them finish third, with Lentini, Roberto Policano and Scifo providing a potent attacking trio from midfield. Between them, they shared just under half of Torino’s 42 league goals and assisted many more, often to each other. Their run in the UEFA cup saw them reach the final before losing on away goals to the Ajax side that would become World club champions a few years later. This was the last Torino side that could genuinely consider themselves to be a force in Serie A and Lentini’s ability to create and score goals was an integral part of it. Nobody understood this better than their supporters, who reacted angrily and violently to the news that a bid of £13 million for his services had been accepted. It is easy to see both sides of the argument – the tifosi lose a player whom they idolise but the club get a world-record fee which they can re-invest in more than one quality player.
Lentini’s new club of course was Milan, who had won a drawn-out bidding war with Juventus. The move caused uproar making one ponder what the reaction would have been if the transfer had remained a strictly Turin affair. Regardless, the Rossoneri were in the midst of renewing a side that had been successful but also had players such as Roberto Donadoni and Daniele Massaro nearing or passing thirty years of age. In that context, the signing of one of Serie A’s most potent wide players made complete sense, even if the fee itself, a world record at the time, seemed exorbitant. Indeed, it raised eyebrows to such an extent that the Vatican felt obliged to issue a statement that they regarded the price tag as “an offence to the dignity of work” . This was at a time when Milan were accused of buying players simply so other sides could not have them. That two rival clubs’ determination to sign the player was not of Lentini’s making, so it was somewhat unfortunate that he would be judged more against the price paid than his general performances. Another matter that counted against him, in terms of legacy, was his short-lived international career, which consisted of twelve caps and coincided with an embarrassing failure of the Azzurri’s side to qualify for Euro 1992 in Sweden. His first appearance came as a substitute for Atilio Lombardo in a friendly against Belgium on February 13, 1991. His last came during another laboured qualification campaign for USA ’94. That it was another substitute’s cameo in an awful 1-0 loss in Berne was sad in that he would almost certainly have made the plane for the World Cup, where the Azzurri eventually and somehow reached the final.
Whether you thought he was worth £13 million or not, Lentini was still a key part of the Milan side that dominated the 1992/93 season. He scored his first Rossoneri goal in a bizarre 5-4 win at Pescara in Week 2, and made more telling contributions, including a goal in his first Milan derby and a brace against Sampdoria, including a spectacular overhead volley. As Milan cruised to another title, Lentini’s 7 goals in 30 games represented a good return for a wide player. He also had the dubious distinction of playing in the ill-fated 1993 European Cup Final before tragedy struck. In August 1993, Lentini was returning from a pre-season tournament when his car went off the road at high speed on a sharp bend near Asti. He suffered a fractured skull and was fortunate to make a full recovery. He returned at the end of the 1993/94 season, making 7 Serie A appearances and a late cameo in the 1994 European Cup Final. That he was not included in a side that had been ravaged by injuries and suspensions told us that the man who had been in a coma and experienced a close brush with death was not quite the same footballer as the one who had played in previous seasons. Lentini became a peripheral figure for the Rossoneri upon his return, featuring 17 times in 1994/95 (5 goals) and on 9 occasions in 1995/96 (1 goal), just enough to receive a Scudetto winners’ medal in 1996 before being sent on loan to Atalanta.
1996/97 saw Lentini get regular weekly football for the first time in four years. That he had an uninspiring time in a mid-table team meant nothing given the possible outcomes of the crash some three years earlier. It was the following season that saw him return to his spiritual home. Torino, back in Serie B and coached again by Emiliano Mondonico, brought Lentini’s career full circle, although he could not save them from losing a promotion shoot-out to Perugia. The club oscillated between the top two divisions over the next few years and this was, in some ways, a reflection of their fortunes since he had departed in 1992. However, his last meaningful act would provide perfect symmetry. The slower, less explosive Lentini was still able to contribute towards Torino’s Serie B title win in 2001, eleven years after he’d played a key role in their previous one. Knowing he had perhaps diminished too much to be a Serie A regular, Torino allowed Lentini to join Cosenza, where he wound down his professional career until 2004. As recently as 2008, he was playing regional amateur football, confirming what we already knew. Though welcome, the riches that came with success at the game were secondary to the game itself. Whether you think he was great or just very good, in an era of instant fame and unlimited cash, such people are unique and to be admired.