The 1980s and 1990s were seminal decades in the transformation of Italian football. The slow death of Catenaccio and the emergence of a more positive, attacking approach to the game in the 1990s meant that the noble art of defence was to change beyond all recognition. Deprived of the protection of the sweeper, those who managed to span the two decades with their reputation further enhanced are few and far between. Of course we know that Franco Baresi was one such player, and Pietro Vierchowod was another.
The son of a Ukrainian soldier, Vierchowod acquired the nickname ‘Lo Zar’ for this family connection as well as his obvious penchant for leadership on the field of play. His all-round game for a central defender was complete, and ensured that he was an upgrade for every team that he played for in his career. For a man who stood at only 5ft 11in, he had an incredible spring in the air, and an ability to out-jump taller men that made biological statistics somewhat irrelevant. He was teak tough, ultra-competitive, had great positional sense and the sort of ‘afterburn’ acceleration that most centre forwards would kill for. He was also, as mentioned earlier, a leader of men, one who always took responsibility on the field and never shirked from anything.
It was this complete set of tools that enabled him to play in Serie A for 20 years, and in an international career that spanned over a decade. At the age of 37, he was still able to produce a stellar performance as Juventus won the Champions League in 1996. The Ajax side of Patrick Kluivert, Jari Litmanen, Edgar Davids, Frank and Ronald de Boer were seen at the time as an irresistible force. Whereas Franco Baresi and his Milan side had gone 0-3 against the 90s exponents of Total Football a year earlier, Vierchowod’s work in shackling Kluivert in particular was a large part of the reason that the game went to a shootout, which Juventus won.
However, his finest hour undeniably came as the lynchpin of a Sampdoria side which romped to the Scudetto in 1991. The forward pairing of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli understandably get great credit for their creative telepathy. However, it is worth noting that Samp kept 17 clean sheets in that season, and Vierchowod’s role in stopping the opposition, as well as guiding the youthful Marco Lanna, was both pivotal and inspirational. His ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck stretched to the opposition penalty area, with rapid surges forward in his peak years which created overlaps and a spare man in the final third. He always posed a threat at set-plays too, as some of the powerful headed goals in the video demonstrate. It is perhaps unfortunate for him that his Azzurri career took off at a time when Italy were in the doldrums as a footballing power in the mid 1980s and was then interrupted by the emergence at the end of the decade of Milan’s much-vaunted back four. In any other era, many more caps would have come his way.
Sampdoria circa 1991
As it is, 45 appearances for his country is still a great return all things considered, and he was a member of the squad that won the World Cup in 1982, as well as playing in the third-placed play-off win over England in 1990. A fitting tribute came when Gary Lineker was asked who was the toughest defender to have marked him: “Pietro Vierchowod, who played for Italy. He was absolutely brutal, and lighting quick. He gave me a few digs”. When one considers the sort of company that Lineker kept on his travels with Everton, Tottenham, Barcelona and England, it gives you an idea just how tough and accomplished a competitor ‘Lo Zar’ was.
The man himself made a reference to his once-impressive speed off the mark, when, still playing in Serie A aged 40, he gave an interview to Gazzetta Football Italia in 1999. “I used to be much quicker than everyone else – now I’m just as quick as them” he said. Of course it was a testament to his all-round game that he was still playing well at the elite level in his fifth decade. He remained a vital asset to his team, playing a key role in leading Piacenza to safety in 1998 and 1999 before finally retiring in 2000. Interestingly, the wheel had come full circle by this point. Whereas his early Serie A appearances had been as a man-marker in a cagey Como side in 1980 that still used a sweeper, Pietro had gone through the era of 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 before joining a side that employed a three-man central defence. Ironically used as the spare man, Vierchowod’s reading of the game more than made up for anything that had been lost to father time. The most telling way to assess a player’s career is to look at how they are seen by supporters of the clubs they played for. The respect ‘Lo Zar’ earned in the game was enormous, and that says more than anything else could.
Name – Pietro Vierchowod
Age – 51 (06/04/1959)
Position – Centre-back
Clubs (Appearances/Goals)– Como (115/6), Fiorentina (28/2), Roma (30/0), Sampdoria (358/25), Juventus (21/2), Milan (16/1), Piacenza (79/6)
Club level honours – Roma (Serie A – 1983), Sampdoria (Serie A – 1991; Coppa Italia – 1985, 1988, 1989, 1994; Cup Winners’ Cup – 1990; Supercoppa Italiana – 1991), Juventus (Champions League – 1996; Supercoppa Italiana – 1995)
Nationality – Italian
Caps/goals – 45/2
National honours – FIFA World Cup – 1982
Lessons in Calcio