Nostalgia

Giuseppe Savoldi: Football’s First Million Pound Player

Giuseppe Savoldi - the first million pound footballer

You know that quiz question. “Who was the first million-pound footballer?” Hands shoot up and out comes the chorus, like clockwork, “Trevor Francis!” goes the call. You sit there quietly while the clamour calms down, and then slowly, but purposefully, you rise to your feet, and calmly, but firmly say “No!” Because you know the real answer, don’t you? Well, if you didn’t, you will shortly. Read on…

Giuseppe Savoldi was always a bit of an athlete as a child. Basketball was his first love, but he also excelled in a number of athletic disciplines. One of them was the high jump, and it may have been this propensity for aerial conquest gained through shooting hoops and clearing a bar that helped him raise his game, particularly in heading the ball. It’s a skill that would lead him to score any number of goals as his career progressed.

Somewhat late into settling for football, he joined Atalanta in 1965 at 18 years of age. His prodigious ability in the air was less than obvious in his early days and, standing well under six feet tall, it was hardly surprising that his first coach at Gli Orobici, Héctor Puricelli, deployed him as an orthodox left flank player, rather than in the central striking role in which he would make his name, fame and fortune. It was only when Puricelli was moved on, and new coach Stefano Angeleri arrived at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia that the switch to the middle came about. Even then, it seemed like a less than inspiring transition initially.

Although performances grew with experience, goals were slow to arrive and it wasn’t until October 1966 that he scored his first Serie A goal. At the end of the first term, with Savoldi wearing Atalanta’s number nine shirt, he had 27 appearances behind, but a mere five goals to show for it. For all that though, the potential was clear for all to see and it was only after rejecting potential offers from some of Calcio’s biggest clubs that the young forward decided to stay with Atalanta.

That perceived potential was now starting to blossom. The maturing forward, with sufficient games behind to build both physical prowess and finely hone his skill set, began to deliver. His 27 league games in that term brought a dozen goals. It’s a strike rate guaranteed to draw in bids, and with Atalanta seemingly marooned in mid-table mediocrity, the chance to move to Bologna proved too tempting to resist for a player whose talents clearly demanded a bigger stage. The services of Brazilian forward Sergio Clerici, plus the little matter of 175 million lire were sent to Atalanta in exchange for Savoldi – and his goals.

He wouldn’t disappoint. After arriving at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, Savoldi would score 85 goals in just one more than a double century of Serie A games, maintaining the sort of strike rate that only those of the highest order would achieve in the six years as the sixties became the seventies, and defences dominated the pattern of play in Calcio. Rewards were also forthcoming in terms of silverware. Two Coppa Italia trophies – in 1970 and 1974 – were taken back to the historic capital of the Emilia-Romagna with, each time, Savoldi top scoring in the competition. The Anglo-Italian League Cup was also added in the first of those two triumphant years, and he would share the Capocannoniere title in the 1972-73 season, as Italian football’s top marksman. Across all competitions, he would score 140 goals for Bologna making him the club’s fourth top goalscorer in history. Although, he was robbed of another strike when, in a league game, a ball boy kicked the ball back into play after it had crossed the line and, as the referee was unsure of what had happened, paly continued. A sanguine Savoldi would later comment that, “I did not even care at the time. The ball boy was a kid and, in that game, I had already scored two goals.”

In 1975, now 28 years old, Savoldi was at the peak of his powers, and despite the move to Bologna being an unquestionable step up from Atalanta, the club’s failure to move forward and claim the Scudetto was a growing source of frustration. Another series of moves were mooted, but they came to nothing. Legendary manager, Helenio Herrera, was keen to take him to Roma, and rumours of bids from Milan and Juventus all failed to bring anything tangible. It would take a world record transfer bid for I Rossoblu to part with their prize asset, and Napoli were prepared to offer the required amount. Paying some two billion lire, amounting to around £1.2million at the prevailing exchange rate, Giuseppe Savoldi was penned into the record books as the correct answer to that quiz question, joining I Partenopei.

With his dream of Scudetto triumph now seemingly within his grasp, Savoldi looked to be the final piece in the Napoli team jigsaw that had finished third, and then second, in the previous two seasons. As he remarked, “There I really believed I could win the Scudetto.”

The number one spot was bang on schedule, and so was Savoldi’s start in the club’s light blue shirts. Seven goals in his first seven games of the 1975-76 season seemed destined to propel the club to the title, but then results stuttered and stumbled. An injury that forced him out of the action hardly helped and despite adding a third Coppa Italia winner’s medal to his collection, the title dream faded and Napoli finished a disappointing fifth.

It became clear that he had arrived at Stadio San Paolo too late. The team that had come so close in the previous two seasons were now in decline, and even Savoldi’s goals couldn’t reverse the trend. The peak had been passed and the Scudetto dream seemed as far away as ever. Successive seasons saw ninth, sixth and seventh place finishes. He would later reflect that, “We won one Italian Cup, but I had come to Naples late.” He had scored 77 goals for the club, again maintaining his scoring rate, but it simply wasn’t enough to take him to his Scudetto dream.

At 32 years of age, with his athletic prowess, something on which his game had been built, now inevitably draining away, he left Naples, returning to Bologna, and still managed to score 11 goals in 29 league appearances. An entirely respectable return, if a shade down on his previous rate. It took Bologna into seventh place in Serie A. Ironically, they finished three places ahead of Napoli.

A dark cloud descended over Savoldi’s career in 1980, when an alleged involvement in a betting scandal brought three-and-a-half year ban from the game. Despite it being reduced to two years on appeal, to all intents and purposes, the ban drew a line under the first-class career of Giuseppe Savoldi. He did manage a somewhat truncated return aged 34, turning out for Atalanta’s B team, but by now the enforced absence had further blunted his already diminishing powers. After a single season of struggle at a level where he would have netted goals aplenty in his prime, the curtain was brought down on his career.

In a career spanning Serie A 405 games, Savoldi would score 168 goals, making hm the league’s 13th highest scorer of all time. Such achievement is worthy of wide acclaim, although due to selection peculiarities of the various national managers at the time, he would only garner four caps for the Azzurri, scoring just once. Despite that lack of success on the international stage however, Savoldi remains one of Calcio’s iconic goal scorers – and also has a claim to fame with that quiz answer of course. Remember, you heard it here first!

About the author

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Gary Thacker

Now living in Spain, Gary is the author of two books about football and writes for a number of high profile magazines and websites. He also appears regularly on podcast and had worked for BBC Radio and talkSPORT. In 2017, he was shortlisted for the FSF 'Blogger of the year' award.

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