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Looking back: Christian Vieri’s whirlwind year with Atlético Madrid

Vieri arrived, played 24 league games and scored 24 league goals — before leaving again.

Christian Vieri of Athleico Madrid passes the ball

“They were the best of times, they were the worst of times.”

Atlético Madrid were a season removed from a Liga and Copa del Rey double under Radomir Antić when they signed Christian Vieri from Juventus in the summer of 1997. Two years after Vieri’s Pichichi-winning season, they would be relegated to the second division for the first time since before the Spanish Civil War. There was a bespoke kind of volatility to Atlético back in those days.

“Vieri is not for sale. He is non-transferable,” said Juventus sporting director Luciano Moggi, just days before his club struck a deal to sell the player.

As it turned out, Vieri did have a price — and while it was the right move for the right player, it was for the wrong reasons. In an autobiography written after his career, the Italian admitted he went to Atlético for financial reasons. Vieri excelled in his only season at Atlético but he oscillated between wanting to return to Italy and telling Atlético he wanted to stay for most of his year there. The bridges he built at the club were left in tatters by the summer of 1998. His autobiography e would set them ablaze once and for all.

“Moggi claimed that the club could not offer me more than two million lira per season whilst I was aware that Atlético were prepared to offer 3.5 million lira. I said to them immediately, ‘I’m off to Spain,’ and that was the end of the meeting” is how he put it in his autobiography.

“I admit that the motivation for this move was purely economic,” Vieri added. “If I could have turned back time, I’d have stayed in Turin.”

One thing is very obvious, looking back on articles and reports from that time — players, managers and owners spoke more openly with the press about various negotiations. Depending on your perspective, Atlético had one of the best talkers in the game.

“You have to understand that he is a great footballer,” Jesús Gil said of his then-record signing Vieri. “But he can be a little unstable at times, impressionable. He has told us all of a sudden he wants to leave and there are Italian clubs who want him.

“It could turn out to be a storm in a teacup. He’s a kid with no personality,” Gil snarled after declaring Vieri had asked to leave.

The pressure put on by clubs to unsettle players — and the players themselves feeling emboldened by the Bosman ruling in 1995 — led to a particular type of fight for autonomy.

But prior to this, Vieri did get started in the capital, he was unstoppable.

“We have confirmed 100% his signing,” Gil said. “He is the Italian player with the most room to progress. He is a starter at Juventus, with Italy and he’s young.”

Jesús Gil acting as Christian Vieri’s bodyguard after his introduction.

At 23, Atlético had signed a star in the making — if one not already fully formed. It didn’t start as planned though, with El País referring to his “unaesthetic style of play and the wasted one-on-ones” as the reason why he had been hung up as the poster boy of Atlético’s poor early-season form.

The Italian’s shoulders were carved out of maplewood and he had a barrel of a chest, which probably didn’t help with perception of his aesthetics. Vieri didn’t score in his first two games, but Antić stuck with him. He would go on to score eight goals in five games, with a hat-trick against Real Zaragoza and a late equaliser against Celta Vigo that sealed a brace for him and a point for Antić’s side.

What El País didn’t doubt was what they referred to as his “generous” style of play, “his constant work and his tenacity to get on the other side of defenders.” The only thing that slowed him down were injuries, and after missing a string of games, he returned to scored 12 in 8 in LaLiga, including four in a 5-4 loss to Salamanca.

There was, of course, that goal too. It came against Paok de Salónica (PAOK Thessaloniki now). Not only was that goal stunning, but it sealed a hat-trick for the striker after just over half an hour.

“Tell the president that if I score a hat-trick, he has to buy me a Ferrari 550 Maranello,” Vieri says in his autobiography. He had one after 32 minutes.

But the situation soured very quickly, and Gil was not going to let any Italian club bully its way to a lower price. Arrigo Sacchi, appointed during the summer of 1998, admitted the owner felt “cheated” by his striker. After a World Cup in which Vieri scored five goals in five games, interested remained strong despite the player’s price tag.

“We could sell him for 6 billion pesetas [€36 million] if we wanted to. The offer was from Lazio,” Gil said. “After the World Cup, we received a concrete offer.”

Juventus, he said, were playing a very strange game and were trying to talk the player into kicking up a fuss in order to lower the price.

“Atlético didn’t want to and still don’t want to sell,” Gil concluded, and he hoped Vieri would reconsider.

Marca’s front page on Aug. 25, just three days before he was sold, says Sacchi “is fed up” with the striker and that Atlético had told him he wouldn’t wear the jersey again. The squad had turned against him, and it was only a matter of time before he moved.

Vieri never settled properly at the club having left Italy for the wrong reasons. Longtime colchonero Kiko Narváez says he used to communicate with Vieri on the field by whistling at him.

The summer of 1997 was a heady time at the Vicente Calderón. Juninho Paulista — who was loaned out three times during his five years in the capital — arrived from Middlesbrough along with Vieri. And that was also, of course, the year Atlético would wear the red and white with “MARBELLA” emblazoned across the front in block-capital blue letters. From LaLiga and Copa champions to relegation in four years seems like some twisted nightmare, but that was Spanish football in the 90s. Atlético were in a precarious financial state, too — and while they brought in players like Vieri and Juninho, they lost them as quick.

Vieri would score 29 goals in 31 games in total for Atlético, but he would make establish himself fully at Inter Milan where he scored more than 120. He would end up scoring 235 during his career, winning everything there was to win in Italy and lifting the Pichichi as the only Italian to ever do so. Vieri’s time in Madrid was brief, but it was memorable.