15 March 2021

Gianluca Festa - footballer

Sardinian became a favourite in England

Gianluca Festa is currently coach of the Greek Super League side AEL
Gianluca Festa is currently coach of the
Greek Super League side AEL
The footballer and coach Gianluca Festa, who played 177 matches in Italy’s Serie A but is best remembered as the first Italian defender to sign for a club in England’s Premier League, was born on this day in 1969 in Cagliari.

Festa joined Middlesbrough in January 1997 after manager Bryan Robson agreed to pay Inter-Milan £2.7 million for the centre-back, who joined his Italian compatriot Fabrizio Ravanelli at the northeast England club.

Ravanelli had arrived in England the previous summer as one of a number of Italian stars to move from Serie A, a sign that the Premier League was beginning to challenge Serie A for the right to be called Europe’s top league.  Chelsea had signed Gianluca Vialli from Juventus and Roberto Di Matteo from Lazio, to be joined by Parma’s Gianfranco Zola later in the autumn, and Sheffield Wednesday had bought Festa’s former Inter teammate Benito Carbone.

Four of those five were forwards - Di Matteo operated in midfield - and Middlesbrough, who had been promoted in 1995 but were finding their second season difficult, broke new ground by tapping into Italy’s reputation for producing top-quality defenders.

Festa was unable to prevent Middlesbrough’s relegation in the 1996-97 season but helped them reach the final of the FA Cup, scoring against Chesterfield in the semi-final and having a goal controversially disallowed for offside against Chelsea in the final at Wembley, which the London team won 2-0 with Di Matteo one of the goalscorers.

Festa spent five and a half seasons in the red shirt of Middlesbrough
Festa spent five and a half seasons
in the red shirt of Middlesbrough
Ravanelli left to join Marseille at the end of that season but Festa stayed, helping Middlesbrough win promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt and to stay in the top division throughout the rest of his time with the club, where he remained for five and a half seasons, becoming a favourite with supporters.

A multi-talented sportsman who excelled in martial arts and was a national junior champion at tennis, Festa joined his hometown club Cagliari as a schoolboy, making his senior debut in 1986 aged 17. Cagliari dropped to the third tier of Italy’s football pyramid at the start of Festa’s career but after appointing Claudio Ranieri as coach won consecutive promotions and were back in Serie A for the 1990-91 season.

Festa’s outstanding performances soon attracted the attention of other clubs and signed for Inter in 1993. He did not impress coach Osvaldo Bagnoli, who transferred him to Roma, but was back at San Siro within a year and shone under new coach Ottavio Bianchi, going on to make 70 appearances for the nerazzurri before earning his move to England.

After leaving Teesside in 2002, he helped another English team, Portsmouth, win promotion to the Premier League but did not play for them in the top division, instead returning to Cagliari, taking part in another promotion-winning season before winding down his playing career by turning out for a number of local teams in Sardinia while preparing for a career in coaching.

Following a short stint as assistant manager at Cagliari in his first appointment, Festa managed the small Lombardy club Lumezzane before briefly returning to England, where Leeds United’s Italian chairman Massimo Cellino invited him to help with training sessions and considered appointing him manager, although in the end he chose another candidate.

Back in Italy, Festa had two unsuccessful spells as head coach of Cagliari and then Como. He is currently in his second term in charge of AEL in the Greek Super League, based in the city of Larissa.

Cagliari's historic centre has many steep, narrow alleys
Cagliari's historic centre has
many steep, narrow alleys
Travel tip:

Cagliari is the capital of the island of Sardinia, an industrial centre and one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean. Yet it is also a city of considerable beauty and history, most poetically described by the novelist DH Lawrence when he visited in the 1920s. As he approached from the sea, Lawrence set his eyes on the confusion of domes, palaces and ornamental facades which, he noted, seemed to be piled on top of one another. He compared it to Jerusalem, describing it as 'strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy.’  What he saw was Cagliari’s charming historic centre, known as Castello, inside which the city’s university, cathedral and several museums and palaces - plus many bars and restaurants - are squeezed into a network of narrow alleys.

The spectacular Stadio Giuseppe Meazza at San Siro is home to Inter and AC Milan
The spectacular Stadio Giuseppe Meazza at San
Siro is home to Inter and AC Milan
Travel tip:

Gianluca Festa had success in Italy with Internazionale, the club usually known as Inter-Milan, playing at the magnificent Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, in the San Siro district of northwest Milan. The stadium, which can accommodate almost 80,000 spectators, was completed in its original form in 1926. A number of extensive renovations, the last of which was completed ahead of the 1990 World Cup finals, gave the stadium its distinctive appearance, with its top tier supported by 11 cylindrical towers which incorporate spiral walkways. Giuseppe Meazza, from whom the stadium takes its name, spent 14 years as a player and three terms as manager at Inter.  Since 1947, Inter and their city rivals AC Milan have shared the stadium.

Also on this day:

44BC: The death of Julius Caesar

1673: The death of artist Salvator Rosa

1738: The birth of criminologist Cesare Beccaria

1849: The death of hyperpolyglot Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti

(Cagliari picture by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash; Stadio Giuseppe Meazza by Clemens Teichmann from Pixabay)


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