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  26/05/2014: LazioLand Legends: Silvio Piola
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It is the 2nd November 1930, it is 2.30 pm. A 17 year-old Silvio Piola steps onto the field against the team he will become a legend for. This time he is wearing the shirt of Pro Vercelli. It is his debut season and he has only a handful of appearances to his name. Pro Vercelli have already scored two goals against Lazio before Piola gets his first of 274 goals in Serie A. Wearing a bandage on his head following an injury, it was not with his iconic foot that Piola's story began, but with a header.

A newspaper article after the match read: "Excellent Piola, who continues to earn the attention and affinity of the entire public. The boy is already one of the greatest champions in the white shirt."

Piola was born in Robbio Lomellina on September 29, 1913. He was known for his physical strength, standing at 1.78m, and was a fighter possessed with technical skill. He is widely regarded as the first player to adopt the 'bicycle kick'.

The son of a cloth merchant, Silvio was discovered as a youth by a football loving priest. Don Sassi was impressed by his reflexes and speed and secured him a transfer to 7-time Italian champions Pro Vercelli. His ability to use both feet, and be equally as deadly from distance or up close, made him different to the specialist forwards that Italy were producing at the time.

Silvio made his debut at 16 years of age against Bologna. Despite his youth, Piola scored 13 goals in his first season. He made a name for himself at Pro Vercelli, attracting a lot of interest from clubs such as Ambrosiana and Torino, however in the summer of 1934 it was Lazio who signed him for the sum of 250,000 Lira (€129). He departed as Pro Vercelli's all-time top scorer with 51 goals.

At the time, Lazio president Eugenio Gualdi was building a 'dream team' and was desperate to sign Piola. Silvio had initially preferred a move up north to be near his family, but was convinced to go to Rome after receiving assurances that his chances of getting into the Italian national team were just as good down south, as Lazio were becoming a force.

It was at Lazio where Piola enjoyed the most success. Earning 5000 Lira a week (€2.58), he finished as Serie A's top goalscorer on two occasions in 1936/37 and 1942/43. The biancoceleste faithful identified Piola as a leader, and he was a strong character off the field, where he had a passion for hunting.

After only a year at Lazio, Piola received his first call-up to the Italian national team, replacing 1934 World Cup winner Angelo Shiavio. He scored two goals on his debut against Austria in 1935 in Vienna and cemented a place in gli Azzurri. Piola had a starring role in the 1938 World Cup finals, scoring 5 goals in 4 games, leading his country to win the championship. Piola scored two goals against hosts France, who dubbed him 'Executioner of the French' and scored another double in the final against Hungary. Hungarian forward Pal Titkos remembered: 'He stood in the centre, between his two close team-mates. Silvio Piola had a fantastic physique and constantly overran his opponents. He was a man of great versatility and a centre forward without fear. He exploited any opportunity for shooting on goal.'

Piola finished the tournament as the second top scorer, was nominated for the 'World Selection', made the All-Star team and was elected as the player of the tournament.

Silvio continued his phenomenal goalscoring record with Lazio, making himself a club legend in the meantime. In 1937, Lazio finished second to Bologna thanks to Piola's capocannoniere title. His true grit and determination was no better demonstrated than in the Derby delle Capitale against Roma in 1941. Following a head injury at the start of the match, Piola came back on to the field with four stitches and a heavy bandage to open the scoring, and lead his club to victory.

The Rome Derby had not always been a happy occasion for Piola. The 1937 derby had ended in violence as police entered the field to separate fighting players. Piola was kicked in the back by a Roma player, yet was suspended for one match for failing to control his teammates as Lazio captain.

Piola's career was hampered by the outbreak of the Second World War. He was visiting his family in Vercelli, in the North of Italy, while the country was split into two; the North under Allied control and the South under Nazi control. This left Piola stranded and he couldn't return to the South to play for Lazio. During this time, a Roman newspaper had ran the headline "Piola killed after bombing' and there were even reports of mourning rights taking place in the capital. It was of course untrue, but illustrated the breakdown in communications between the North and the South.

Meanwhile, Piola had found a club to play for while trapped in Northern Italy. He played a championship with Torino, which was eventually won by a team made up of firemen from La Spezia. The championship, however, was not recognised. Silvio never made it back to Lazio. He spent two seasons at Juventus following the end of the war, leading the Old Lady to second in the table on both occasions, with 26 goals in 57 games.

He finished his career with Novara in Northern Italy, having taken a step down to Serie B. Many believed he was coming to the end of his career, however, he immediately fired Novara back into Serie A and spent seven seasons there in total, scoring an amazing 70 Serie A goals. In fact, he scored 18 of those in one season at the age of 38.

Piola played his final match for Italy, against England, at the age of 38 but continued his club career until the age of 41. Piola retired with 274 Serie A goals, a feat yet to be matched. Had it not been for the outbreak of the War, his tally would have been far greater. He had a further 16 goals accredited to him during a defunct Championship yet they were deducted from his overall tally. On the international stage he remains Italy's third highest goalscorer with an incredible 30 goals in 34 games.

One of those 30 international goals was scored with a hand, and it was the only mark against the man who was considered a gentleman within the game. In a 1939 encounter between Italy and England, Piola attempted a trademark overhead kick with the game tied at 1-1. The ball, however, made contact with his hand and went in the goal. The goal is known as the 'manina santa' or 'holy hand'.

Following his retirement, Piola continued in the world of football, taking the role of federal technician at Centro Sportivo Coverciano. He passed away at the age of 83 on October 4, 1996 in Gattinara.

Piola's legacy continues. Amazingly, he never won any silverware for any of clubs, despite collecting a World Cup winners medal with Italy. Two stadiums have been named after him; Pro Vercelli's and Novara's. He also remains the all-time top goalscorer for three different clubs; Pro Vercelli, Lazio and Novara.

S.S. Lazio marked Piola's centenary in 2013 with a special shirt dedicated to the striker with his iconic number 9 on the back. Lazio wore the shirt in their 0-0 draw with Fiorentina in October 2013.

Author: Giannino Capaldi
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