Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli are back at Wembley

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On and off the pitch, Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli have been on much the same wavelength for the past 40 years. They earned the nickname of the “Goal Twins” at Sampdoria and, while that was down primarily to their almost telepathic understanding and the collective destruction they wreaked on defences, they shared a wider vision of the game.

Take Sven-Goran Eriksson’s appointment as the Blucerchiati’s coach, for example. “I was at Benfica when Sampdoria phoned me,” Eriksson recounted recently to the journalist Graham Hunter. “So, I got a private plane to Monaco and met the president Paolo Mantovani and there with him were Vialli and Mancini. We started and he said, ‘Well, Mister, I don’t really understand football but these two guys they have got it into their heads that they want Sven Eriksson so that’s why you’re here’.”

That was in the weeks before Sampdoria’s defeat to Barcelona in the European Cup final at Wembley and, back at the scene of one of their biggest career disappointments nine days ago, it felt like Mancini and Vialli had begun the process of exorcising some ghosts when coach and confidante threw themselves into each other’s arms during Italy’s extra-time victory over Austria. It was a poignant embrace, one of the defining images of Euro 2020 to date, but not simply because it spoke of two lifelong friends taking a step closer to tasting glory with the Azzurri that, for all their talents, they never managed as players.

In other circumstances, Vialli might not even be alive today. For 17 months up until being given the all clear a little over a year ago, the former Chelsea striker was battling pancreatic cancer. He lost 16kg and, as the chemotherapy took its toll, his daughters would draw his eyebrows on. There was plenty of emotion in that celebration with Mancini and, should Italy triumph over Spain at Wembley on Tuesday night and again in the final on Sunday to complete a dramatic rebirth since the country’s failure to qualify for the last World Cup, there may be a lot more to follow.

“Gianluca and I have known each other for a very long time so it’s only natural that it’s a bit different [between us],” Mancini said. “I’m not necessarily saying we grew up together but it feels like that. We spent a lot of years together and have a relationship that goes way beyond friendship. He’s almost like a brother to me.”

Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli at Sampdoria

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Vialli’s position as Italy’s head of delegation is, in truth, little more than a ceremonial role. But Mancini’s decision to bring his former strike-partner and Sampdoria team-mates, Attilio Lombardo, Alberico Evani and Fausto Salsano, on to Italy’s staff, three decades after they won the club’s one and only Scudetto together, was not a case of jobs for the boys.

The band of brothers feel has been replicated on the pitch where a fiercely united Italy are playing adventurous, expansive football and Mancini’s knack of tailoring a team to the tactics and trends of the day is re-establishing his position as a coach of considerable clout.

Victory over Belgium in the quarter-finals last Friday extended Italy’s unbeaten run to 32 matches, a national record, and now things are getting serious but Mancini and Vialli have always known how to blow off steam and release the tension of pressure cooker situations.

Thursday nights with the Sampdoria crew used to be spent playing cards and smoking cigarettes at Edilio, a restaurant in the shadow of the Luigi Ferraris Stadium in Genoa, and if they were not there, they would be at Carmine’s, a favourite haunt serving a mean fish soup, or dancing the night away at Carillon in Portofino. They became so close they nicknamed themselves after the Seven Dwarfs: Mancini was “Dopey”, Vialli “Sleepy” (“because I loved sleeping in the morning”). But there was nothing dopey or sleepy about the football they played. “Let’s just say we always helped each other out, a lot,” Vialli says. “We did it all without envy; we actually thought about what was good for the team.”

Mancini and Vialli are still on the same wavelength

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They are still leaning on each other now. When Vialli fell ill, his friend was there for him. Even in difficult moments, though, they always know how to lighten the mood. “I tell him what team to pick every now and then when he’s in trouble,” Vialli once joked. Mancini was even at it on Monday. “Gianluca is getting on a bit now so we’re quite happy to listen when he speaks up,” the Italy coach said, a smirk crossing his face.

Born five months apart, Mancini and Vialli became inseparable from the moment they began playing for Italy Under-16s together, a bond that would deepen once Vialli eventually answered his friend’s repeat calls to join Sampdoria in 1984. Three Italian Cups and the European Cup Winners’ Cup would follow before they eventually clasped hands on the Serie A title in 1990-91, when the pair seemed to be fuelled in part by a desire to banish the memories of Italia ’90. Mancini never got off the bench and Vialli succumbed to injury and illness and lost his place to Toto Schillaci, who stole the show alongside Roberto Baggio.

Indeed, it is an enduring sense of fascination that two players who were so potent for Sampdoria only played in one major tournament together for Italy – Euro ’88 – but they are back on the same side now and it is proving quite the combination.