The Lord of Football: 30 Mad Minutes with Chelsea Legend Gianluca Vialli

"If you like girls it means you like birds."

In the circus that is video game promotion, sporting celebrities up and down the alphabet come and go like journeymen clowns, back-flipping in and out of on-stage demonstrations with awkward smiles and a few words for the cameras. Pele for Ubisoft at E3 2009. Pete Sampras for EA at E3 2009. Wayne Bridge for Activision at the launch of Call of Duty: Black Ops in 2010.

Where were the sporting celebs this year? I didn't notice any turn up at E3. And at Gamescom? Sure, during EA's press conference that former NHL pro player, now game designer, came tearing out on stage and nearly skewered poor Peter Moore - but there were no turn-up-and-take-the-money jobs.

There was one sporting celebrity at Gamescom, though. One who hid behind closed doors, chatting with press and promoting a game that seems like a good fit. It was former footballer Gianluca Vialli - and the game was Lords of Football.

Yes, Gianluca Vialli, ex-Chelsea player, ex-Chelsea manager. Well, why the hell not?

I admit it. My interview was half about the game he's promoting and half about the man himself. As a True Blue, Vialli is one of my heroes. He's a Chelsea legend, one of the first razzmatazz players to find their way to the King's Road before Abramovich's oil money paid for the Russian revolution that last season culminated in the Champions League trophy.

As I shake his hand and introduce myself I am struck by how young he looks for his age. He's got a dash of silver in his facial hair, but, really, he looks exactly as he did when he was banging them in for CFC. That unmistakeable bald head, that glint in his eye, his healthy, Italian tan, barely a wrinkle on his face, and as trim as he looked on the pitch. I sit down thinking: you git.

It all began four years ago. Vialli knew some of the investors in the Italian company behind Lords of Football, Geniaware. As is often the case, it's not what you know, but who you know. A perfect match, in their eyes. "I said yes, as long as I'm going to have fun, which I did," Vialli says in his soft Italian accent. It's an odd one to hear in the flesh. Most words sound as they should: an Italian speaking English. But some sound like they're coming straight out of a London cabbie's gob. (That's what hanging around Dennis Wise will do for you - more on him later.) "And secondly, I just wanted to make sure everything I was going to say was going to have an impact on the way you play the game."

Lords of Football is an odd game. Part The Sims, part Football Manager, it puts as much emphasis on off the pitch work as it does on the pitch work. You set training and analyse player stats, as you'd expect, but you also have to deal with the fallout from your players' extra-curricular activities.

Each player has a personality and a social life. They get up to no good in a variety of buildings, including the casino, the restaurant and the night club. Players get drunk when they shouldn't, flirt with girls when they shouldn't, and talk to the press behind the manager's back, which is never appropriate. They can even develop gambling and drinking addictions. And when they turn up for training drunk and their stats suffer as a result, you have to work out how to put them on the straight and narrow.

This is a footballer having a pint in Lords of Football. Footballers don't do that do they?

"If you do what I told the developers to do, you would win the game," Vialli says. "If you don't do what I think you should be doing then you might have a few problems."

I'm sceptical of Vialli's role on the project. I've interviewed many a celebrity on my travels, each professing to have worked closely with the development team to impart their specialist knowledge. Each time I've wondered whether I'm being spoon-fed rubbish. Let's be honest, more often than not they're just in it for the exposure and the cash.

Is Vialli different? What work, exactly, has he done for Lords of Football? "They've let me get involved in designing the logo," he counters. "I had my say in the gameplay. I gave them ideas which they never listened to."

The logo, eh? Good.

"My input was about the perfect training sessions and how you improve your players," he continues. "You need to get to know your players pretty soon. And then depending on your stats, you want to work on certain things like passing or heading or kicking or shooting, also some team training sessions. Then it's the tactical editor. I told them how to play the game. I added an extra bit of knowledge.

"Then all the players have their own personality. They have their mood, and they might like something off the pitch. I told them how you manage human resources. Coaching a team is what you do on the pitch on a daily basis, but also how you deal with the players when they go out at night, when they might develop an addiction, and when you want to punish them, how to punish them, and so on."

It sounds like punishments are core to Lords of Football. You can restrict players' freedom: make them clean shoes for a day and even chase birds. Yes, chase actual birds. "If you like girls it means you like birds," Vialli says, "so we might put you in a place where you need to chase birds and catch them."

It all sounds bonkers, but Vialli is doing a wonderful job, at the very least, of convincing me he cares about the game his name is attached to. He talks of it with the knowledge of someone who has done more than read a script. He talks of it with the knowledge of someone who has actually played the game, and in this business, that's a good start.

As he speaks my mind drifts to Vialli in his pomp - of the two goals he scored in the comeback win over Liverpool in the FA Cup, the four goals in the Premier League win over Barnsley and the hat-trick against Tromso in the Cup Winners' Cup. I remember him as player manager, leading us to victory in the 1998 Coca Cola Cup, Cup Winners' Cup and, a year later, a third-place finish in the league.

I wonder, has Vialli made Lords of Football realistic? I mean, did Chelsea players actually have to chase birds? Did he force any Chelsea players to clean boots for a day? Did he, effectively, ground players?

"Obviously these punishments are slightly different to the real," he says, coyly. "Normally you catch the players on finances. Fine them. But in the game you actually get the pleasure of giving them different punishments, which are enjoyable punishments to watch, and unusual punishments as well. There are some funny ones."

What tosh, Gianluca. I want dirt! The truth! "I had a pretty professional bunch of players to deal with, so I was quite lucky." Bah! "You might not pick a player in the following game because he hasn't been training properly, or you might have to fine them because they were late or they went to bed too late, or you know they've been drinking too much. This is what you do. Or you might sell them, and just send them to another club if they don't change."

I'm having trouble imagining Dennis Wise, that cheeky chappy in midfield, as a saint. Surely, he got up to no good.

"Dennis Wise? I couldn't point my finger at anything in particular, but my life has been inspired by Dennis Wise. I'm the middle man between Dennis Wise and Lords of Football."

I doubt Lords of Football is going to do for football management simulation what FarmVille did for farm management simulation. I can see a few football fans trying it out, but it'll suffer from a lack of licenses. After my interview, when I tell EA COO and Liverpool fan Peter Moore about my meeting with Vialli and Lords of Football, he tells me he's not surprised it's unlicensed, given players can develop addictions. ("Nobody's going to approve any of that stuff! Well, good luck with that!")

What impresses me most about Gianluca Vialli is that he seems to realise this. Rather than spout hyperbolic nonsense at me about Lords of Football, rather than tell me it's the greatest game ever created, that it's the most realistic representation of football management ever made, he tells me it straight.

"We're not like the Olympics," he says. "We don't think we're going to inspire a generation. But we think we're giving a young generation the possibility to try their skill on being in charge of a team. We feel that is very important.

"It's pretty unique. We feel there's a huge gap in the market for something different. Everyone loves FIFA and PES and Football Manager, and rightly so, because they're fantastic games. But we're trying to start a new genre, basically. Something that is not there yet, that hasn't been done before, and we feel is very exciting.

"I'm not a hardcore gamer, but I played our competitors, Football Manager and FIFA, because I needed to understand exactly what was the key to their success. But the game I play the most - because I'm a golfer, now I play more golf than football - is Tiger Woods. I was totally addicted. I was staying up until four or five o'clock in the morning.

"But I am married and have children so I try to play a bit less. I play more on the proper course rather than the video game now."

As I stand to leave and shake Vialli's hand, I ask the most important question of all: FIFA or PES? "That's a hard question," he replies. "I respect them all. Well, I don't know. We might find Konami wants to publish our game, so I don't know."

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About the author

Wesley Yin-Poole

Wesley Yin-Poole

Deputy Editorial Director  |  wyp100

Wesley is deputy editorial director of ReedPop. He likes news, interviews, and more news. He also likes Street Fighter more than anyone can get him to shut up about it.


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