Gianni de Magistris

A Florentine Star in the International Constellation of Water Polo

“I am the only athlete of a certain standing who never held a federation post”.  If he had been less “political”, less rebellious, less of a Tuscan who can’t keep his mouth shut, less incurably polemic, Gianni de Magistris, the “Gigi Riva of the swimming pool”, a striker who, according to Sandro Castellano, the water polo statistician, scored over 7,000 goals starting from the junior matches, definitely would have had at least a mini-position.

The immortal of Florentine water polo celebrated his 60th birthday on 3 December and when he defines himself as an “athlete of a certain standing” he is definitely erring on the side of modesty. The definition is a poor fit for someone who participated in five Olympiads (scoring 50 goals), five European and four World Championships and three Mediterranean Games, winning a gold medal and a bronze medal at the world games (Berlin ’79 and Cali ’75, respectively) one Olympic silver medal (Montreal ’76) and for 16 years in a row, was the top Serie A striker, winning two championships with Rari Nantes Florentia (1976 and 1980).

“Actually” – says Mister Pallanuoto – I was top striker for 17 years in a row.  In ’74, to fulfill my military obligations, I played for the Fiamme Oro in Serie B but scored 122 goals. The top striker of the A league stopped at around 40. We know that B is not A, but if you score three times as many goals…It’s a little like when they wrote that Massimiliano Ferretti broke my record of goals scored in one year, 105 I think against my 104, or something like that. Yes, but I played with 5 minute periods, then they were extended to 7 minutes, and he played 9 minute periods. So, bravo Ferretti, a friend and champion but it was like if he had played an extra period each time. And with an extra period who knows how many goals I would have scored?”

That’s what Gianni the Blonde says – the guy whom someone christened Divin Creaturo – divine creature – that’s how handsome he was (and admired by the gentle sex) – as if the 1880 goals he scored in the main championships were chickenfeed. He scored them in A, in 20 championships, from 1964-65 to 1984-85 (21 less in the B championships). Then he played in some others, in Bologna in A2 in 1985-85 and at Camogli the following year.

“If a soccer player had scored only a tenth of my goals he would be one of the most famous and richest in the world”, mutters De Magistris, great friend of another immortal in Florentine sports, Giancarlo Antognoni who wore the number 10 for Fiorentina, born in 1954 and is 4 years his junior. “Giancarlo and I went out a lot together. But they asked him for thousands of autographs, and me just one. And that was only because Giancarlo would say: “Hey, kids, this is De Magistris, a champion….” But, I wouldn’t change places with anyone. Somebody out there still has to repeat what I did in a 22 year career. As a sportsman I never felt inferior to Antognoni, I never envied him. Even though every now and then I would ask myself what made me do it, I mean to devote so much time, to end up playing in front of 200 people and then when I finished my playing career to be the most underpaid coach in Italy. But those were moments of weakness. In the end I always knew that it was right that water polo identify with me. In addition to Pizzo, obviously. People are interested in Olympic athletes every 4 years: a drunken orgy of headlines if you win, an inquisition if you lose. And the inquisitors are people who have never seen you and don’t have the slightest idea of what you had done in those four years”.

Even in the National team, that he captained from 1972 to 1984, De Magistris scored more goals than anyone: 725 goals in 382 games, an average of nearly two per match. But even when he remembers those successes it’s hard to swallow. He has always been like that, he says what he thinks, clearly and without a trace of hypocrisy. He even got annoyed with Sandro Pertini, president of Italy who went to Spain in 1982 for the Azzurri’s world cup final – the coach was Bearzot – and the president’s smile was broadcast on every TV channel. “Why didn’t Pertini get on a plane when we won the gold at the Berlin world championships in 1978, or other great successes? I am an Italian citizen too, no more no less than Cabrini and Gentile. And I knew how to play scopone too” he added referring to the card game the president played on the plane with Zoff, Bearzot and Causio.

In Berlin, De Magistris refused to toast with Franco Carraro, then president of CONI [Italian National Olympic Committee] and all the reporters. “It’s too easy to climb onto the winners’ wagon without having participated in anything before. They’re all good at that, the sudden exultation of the indifferent always bothered me. I like soccer, but it gets too much emphasis. The soccer players win and the Frecce Tricolori [Italy’s aerobatics display team] do flyovers; Abbagnale or Benelli win and there’s nobody”.

Now do you understand why Gianni de Magistris never had a federation post? His mentality is too different. “That’s how I am, I paid for having said what I think without considering what’s in it for me. The only chances I ever got were from TV, RAI every four years, Mediaset with a program after Raimondo Vianello’s Pressing. The satisfaction was always more sports oriented than financial, even when I was coach and general manager. If I had had to survive with water polo, I’d be sleeping under a bridge now. In ’78 when we won the gold medal, I got three million lire gross – before taxes. Thank heaven that as consultant for Fideuram, I managed to earn something extra. With Fiorentina Waterpolo we won the league championship and champions’ cup in 2006-7, then the European super-cup, a triple series of triumphs that Florence didn’t celebrate the way it should have. Then when the Olympic torch was passed to Florence and the city had to pick 57 torch-bearers to run 50 meters each, the mayor, the politicians, the commissioner for sports who always called me a symbol of Florentine sports, just forgot about me.”

De Magistris loves Florence, and has lived here all his life, with Marcella whom he married in 1980 and their two daughters Guia (1983) and Mila (1988). “Mila plays water polo – center, like me. But I was selfish, she always passes and never shoots”. But sometimes he hates Florence and the Florentines: “If you win a silver medal in Florence, they don’t say ‘well done because you won it’, they say you’re a jerk because you lost the gold. In Bologna, where I played for a year, there is a different sports mentality. They like lots of sports, volleyball, basketball, baseball, American football. In Florence there is only Fiorentina [the soccer team]. Other sports don’t even exist. The city’s last  championship came with water polo in 1980 and no one noticed. But it’s also true”, he admits, “that I might have gotten lost in Milan or Rome, but I didn’t in Florence”.

His thirty-two year love story with Rari Nantes – as player and coach – ended abruptly in September 1993. The president, Gianni Lonzi, with whom there was never any love lost, had him fired because “we have to balance the budget and De Magistris costs too much as a coach”. “You can’t wipe out two thirds of life in a couple of days”, said a saddened De Magistris.

But, Gianni is a fighter who doesn’t give up, and he would go on to enjoy enormous satisfaction with Fiorentina Waterpolo. “I fight like Don Quixote, like when I was twenty. And like in the pool, where I took so many punches in the face –  like missiles, where they grab you by your trunks and not only by the bathing suit…and they hold you under water, where they even broke my eardrum once. You can’t be afraid of getting hit. But every now and then you hit back”. After Beijing they talked about a possible post as trainer of the women’s national team. Initially the FIN had selected Roberto Fiori. Then had second thoughts. It seemed that the run-off would be between Pier Luigi Formiconi (a comeback) and him, De Magistris, trainer of the two big teams, Orizzonti Catania and Fiorentina. “But they never have money, there is never money for water polo”, shaking his head with its silvery – once blonde – curls.

Those curls were really blonde when he played in his first Olympics in Mexico City (1968), this guy who had started swimming at the age of 6 and became Italian champion in the 1500 meter freestyle. “I was always cold and aloof in water polo, but very emotional in swimming. I cried in ’67 when, here in my Florence, where I was the favorite in the Assoluti, Frandi beat me in the 1500 meter final. Disappointed, I quite swimming right away”.

He was seventeen. He flew to Mexico at 18, a child prodigy. “It’s my most wonderful memory, next to  Pizzo, a real phenomenon. What a shock, though in Munich in 1972: I was in the building next to the one where the fedayeen shot the Israeli athletes. Simeoni del Recco and I saw it all, terrified, In Montreal it was silver, Hungary had an awesome team and yet we won, 4-3. We lost 6-5 against the strongest team ever. Moscow, however, was a big disappointment. We were world champions and right away we were trashed by Spain, and ended up in seventh place. In Los Angeles in 1984 we just didn’t have the right blend. Dennerlein (the coach took over from Lonzi, ed. note) had me substituted when we were winning against Australia. I still don’t understand why. We tied and were out of the finals”.

Managers, coaches, politicians, De Magistris would like to ask the lot of them for explanations. But in any case he would never agree with what they say. If you want to meet him, go to the pool when his Fiorentina Waterpolo is playing: along with Orizzonti Catania it’s the best in Italy

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