Italian locks flowing in the wind, “Strongbow” across his stomach and the Hearts badge on his chest. Stefano Salvatori was never happier than when prowling the midfield at Tynecastle. His untimely death at the age of just 49 leaves the Gorgie community devastated.
Salvatori passed away due to illness in Brisbane, Australia, where he lived with second wife Gillian and their two children – three-year-old Remo and 18-month-old Lucia. He also has two daughters from his first marriage. The news will resonate just as strongly on the other side of the world. Clubs in his native Italy, including AC Milan, Fiorentina and Parma, are coming to terms with his passing, whilst fans and former team-mates at Hearts are in mourning.
Salvatori etched his name in folklore at the Edinburgh club as part of the 1998 Scottish Cup-winning team. He encapsulated the kind of midfielder adored at Tynecastle: Aggressive and classy; hard but fair; strong and committed. He can count European legends Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten as former team-mates, but his affinity with those on the field at Celtic Park on May 16, 1998, will endure forever.
“I’m devastated,” said Gilles Rousset, the Hearts goalkeeper in that famous 2-1 victory over Rangers. “I knew Stefano was ill because Gary Locke told me a few weeks ago but it’s still a shock. He was only 49, it’s so soon. It’s such terrible news, I lost Stephane Paille a few months ago because of illness and now Stefano as well. It’s really tough.
“I have so many great memories of Stefano. He was a very tough player on the pitch, very competitive and very aggressive. In the dressing-room, he was so popular. He really adapted to the Scottish game and Scottish life. He was very happy in Edinburgh. Just a great player and a great guy.
“He will be remembered as a true Hearts player. He was a real Jambo. He loved Hearts and he will always be cherished by the fans.”
Salvatori was far more than just a footballer, though. He was a friend – a sincere and loyal one at that. “Often we would get together at Bar Roma,” added Rousset. “We would have a few drinks, some pizza, pasta, whatever. We spent great times there. When you are foreigners, you are always close to each other. Stefano was such a nice, easy-going guy so it was easy to talk with him and be a friend to him.
“He is a character as well. I remember one time we lost 3-0 in the League Cup semi-final against St Johnstone at Easter Road. Stefano was subbed by Jim Jefferies and he was not happy. He said to me: ‘I’m going to have a chat with the gaffer straight after the game.’ I said: ‘No, Stefano. That’s not a good idea.’
“I knew Jim better than him. It wasn’t a good plan. Stefano said: ‘No, I need some explanation.’ I replied: ‘Stefano, don’t go. Please don’t go and speak to him.’ He went anyway and the gaffer told him where to go. He came back and I said: ‘Stefano, I told you it was a bad idea.’
“Soon after that he left the club but we had some good memories. I don’t remember having a bad memory with Stefano.”
Salvatori left his mark on others outwith football. His best friend in Edinburgh, Ted Baigan, ran the guest house he always stayed in when he visited, Aaron Lodge.
“Stefano used to help me in the restaurant, sometimes behind the bar. He just always wanted to help, not to get paid or anything, just to give you a hand,” he explained. “If a guest arrived, he’d be out getting their suitcase out of the car. He’d give people a lift if they needed dropped off somewhere. He was just the nicest guy you ever met in your life.
“He would get up in the morning and go for a walk round Edinburgh, down Lothian Road and along Princes Street. That was how he passed his time here. I was Best Man at his wedding over in Australia and he always kept in touch with me. He was a good pal. We went on holiday together to a place called Villa Sparina in Italy.
“I did a roofing job once and he came out and put all the slates on the roof. He did the lot. It was a case of: ‘I’ll do that, I’ll unload the lorry and I’ll get it done.’ He wasn’t taking any money for it. He was shattered at the end of it but he did it. Just such a great guy. The world is a sadder place without him.”
After retiring as a player, Salvatori was often a guest at Aaron Lodge whilst helping to bring foreign players to Scottish football, including the Edinburgh City defender Jesus Garcia Tena. After moving to Brisbane, he established the Stefano Savatori Football School for children. If he taught kids even a fraction of his own ability and commitment, they will be ahead of their peers.
“He was a very important player,” recalled Rousset. “In a team which was always looking for goals, you always need a guy just in front of the defence who can do the hard work.
“Stefano did that really well. It was a good balance in that Hearts midfield with Mickey [Colin Cameron] and Stevie Fulton.
“Everybody loved Stefano because they could see that he always worked his socks off. He worked so hard for the team, a real team player. He was very important to the system we had at that time. It’s just so sad to be talking about him like this now.
“It’s good to speak about him, though, because he deserves it. He deserves to be treated as a true legend. I will never forget Stefano because he was one of the boys who helped us bring the Scottish Cup back to Tynecastle. He was so important in that victory.”
Born in Guidonia and a true Italian in every sense, Salvatori’s life has ended tragically early in Brisbane. His memory will live on in Edinburgh.
• An accomplished career and European silverware
Stefano Salvatori was part of one of the most decorated teams in world football in the late 1980s.
The star-stacked AC Milan team under Arrigo Sacchi included Paolo Maldini, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten among other luminaries. Salvatori won the 1989 European Super Cup with them and featured during the run to the 1990 European Cup final.
However, long before those dizzy heights, he emerged from humble beginnings in Guidonia, near Rome. He came through the AC Milan youth academy but couldn’t cement a regular place in the team due to the multi-million-pound competition.
He was loaned to Virescit Boccaleone, Parma and Fiorentina, and it was no surprise he moved to Florence permanently in 1990.
After spells with SPAL and Atalanta, Savatori joined Hearts in 1996 at the age of 29.
He arrived in Edinburgh at his peak and became not just a cult hero but a fully-fledged Tynecastle legend.
His combative but classy style instantly endeared him to the Hearts support and, when the club ended their 36-year wait for a trophy in 1998, Salvatori was a central figure in the success.
His diligence in midfield allowed others ahead of him to roam free in the Hearts team which won the Scottish Cup by beating Rangers 2-1 in the final at Celtic Park that year.
He played in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup the following season, but a groin injury sidelined him for a spell. He eventually left Hearts to return to his homeland in September 1999, signing for Alzano Virescit. He later moved on to Albino-Leffe and Legano.
Retirement saw him work as a technical director at Legano and Voghera. He also helped foreign players forge a career in Scotland before he moved to Australia. There, he would remarry and establish the Stefano Salvatori Football School in Brisbane.