Gianluca Festa grew up in Caligari, the capital city of Italian island Sardinia. He signed for his hometown club in 1986 and made 128 appearances in seven years, catching the eye of Inter Milan. Festa ended up making only four appearances for Internazionale who then sold him to Serie A rivals Roma, he then returned to the San Siro in 1994 where he became a regular starter over three seasons.
In 1997, Gianluca Festa ditched Milan for Middlesbrough, signing for Bryan Robson’s struggling side who were in a tough Premiership relegation battle. Festa made history as the first Italian defender to sign for an English club when he touched down in Teesside, he joined his fellow compatriot Fabrizio Ravanelli, who had shockingly signed for Boro at the start of the 1996/97 campaign. Festa followed an influx of Italians who made the swap to England – including Chelsea’s Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and Roberto Di Matteo.
Festa found himself in the heart of Boro’s defence and scored an impressive goal on his debut against Sheffield Wednesday. Interestingly, the Italian seems to be a bit of a Jack of all trades – an accomplished martial arts fighter, a junior tennis champion and even captained his country’s Army team when he was completing his National Service. A fine example of an Italian defender; he was a tough tackler who was a threat in the air as well as going forward and scoring an occasional important goal in Boro’s relegation scraps. After scoring in the semi final against Chesterfield, he scored a header in the 1997 FA Cup Final; which was controversially ruled offside. In his first 18 months on Teesside, he made three appearances in finals at Wembley (Boro famously losing all three) and was ultimately part of the now famous side who was relegated at the end of the 1996/97 season.
As the stars of the team left for other clubs including Juninho and Ravanelli; Festa committed his time to staying on Boro and getting the side back in the Premier League. He was a regular feature in the team during the 1997/98 season and joined by fellow Italian Marco Branca. Despite another League Cup Final loss, the gritty Boro team were promoted to the Premier League at the first time of asking; Festa quickly becoming a fan favourite. He was awarded Player of the Year for his efforts and continued making appearences for the Teesside club. As the 2000s kicked in, Festa was pushed out as a regular starter for Boro after English defenders Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu signed for the club and began a formiddable defensive partnership. In his final season at the club, Boro reached the FA Cup Finals with Festa unfortunately putting the ball in his own net in the match against Arsenal at Old Trafford. In 2002 he made the move from Middlesbrough to Portsmouth, he made 136 appearances for Boro and netted 10 goals.
Since retiring in 2009, Festa returned to Italy but this time as a manager. He had three spells at his boyhood club of Caligari and managed Greek Super League side AEL until his sacking in May of this year.
Gianluca Festa may not have been the most glamourous Italian player to grace England’s top flight, but his tough tackles and reliability certainly made him a famous amongst Boro supporters.