Serie ‘A’ in the 90s was a thriving dreamland for players and fans alike. It was a competition where teams were still awarded just two points for a win but coming off the back of Italia ‘90. However, Serie ‘A’ was regarded as the place to be as a big-name footballer. Reading over the player names from that decade it’s easy to get a sense of the high esteem that Italian football was held in.
Now, it’s true that reminiscing about days gone by often leaves us with “perfect” memories of how things were. Like viewing our recollections through some rose-tinted telescope, we tend to embellish everything. But in that final decade of the millennium, Serie ‘A’ really did have it all – including the fairytale of all fairytales at the start of the decade.
On April 27th, 2014, Vujadin Boskov passed away in Novi Sad, Serbia. Boskov was not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, yet, in the city of Genoa, Italy, ‘Vuja’ is still rightly regarded as a legend. For it was Boskov who brought the blue half of this northwestern port district their first, and only, Serie ‘A’ title in 1991.
Having played for Sampdoria for a season in the early sixties, Boskov returned as manager in 1986, replacing Eugenio Bersellini. Bersellini had guided I Blucerchiati to their first piece of silverware, winning the Coppa Italia in 1985 with Graeme Souness and Trevor Francis in the team.
Boskov allowed Souness and Francis to leave upon his arrival and set about building his squad around a very strong core of Italian players. With years of experience already under his belt, after spells in charge of the Yugoslavian national team, Real Zaragoza, Real Madrid, and Feyenoord, to name a few, Vuja was ready to slay the giants of Italian football. He added to Bersellini’s Coppa Italia triumph with two of his own, in ‘88 and ‘89. These victories allowed Boskov to put his Sampdoria team up against some of the best in Europe. A European Cup Winners’ Cup title followed in the 1989/90 season after defeating Anderlecht of Belgium in the final.
It’s a confidence game
With three trophies in three years, Sampdoria were in very high spirits as they entered the 1990/91 season. Gianluca Pagliuca was making a name for himself as a very adept goalkeeper. Moreno Mannini and Pietro Vierchowod provided solidity, reliability and experience at the back. In midfield, the Brazilian, Cerezo, was the deep-lying playmaker who could turn defence into attack in an instant thanks to his impressive vision and passing range. Flying down the right wing, like some balding greyhound, was the ever-creative Attilio Lombardo. Blessed with seemingly invincible hamstrings, Lombardo was very rarely injured. However, it was up front where the real magic happened. Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli were forming a partnership to rival any other team in the league. Both entering their primes, Mancini and Vialli scored 31 league goals between them in 1990/91.
The squad included the likes of the blonde midfielder from the Soviet Union, Alexei Mikhailichenko, the Yugoslav, Katanec, more Italians like Ivano Bonetti, Fausto Pari, and Giuseppe Dossena. Up front, Marco Branca proved to be a very capable replacement when the need arose for Mancini or Vialli to be replaced or rested.
Boskov also had a very settled team at Sampdoria. Pagliuca was there since 1987, Vierchowod since ‘83, Mannini and Vialli since ‘84, Cerezo since ‘86, and Mancini since ‘82. Speaking to Gazzetta dello Sport, Mancini said “That team played football without worries. We were free. Maybe we weren’t the most talented bunch, but Vujadin reminded us every day that we were nothing without the work of the group.”
All the big fish
Napoli had won their first league title in 1987 with Diego Maradona playing the best football of his career. They won their second championship in 1990, with Maradona still conducting the orchestra. Both Milan teams had also won a title each in the intervening years between Napoli’s successes. The question in the autumn of 1990 was if Napoli had enough about them to retain their Serie ‘A’ trophy. Unfortunately, a failed drugs test for Maradona capped off an extremely disappointing season for Napoli. Careca, and Gianfranco Zola could not carry the Napoli team to the same extent as Maradona and, eventually, they stumbled over the line in eight-place.
Internazionale, managed by Giovanni Trapattoni, had the trio of German World Cup winners in Brehme, Matthaus, and Klinsmann. They complemented the likes of Bergomi, Berti, Zenga and Serena, almost perfectly. However, Inter would have to settle for a third-place finish that season.
AC Milan boasted one of the most consistent and well-known defensive units in Serie ‘A’ during this period. With Tassotti, Baresi, Costacurta, and Maldini, at the back, manager Arrigo Sacchi had been building something special at the San Siro since 1987, leading them to back-to-back European Cup titles in 1989 and ‘90. Sacchi’s midfield selection was picked from a choice of Ancelotti, Albertini, Donadoni, Rijkaard, and Gullit. Not bad. Up front, Sacchi decided between Marco van Basten, Daniele Massaro, Massimo Agostini, and Marco Simone. With this in mind, it becomes quite clear the magnitude of the task faced by Boskov and Sampdoria that season.
A stable base
The previous season, Sampdoria had managed to restrict the number of defeats they suffered to seven in the league. They had, in fact, been unbeaten at the Luigi Ferraris stadium, the home they shared with Genoa. Boskov’s men had also shown they could mix it with Europe’s big boys by winning the Cup Winners’ Cup.
This balanced outfit knew they could do it in the knockout competitions. As the old cliche goes, they could beat anyone on their day. But up until then, a lack of self-belief and squad depth had prevented them from carrying their often impressive form through a fully successful league campaign. All of that was about to change.
Straight out of the blocks
When Giovanni Invernizzi rattled home Sampdoria’s opening goal of the season in the 1-0 win against Cesena, not even the most dedicated of Il Doria’s ultras would have dared to believe what lay ahead for their team.
From their opening nine league games, they had won six and drawn three. Those three draws were respectable results in their own right – all 0-0 score lines and all on the road – at Fiorentina, Juventus, and Parma. With only one goal conceded in Sampdoria’s first six away games, Boskov had created a well-oiled machine which was tough to break down and dangerous on the counter-attack. The one goal they had conceded in those opening six away games was only a consolation for Napoli as Mancini, Vialli et al, destroyed Maradona’s reigning champions, 4-1 in Naples. Also, there was the little matter of a 1-0 win over Sacchi’s Milan at the San Siro. Cerezo scored the only goal of the game as Sampdoria signalled their intent to the rest of Italian football. When the going got tough that day, Vierchowod and his comrades got their bodies in the way to deny Milan at every turn. It was a hot-tempered affair with Boskov even exchanging words on the touchline with Milan’s striker, van Basten. Sampdoria did all they needed to do to take all three points.
The next seven games proved to be the only sticky patch of the season for Sampdoria. They lost three of those games, two at home. The first defeat was in the Derby della Lanterna when Genoa ran out 2-1 winners. Sampdoria were technically the home team for that game at their shared ground, the Luigi Ferraris. A Vialli penalty had cancelled out Stefano Eranio’s brilliant first-half opener but when Genoa’s Brazilian left-back, Branco, scored an outstanding free-kick with 15 minutes remaining, Sampdoria had no reply.
Five games later, and it was another home defeat. Again, it was 2-1 but this time the opposition was Torino. Then they lost 1-0 at Lecce. But that was it. After those three setbacks, Sampdoria managed to turn things back around, stopping any mini-rot which may have been setting in.
In reality, it’s a tad dramatic to speak of any type of general deterioration for Sampdoria as during that seven-game spell they still pulled off two massive home victories which would help them on their way. Roma and Internazionale lost at the Luigi Ferraris, 2-1 and 3-1 respectively. Internazionale had been Sampdoria’s closest challengers up to that stage of the season so when Vialli scored a late penalty and Mancini added another just minutes later, those three points gave Sampdoria their first bit of breathing space at the top of the table.
No more mistakes
After the defeat at Lecce, Sampdoria showed a resolve which had been absent in all other seasons, previous. They won 8 of their next 10 league games, conceding 3 goals and scoring 18. Quite simply, it was the form of champions. AC Milan and Internazionale were consistently swapping 2nd and 3rd positions but neither of them could rein Boskov’s men in. Sampdoria took a point from Genoa in the return of the Derby della Lanterna, then drew 2-2 at home to Cagliari. Now, they were into the business end of the season.
With six games remaining, the destination of the Scudetto was in the hands of I Blucerchiati. It was Sampdoria’s to lose. But they had no such plans.
Roma were beaten 1-0 at the Stadio Olimpico thanks to a Vierchowod goal in the second half. That was followed up with a 3-2 win at home to Bari. Then it was the one likely banana skin left on Sampdoria’s fixture list – Internazionale away.
Inter’s Jurgen Klinsmann had a goal ruled out for offside just before the break, and Giuseppe Bergomi and Mancini were both red-carded for clashing over a Sampdoria penalty appeal. Matthaus stung Pagliuca’s palms with a rasping free-kick in the second half. Minutes later, however, it was Sampdoria who took the lead. Vialli turned provider after some great work on the left. He set it up for the onrushing Dossena who drilled a low, right-footed shot past Walter Zenga and into the bottom corner.
Lothar Matthaus had a gilt-edged opportunity to level things up in the 66th minute. Nicola Berti was fouled in the box giving Inter a penalty. Matthaus saw his effort saved by Pagliuca and the German could only scuff the rebound wide with Pagliuca again closing him down. With Inter pressing for an equaliser, the game opened up. Lombardo rounded Zenga but his finish came back off the post and Vialli had an effort cleared off the line at the end of the same attack. In the 76th minute, Vialli made no mistake. He collected an early ball from the right, beat the last defender, and then rounded Zenga before hammering it into the empty net. Sampdoria won 2-0. They could almost taste it now.
Sprinting over the line
With two games remaining, Sampdoria were two points clear of AC Milan. If they could at least match Milan’s final two results then Sampdoria would be champions of Italy for the first time in their history. The atmosphere inside the Luigi Ferraris was amazing – the place was practically bouncing. An early goal from Cerezo set things in motion. There was no going back, then. Lecce must have wondered if there was any point in them even being there. Ten minutes later, Mannini volleyed home an absolute cracker from outside the box. Vialli made it three on the half hour with another top-drawer strike. It was 3-0 before half-time and the stadium was transformed into a party venue where the decibel level would have woken the dead. That was how it finished, and with Milan losing 2-1 at Bari the title belonged to Il Doria.
The scenes that followed would bring a smile to a stone – Chairman Paolo Mantovani in tears of joy, Vierchowod in a vest and already looking like he was 68, Vialli doing a lap of honour in his underpants. Sampdoria had done it. As fans, it’s always satisfying to see exciting footballers achieve great things and this was certainly the case with Sampdoria’s trio of Lombardo, Mancini, and Vialli.
Fighting on all fronts
During the 1990/91 season, Sampdoria were not solely focused on their Serie ‘A’ campaign. Boskov almost led them to a fantastic double but they were beaten 4-2 on aggregate in the Coppa Italia final by Roma.
Legia Warsaw knocked them out of the Cup Winners’ Cup in the quarter-finals. Sampdoria really had scaled new heights and raised the bar for years to come.
Raising the bar has it’s flip side, however. Boskov would leave to manage Roma in 1992 after their defence of the title ended with a very disappointing seventh-placed finish. They did almost claim their first European Cup, but a Ronald Koeman free-kick in extra-time was enough for Barcelona to see them off at Wembley Stadium in the final.
Sven-Goran Eriksson replaced Boskov in 1992. He recruited Des Walker from Nottingham Forest and Enrico Chiesa came in to replace the outgoing Gianluca Vialli. Vialli was off to Juventus and Chiesa was no class of replacement. He lasted just one season at the Luigi Ferraris.
Despite further recruitment in the following years which included, at various stages, the likes of Ruud Gullit, David Platt, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Christian Karembeu, Juan Sebastian Veron, Vincenzo Montella, and Nicola Amoruso, Eriksson could never take Sampdoria to a higher finish than third in Serie ‘A’. They did win another Coppa Italia in 1994 but that was as good as it got. By 1995, only Mannini, Invernizzi, and Mancini remained from the Scudetto-winning squad.
Mancini gave the best years of his career to Sampdoria. He left in 1997 to follow Eriksson to Lazio. He managed to win one more Scudetto in Rome and two more Coppa Italia trophies.
Paolo Mantovani, the club chairman from the Serie ‘A’ success, passed away in 1993 after a long battle with lung cancer. His mantle had been passed on to a reluctant heir, his son Enrico Mantovani. Enrico sold the club in 2002, ending the 22-year marriage between Sampdoria and his family.
That raised bar
It’s very probable that Sampdoria may never achieve such success again in our lifetimes. Juventus have had the run of things in Italy in recent years, although Napoli are giving them a run for their money this season. I Blucerchiati were actually relegated in 1999. It was 2003 before they returned to Serie ‘A’ and they’ve been hovering around mid-table ever since. So, another league title for Sampdoria? Unlikely, but then again, another fairytale is always improbable… until it happens.