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Serie A in the '90s: when Baggio, Batistuta and Italian football ruled the world

Serie A '90s

Golaccio! During the 1990s, Italy was the undisputed home of football. Serie A teams owned 13 European trophies, six world-record transfers and six Ballon d’Or winners, plus every iconic star from Asprilla to Zidane. Welcome to a time when Calcio was king... 

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This feature originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

Pietro Fanna was walking along a corridor inside the Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi, and he could hear weeping. As Verona’s captain got closer, it became clear that all of the noise was coming from the visitors’ dressing room: the dressing room that contained Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan.

A month later, Milan beat Benfica in Vienna to win back-to-back European Cups, cementing their status as one of the greatest club teams of all time. Not until Real Madrid’s 2017 victory over Juventus in Cardiff, 27 years later, would another side retain the famous trophy.

Milan’s 1990 triumph ensured that for the only time in history, all three major European honours were claimed by clubs from the same country. Just as Luciano Pavarotti was starting to loosen his vocal cords, with the nation getting ready to host Italia 90, Gianluca Vialli scored twice as Sampdoria overcame Anderlecht to lift the European Cup Winners’ Cup. In the UEFA Cup, Juventus defeated Fiorentina in an all-Italian showpiece. It was the beginning of a decade of Serie A dominance on the pitch – and in our hearts.

The end – and start – of something   

If any further illustration of Serie A’s strength was needed, none of Italy’s four European finalists won the league title in 1989/90. The weeping noises Fanna heard coming from the Milan dressing room were not tears of joy: they were tears of despair; tears because their dreams of winning the Scudetto were over.

Milan hated playing at Verona. A 5-3 loss there had cost them top spot in 1973, a defeat that became known as ‘La Fatal Verona’. Now they were back for the sequel, level on points with Diego Maradona’s Napoli at the summit of the Serie A standings with two games to go. The Rossoneri had led the table until early April, when Napoli were handed the points from a match against Atalanta that was abandoned when Brazilian midfielder Alemao was hit by a coin thrown from the crowd.

Milan led 1-0 at Verona, but then everything started to unravel. The relegation-bound hosts levelled, and Milan lost it. Angry with a series of decisions made by referee Rosario Lo Bello, Frank Rijkaard was sent off – the official later claimed that the Dutchman twice spat at him (“Once on the hand, the other on the foot”), only a couple of months before Rijkaard infamously fired phlegm at Germany’s Rudi Voller in a World Cup clash.

Marco van Basten soon followed after ripping his shirt off in disgust. Even Sacchi exited, while Alessandro Costacurta became the third player to be dismissed, making his fury known to a linesman after Verona scored the winner.

Napoli won their final two league matches as Maradona clinched the Scudetto for a second time, four years after he had guided the Partenopei to their first ever Serie A crown. But that would be the end of Diego’s glories in Italy. Soon he departed the stage, suspended for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine in March 1991. Never again would he play for the San Paolo side. The Gli Azzurri’s golden age was over.

But if Maradona leaving affected Napoli badly, it barely dented the continuing success of Italian football. Serie A was not reliant on just one man: the stars were plentiful, and they were everywhere. Ballon d’Or winner Lothar Matthaus was at Inter; the world’s most expensive player, Roberto Baggio, had joined Juventus.

Italy had traditionally been the league with the money to attract the top players – before Baggio’s move from Fiorentina in 1990, 11 of the previous 13 world-record signings had been made by Serie A clubs. Combine that with UEFA’s decision to ban English teams from European competition in 1985, and they had been allowed to steal a march on the field. During the ’90s, Italian sides won 13 of the 30 European titles available, with 25 finalists.

“Serie A was the best and most attractive league in Europe in the 1990s,” recalls Aron Winter, who left Ajax in 1992 to play for Lazio and then Inter midway through a career that delivered 84 caps for the Netherlands. “What Spain is now, Italy was back then. As soon as I started playing in Serie A, I noticed the high level of the league – it was really tough to win matches. It was the country where the best players in the world were all playing.”

Gazzamania

English football fans would start to get a proper glimpse of Serie A in 1992, thanks to one man. Napoli, Juventus and Roma had all been interested in signing Paul Gascoigne following his displays at Italia 90, but it was Lazio who agreed a deal with Spurs in 1991. Asked what it would take to convince him to sign, Gazza jokingly asked for a trout farm, only to be surprised when Lazio agreed.

The knee injury he sustained during the 1991 FA Cup Final delayed the move, prompting a renegotiation of the fee from £8.5 million to £5.5m. A setback in his recovery, when he was attacked while out at a Newcastle nightclub, also put paid to a bizarre plan for Gascoigne to be accompanied in Italy by Glenn Roeder. He had been due to move to Rome to keep an eye on his former Toon team-mate, only to cancel his plans, angered that Gazza had been in the nightclub that evening.

Gascoigne made it to Rome in May 1992 and was paid £22,000 per week – a huge amount of money at the time. The club gave him two bodyguards to look after his home, although that nearly went badly wrong when one of them briefly confused him for a burglar, pointing a gun at his head and shouting, “Don’t move!”

His Lazio debut, at home to Genoa, was one of the first Serie A games shown live on English TV: tapping into Gazzamania, Channel 4 purchased the rights in the summer of 1992. It was a window into a different world for fans who’d previously only been able to watch Italian clubs in the occasional European clash.

Channel 4’s live screening of a match every Sunday afternoon – all Serie A fixtures used to kick off at the same time back then – would be accompanied by the Saturday morning highlights show Gazzetta Football Italia. The channel originally wanted Gascoigne to present it himself, until everyone realised that was a ludicrous idea and James Richardson – then a little-known junior TV producer – was asked to step in. Millions of people tuned in every week.

Lazio drew 1-1 against Genoa that day, then beat Parma 5-2 before Gazza’s eyes were opened against Milan at San Siro. “I remember thinking, ‘This is good, we should be all right here’,” he once told FFT, reflecting on an encouraging opening 10 minutes. “But then we were demolished. That team was frightening.” Milan won 5-3, following up a 7-3 triumph against Fiorentina a week earlier.

Gascoigne quickly gained cult hero status among Lazio’s fans, helped by a late equaliser in his first Rome derby. He’d grown a ponytail due to an inexplicable desire to look like Mick Hucknall, and was hugely popular with his Biancocelesti team-mates too.

Bizarre capers were never far away, like the time he persuaded his bodyguards to sneak him and mate Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’ Gardner into a Rome bank vault, where they sat on a mountain of money totalling £50m just for the sheer hell of it. And there was also the time when a terrified Gascoigne killed a snake with a broom at his home, then took it along to training and put it inside Roberto Di Matteo’s pocket.

“He was capable of anything,” former Lazio forward Beppe Signori tells FFT with a smile. “Once he showed up completely naked in the hall of the hotel when we were away on a retreat, and then he did the same thing on the team bus during another trip. When we were going through a dark tunnel, he got completely undressed and went to sit right next to the coach, Dino Zoff!

“At the end of training every day, you always had to be very careful with the door handle whenever you got in your car. If it was wet and was not water, it meant he’d been there.”

“Paul was standing there, half-naked…”

Winter also has tales of Geordie japes.

“I remember my first day at the club – I was in my hotel room and someone suddenly knocked on the door,” the Dutch midfielder recalls. “I opened it and Paul was standing there, half-naked, holding a tray with some champagne to welcome me.

“I have really good memories of our time together. Sometimes I had friends over from Holland and they loved to meet him. One day Paul told them he would score for them in the next game and hang off the crossbar – that’s exactly what happened.

“Another time, I was having lunch with my wife and Paul happened to be in the same restaurant with his girlfriend. I didn’t notice them at first, but when they’d finished, Paul said to the waiter, ‘My friend Aron will pay.’ He called out at me, and when I saw him I raised my hand to greet him, so he said to the waiter, ‘You see, Aron says it’s all right.’ When I’d finished my meal I was a bit shocked at the size of the bill, because I hadn’t eaten that much! The waiter then told me Paul had said I’d pay, and I understood what had happened. I found it all quite funny, and Paul paid me back everything.

“He did drink too much alcohol sometimes – he didn’t like flying so when we travelled with the team he’d order himself a Cognac before the flight to calm himself down. But he really was a good friend, and it saddens me to see the health problems he has faced in recent years. He was an incredible player, and one of the best ever from England.”

In his first season, Gascoigne helped the club finish fifth and qualify for Europe for the first time in 16 years – they had only climbed out of Serie B in the late-1980s. It’d be the first of five consecutive seasons in which Lazio finished above Roma, before the rise of Francesco Totti shifted the balance back in Roma’s favour.

Lazio also had Serie A’s top scorer in 1992/93 – Signori bagged 26 times after arriving from Foggia. He’d be top scorer again in 1993/94 and 1995/96, before spells at Sampdoria and Bologna. He was nearly sold to Parma in 1995, only for thousands to protest on the streets and persuade Lazio to change their mind.

“The supporters loved me, and they were opposed to my transfer to Parma,” Signori remembers. “They’re things that you never forget. All of my time at Lazio was fantastic. To be top goalscorer in the league three times was a great thing, and I scored more than 100 goals for Lazio in total. I played up front alongside Karl-Heinz Riedle, then with Pierluigi Casiraghi and Alen Boksic. They were able to open the spaces and commit the defence. I finished it off.”

Signori topped the Serie A goal chart for the decade as a whole. His 141 strikes put him five goals ahead of Gabriel Batistuta, whose relentless scoring achievements at Fiorentina also included a famous Champions League piledriver against Arsenal at Wembley, and led to a statue being erected in his honour in Florence. Neither player would win a league title in the 1990s, though: Batigol won the Scudetto with Roma in 2000/01, but Signori surprisingly never won a major honour and featured only 28 times for his country.

Gazza’s time with Lazio delivered surprisingly few appearances, too – 47 matches in three seasons, a tally restricted by injuries (most notably a broken leg sustained during a challenge with Alessandro Nesta in training), and regular concerns over the midfielder’s weight. Gascoigne joined Rangers in 1995 – although not before he’d turned up at his last training session on a Harley-Davidson, smoking a cigar. Gazza knew how to say arrivederci in style. 

David and Roberto

Gascoigne may have been the man who brought English TV viewers to Italian football, but the delay in his arrival meant he wasn’t the first Englishman in Serie A during the 1990s.

Shortly after Gazza agreed to go to Lazio in 1991, David Platt took the plunge, making a £5.5m move to Bari – a provincial side in the south of Italy who’d narrowly avoided the drop the previous season.

“Bari was a way in, I didn’t even know where it was,” Platt recalls. Unable to prevent his new club suffering relegation, the midfielder still managed to score an impressive 11 goals in his debut campaign in Italy, earning him a transfer to Juventus.

“When I looked around the dressing room I thought, ‘I’ve made it’,” he says. With two world-record signings in their ranks - Juve’s £12m purchase of Gianluca Vialli from Sampdoria followed the £8m they spent on Roberto Baggio – Juve beat Borussia Dortmund to win the UEFA Cup that season, although Platt was soon on the move again.

“I wasn’t playing a lot at Juventus,” he admits. “Their attacking players were just unreal. Antonio Conte ran the midfield on his own and Baggio the forward line – there wasn’t much room for anyone else. Baggio had the same influence that Roberto Mancini had in the Sampdoria team I later played in, but we didn’t have the same sort of rapport. We couldn’t communicate.”

Platt’s rapport with Mancini was established even before he had arrived at Sampdoria – in fact, even before he’d arrived at Juventus. Only months into his time in Italy, Platt received an unexpected call. It was Mancini, who had managed to track down his phone number and wanted the Englishman to join him at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.

Sampdoria were in the middle of their greatest era: after the Cup Winners’ Cup triumph in 1990, they clinched Serie A for the only time in their history in 1990/91, an achievement the squad celebrated by dyeing their hair blond en masse – Attilio Lombardo was bald, so he had to wear a toupee for a week instead. When the players all turned up to meet the Pope sporting their new hairstyles, John Paul II was said to be somewhat confused. Sampdoria then reached the 1992 European Cup Final, but were beaten by Barcelona thanks to Ronald Koeman’s extra-time free-kick at Wembley.

Mancini’s first contact with Platt came during the middle of that European Cup run, but it wouldn’t be the last: he kept calling, ever more insistent that Platt should move to Samp.

“I was honoured, and a little freaked out at the same time,” Platt admits. “I thought, ‘Why is this guy ringing?’ He’s always said that the club didn’t ask him to, which made it even more bizarre. But it’s a measure of the man that he cared so much.

“When I signed for Juventus, you’d have thought that would have been the end of it. Not Robbie. He’d tap me up on the pitch! In the end I gave in. I thought I’d give Italy one last bash.”

The right call

It proved to be the best decision Platt ever made. While Des Walker had struggled at the club a season earlier – playing out of position at full-back before returning to England after 30 league games – Platt became a real success. His growing friendship with Mancini turned into an influential partnership out on the field.

“We hit it off right away,” Platt says. “Robbie liked to play a certain way, which is why he stayed at Sampdoria for so long [15 years]. It just worked. The team worked their style around his ideology and, for some reason, he saw me as the perfect player for that ideology.

“His life was the club. Everybody loved him, and he knew it. Fans were eating out of the palms of his hands. He never had any trouble, especially with the female attention! It was like Totti with Roma. He could walk into a bar or cafe and never pay for a thing. He could do what he wanted, but fans always knew he would do right by them.”

That relationship with the fans led to an unusual incident before a home game against Brescia in May 1995. Sampdoria had just lost the derby to Genoa so, in an attempt to appease angry supporters, Mancini agreed that the squad would run around the pitch ahead of kick-off and allow fans to hurl abuse at them, on condition that there was no unrest during the game itself. Manager Sven-Goran Eriksson even emerged to receive the pre-match boos, and the plan worked.

“I scored twice late on and we won 2-1 – the noise was incredible,” Platt remembers. “Robbie dragged me over to the fans at the end of the game and we lapped up all of the applause. Somehow, he tried to claim the credit, and left the pitch last to make sure he got the final applause! But the fans were all back onside.”

Playing with Lombardo and Ruud Gullit (in an odd period, Gullit left Milan for Sampdoria in 1993, then returned to Milan in 1994 before swiftly signing for Sampdoria again), Platt won the Coppa Italia and help the club to reach the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup, where they lost on penalties against Arsenal. He still regards his time at Samp as one of the best periods of his life.

“The best players were playing in Serie A,” he says. “Even though English players had gone there in the past, this was well before the days of the internet, YouTube and Sky. We’d heard it was defensive and seen how many clubs had won the European Cup, but been told it was down to the ban on English teams.

“Seeing it for myself was a different story. In Genoa I appreciated what Italian football was becoming. You could watch the matches back home in England, and my friends and family were constantly telling me how popular it was becoming.”

Platt signed for Arsenal but returned to Sampdoria as manager in 1998, although by then Mancini had followed Eriksson to Lazio. Platt was taking over a side bound for relegation, and lasted only six games amid a wrangle over a lack of the required coaching qualifications. That was bad news for Lee Sharpe, who’d arrived on loan from Leeds United but swiftly found himself out of the first-team picture, just as Danny Dichio had done after moving to Italy from QPR a year earlier. Ex-Nottingham Forest and Newcastle winger Franz Carr had similarly limited success during a spell at Reggiana.

The other Roberto

The ball sat before Roberto Baggio on the penalty spot, although the Divine Ponytail wasn’t happy. Three years before his infamous miss in the 1994 World Cup Final, a different spot-kick drama was about to engulf him. Baggio was back at Fiorentina for the first time since being sold to Juventus. Fifty people had been injured in the Florence riots that greeted that sale, and even Baggio was unsure whether he wanted to leave La Viola, refusing to don a Juve scarf at his unveiling.

If that didn’t go down well with the Bianconeri, things were about to get a lot more difficult. Baggio was the Juventus penalty taker, but he didn’t want to step up against his former club. Team-mates tried to persuade him, but his mind was made up. Luigi De Agostini stepped forward instead – and missed. Baggio was substituted soon after, controversially picking up a Viola scarf thrown in his direction on the way to the dressing room. Juve lost 1-0.

Baggio was a perennial conundrum. His medal collection did him little justice but he was arguably Serie A’s most gifted player of the 1990s, and the only man in that decade to break the world transfer record and win the Ballon d’Or while playing the entire year in Italy. Ronaldo had joined Inter for a world-record £19.5m when he picked up the honour in 1997, but his performances for Barça earlier in the year played a major part in winning the award.

Baggio’s annus mirabilis came in 1993, when the UEFA Cup he won alongside Platt & Co. turned out to be the only European trophy of his entire career. He had scored 39 times during the calendar year.

“He was introverted as a person, but was an absolute champion,” Fabrizio Ravanelli tells FFT. “Technically he was wonderful. He always had a solution, a skill only the very best possess.”

Baggio would win his only two Scudettos in successive years, with different clubs. The first came in his final season with Juve in 1995, when he missed five months due to injury but provided three assists on the day that the Old Lady secured the title with victory over Parma.

It was also a first Serie A crown for a 20-year-old by the name of Alessandro Del Piero. “He’s got all he needs to be a great player,” Baggio told FFT at the time – and he wasn’t wrong.

“We played with three attackers that season – Vialli, me and either Baggio or Alessandro Del Piero,” Ravanelli recalls of the year he won the league with the club he’d supported as a boy, in Marcello Lippi’s first season as boss. “Lippi was so good at reading the game and he knew how to motivate his players. I remember his speech on the first day of training at the start of that season. We had all gathered in the middle of the field and his message was clear: Juventus should not depend on anyone. We were equally important.

“We were strong as a team. We had a cockiness on the field and quality players – there was also Angelo Peruzzi, Paulo Sousa, Didier Deschamps, Ciro Ferrara, Alessio Tacchinardi and Antonio Conte.

“I remember beating Parma 3-1 in January to overtake them in the table and scoring the most beautiful goal of my career – Vialli’s low cross and then a diving header. Wonderful.

“The night before we played Parma again to win the title, I couldn’t sleep. I was tense. But it was a beautiful Sunday and we won 4-0 – I scored two goals and that night there was a party at the home of Umberto Agnelli [the club’s honorary chairman]. I remember the joy.”

There was also sadness: Juventus’s triumph was poignant, coming just weeks after the death of 23-year-old Andrea Fortunato, who was a promising left-back and had made 27 league outings the previous season before being diagnosed with leukaemia. “Everything I won at Juventus, I dedicate it to him,” says Ravanelli.

That included a Champions League crown in 1996: Ravanelli scored in the final as the Old Lady beat Ajax on penalties at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico after a 1-1 draw, before he was surprisingly sold to Middlesbrough. “Juventus had already agreed a deal, I didn’t know anything about it,” he says. “I felt terrible, but I called my agent and we reached an agreement with Middlesbrough.”  

Baggio had left a year earlier. Asked to take a 50 per cent salary cut by Juve, Silvio Berlusconi lured him to Milan for £6.8m – Manchester United and Blackburn had also shown an interest. Baggio scored 10 times to help his new club secure the Scudetto in 1995/96, including a penalty in the title-clincher against Fiorentina.