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

Serie A '90s
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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.