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

Serie A '90s
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Mighty Milan

With both Baggio and Ballon d’Or winner George Weah among their ranks, Milan’s strikeforce looked reinvigorated. Arguably, it had been at its height in the early-’90s: with the Dutch trio of Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard in full flow, the Rossoneri won Serie A in 1991/92 without losing a match – going 58 league games unbeaten from May 1991 to March 1993, the era of ‘Milan degli Invicibili’. It was quite the start to Fabio Capello’s career in management – his only previous coaching experience had been with the Milan U19s.

Following two-time European Cup winner Arrigo Sacchi, who had departed to take charge of the Italian national team in the summer of 1991, seemed a formidable task. However, Sacchi’s emphasis on pressing and a highly technical approach was slowly starting to take a mental toll on the squad.

“Sacchi transformed our mentality and led Milan to some fantastic levels, especially in Europe,” revered defender Franco Baresi tells FFT. “But it was manic. He was always very quick to point out any errors.

“We needed a break mentally and Capello understood the situation. There was a bit of distrust of him at first – it was his first experience on a bench and Milan had won everything in the years before that. But Silvio Berlusconi was right. Capello freed our minds – there were fewer constraints, there was more room for using our imaginations.”

Berlusconi got the majority of things right in that era. “Silvio was the chairman you would wish for,” Ruud Gullit once told FFT. “Even though he was a busy man, he was there every week – when things were going well and when they weren’t. He wanted success, and he wanted Milan to play in a certain way.”

As it turned out, he got both during that sensational 22-month run without a league loss. “The unbeaten run strengthened our belief, the idea that it was hard to beat us,” Baresi reflects. “It became difficult for our opponents too – sometimes they didn’t reach our goal-line!

“Demetrio Albertini joined Rijkaard in midfield, we had Gullit who was an extraordinary player, and in Capello’s first season Van Basten scored like never before – 25 league goals, his best tally with Milan. He’d have done just as well the season after if it hadn’t been for his ankle problems – he was a great loss.”

It would prove to be a career-ending injury for the 1992 Ballon d’Or winner. Meanwhile, Gullit and Rijkaard both departed, and Jean-Pierre Papin struggled following a £10m world-record move from Marseille. Milan’s next world-record signing, Gianluigi Lentini – a £13m purchase from Torino – was left in a coma in August ’93 when his Porsche crashed in a ditch and then burst into flames. The wideman suffered a fractured skull and, although he did return to the field later in the season, he was never the same player.

Given those setbacks, it was a minor miracle that Capello’s charges won a third consecutive league title in 1993/94, scoring only 36 goals in 34 games. With Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti and Filippo Galli among their defensive options, they conceded a paltry 15 times all season.

“We were a very solid team,” Baresi says. “Capello prepared games according to the opponent we’d be facing – he would watch videos of them and then figure out the best tactics from there. With Sacchi we would focus on maintaining the defensive line, but under Capello it was about direct marking of forwards.

“Many of us played together forever. There was lots of respect and friendship and we would goof around as well – there was ‘the drink’, a cocktail of Coca-Cola, Polase minerals and sugar that Tassotti, Galli and Maldini would prepare before our matches. Moments like those were important – they eased tension.”

Such stress-relieving tactics worked wonders before the European Cup final in ’94. If winning the Scudetto had been impressive, given their problems up front, the 4-0 drubbing of Barça was astonishing.

The 1995/96 Scudetto was Milan’s fourth in five seasons under Capello, but then he exited for Real Madrid and things turned sour in what turned out to be Baresi’s final season.

The campaign started memorably, with Weah netting an incredible solo goal – dribbling from inside his own penalty area to score at home to Verona. But Oscar Tabarez was a poor replacement for Capello and even Sacchi’s return to the dugout could not prevent the defending champions from finishing 11th. Capello came back again for 1997/98, but lasted only one season as Milan improved just one place to 10th.

Yet things turned dramatically back in their favour a season later, when Udinese’s Alberto Zaccheroni was appointed the new coach. Germany striker Oliver Bierhoff followed him to San Siro, scoring 19 times as the Rossoneri won Serie A for the fifth time in the decade.

It was a Scudetto triumph that no one had expected. “Perhaps not even ourselves,” Maldini admitted to FFT. “At the players’ technical level, we were not a strong squad like several of the other teams – but we found something that made it.”

Inter the revolution

August 31, 1997: Youri Djorkaeff emerged from the tunnel for kick-off, then Javier Zanetti, then Diego Simeone. Then the first glimpse of the man everyone wanted to see: Ronaldo.

For the first time since the Nerazzurri signed Danish forward Harald Nielsen from Bologna 30 years earlier, the most expensive footballer in the world played for Inter. Barcelona’s president Josep Lluis Nunez had declared that Ronaldo would stay at the Camp Nou for life after the Brazilian scored 47 goals in his first season at the club.

It turned out to be his only season at the club: talks over a new contract broke down and Inter swooped, agreeing to pay the £19.5m buyout clause in his Barça contract. Rangers were also keen, with Ronaldo’s agent later claiming they had bizarrely suggested he sign for them and only play in their Champions League games.

On the face of it, Ronaldo’s first match for Inter looked like a rather gentle introduction to Italian football, at home to newly promoted Brescia. The forward smashed a free-kick against their crossbar, but then things took an unexpected turn as a teenage substitute by the name of Andrea Pirlo fashioned an opening for Dario Hubner to give the visitors a shock lead. With 10 minutes to go at San Siro, Inter were staring at an embarrassing defeat.

Step forward the debutant: no, not that debutant, the other one. There was rather less fanfare around Alvaro Recoba’s arrival from Nacional, but the Uruguayan promptly stole the show – emerging from the bench and sending an exocet missile into the top corner from 30 yards. Five minutes later, he did it again, rocketing another left-footed effort into the net from a 30-yard free-kick. For Inter, it was enough for a famous victory.

This was a new dawn for the Nerazzurri, whose shock UEFA Cup final defeat to Schalke a few months earlier had spelt the end of Roy Hodgson’s tenure as coach. Pelted with coins and cigarette lighters as he left the pitch, the Englishman swiftly resigned, having failed to win over supporters and the press.

“There was some criticism that he hadn’t won a prize with such a big team,” says Aron Winter, who swapped Lazio for Inter in 1996 and missed from the spot in the penalty shootout against Schalke, “but personally I found him a good manager. He was a nice man.”

Inter had already won the UEFA Cup twice in the ’90s: German trio Lothar Matthaus, Andreas Brehme and Jurgen Klinsmann fired them past Roma in the 1991 showpiece, before victory over Salzburg in ’94 came in rather more unusual circumstances. That season, with star signing Dennis Bergkamp struggling, Inter came within one point of being relegated for the first time since Serie A’s introduction in 1929.

Massimo Moratti soon took charge of the club and began to invest – Paul Ince was brought in from Manchester United for £7m, netting 13 goals from midfield in two seasons. Roberto Carlos lasted a year – unhappy that Hodgson insisted on playing him on the left wing – but Ivan Zamorano would also arrive before the biggest statement of intent of all: signing Il Fenomeno.

“Ronaldo really was the best, he really was a phenomenon,” Winter admits. “He was good at everything – not only scoring goals. He was the best player I ever played with.”

Together, they helped Inter put the Schalke defeat behind them by winning the UEFA Cup in Ronaldo’s first season, the Samba striker scoring in a 3-0 victory against Lazio in Paris’s Parc des Princes.

Ronnie netted 34 times in that first campaign but, plagued by knee problems, he scored only 25 times in the next four combined. Baggio also struggled with injuries after joining in 1998, having fallen out of favour at Milan, but then revitalised his career by hitting 23 goals in 33 games with Bologna.

Inter promptly spent big again in 1999, luring Christian Vieri from Lazio for another world-record sum of £32.1m (80bn lire in Italian money). Incredibly, it was Vieri’s ninth side in nine seasons as a pro, after solitary campaigns playing for Torino, Pisa, Ravenna, Venezia, Atalanta, Juventus, Atletico Madrid and then Lazio – winning one Scudetto at Juventus in 1996/97.

Neither he nor Ronaldo would win Serie A during their career at Inter, though, and the 1990s remains the only decade in the club’s 109-year history in which they failed to secure a single league title.

“I don’t regret going to Inter,” Ronaldo later told FFT. “I have great memories of my time there. They are not to blame for the injuries I had, and neither am I. Who knows what we could have achieved were it not for all of those?”