Serie A in the '90s: when Baggio, Batistuta and Italian football ruled the world
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 honors 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.”
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 teammate, 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 realized 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 equalizer 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 teammates 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 favor.
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 honor 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 honor 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.