Three of Italy’s Euro 2020 backroom staff were teammates at Sampdoria 30 years ago as the Blucerchiati topped Serie A. Stephen Kasiewicz reflects on the trio as they aim to write a new chapter in the history books of Italian football…
Italy’s Euro 2020 squad is a representative one. There are 10 different Serie A clubs represented – 12 clubs overall when Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea are included – and no one club truly dominates. Off the pitch, though, three veterans of the greatest moment in Sampdoria history are masterminding the Azzurri’s Euro 2020 challenge: chief delegate Gianluca Vialli, assistant coach Atillo Lombardo and coach Roberto Mancini.
It’s May 1991, and a giant Scudetto shield is hoisted triumphantly in the air. Players are mobbed by jubilant supporters desperate for shirts, shorts, socks, and boots as souvenirs. Vialli is marauding around the field in his underpants as a result. Lombardo is wearing a wig in the dressing room to a chorus of laughter from the media gathered around him. A tricolour of flares wafts across the Gradinata Sud as coach Vujadin Boskov is thrust enthusiastically into the air.
Sampdoria celebrated their only Serie A title 30 years ago. The joyful images following the three-goal dismantling of Lecce at the Luigi Ferraris Stadium remain clear despite the passing of three decades.
In 2021, it is a feeling of euphoric nostalgia enveloped in sadness, as the Blucerchiati frustratingly ended another season in the mediocre No Man’s Land of mid-table.
Samp and the Scudetto. An improbable achievement which is unlikely to be repeated. Unsurprisingly, it remains the sole championship success for the club with the self-proclaimed most beautiful jersey in the world.
A flabbergasting array of stars lined up for the 1990-1991 Serie A season as the outsiders from Genoa prevailed against the crushing financial might of the Milan giants.
Samp were backed by oil magnate Paolo Mantovani but his financial support cannot be compared to the millions spent by Silvio Berlusconi at Milan or Massimo Moratti at Inter. There were riots in Florence after Juventus paid a world record £8m fee to Fiorentina for playmaker Roberto Baggio after an outstanding 1990 World Cup on home soil.
Meanwhile, the three-foreigner rule meant only the best were recruited from abroad. The brilliant Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten along with the peerless Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini had won consecutive European Cups for the Milan. Inter lined up with three German World Cup winners in Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann. Reigning champions Napoli still possessed an influential but jaded Diego Maradona and lethal Brazilian striker Careca.
Every club had a sprinkling of magic dust. Giuseppe Giannini and Rudi Voller at Roma; Lazio had Karl-Heinz Riedle; Genoa possessed Branco and Tomas Skuhravy and Atalanta boasted Claudio Caniggia.
Samp’s foreign trio of Toninho Cerezo (Brazil), Srecko Katanec (Yugoslavia) and Alexei Mikhailichenko (Soviet Union) were not exactly big names, but all made contributions in a campaign to remember. But fuelled by a dispiriting World Cup on home soil in which he had been overshadowed by Salvatore Schillaci, it was inspirational attacker Vialli that powered Sampdoria to the title.
Absent through injury for the first seven matches, his 19 goals in 26 games (finishing as the league’s leading goalscorer) took a promising team which had finished in the top six in the previous four seasons to an unthinkable success. The Cremona-born striker was the symbol of an unforgettable campaign; a strong channel runner with a penchant for spectacular volleys, he played with a cheeky grin and unnerving confidence, sporting an earring and bleached blonde hair along with Cerezo and Ivano Bonetti for the final game of the season at Lazio with the title already confirmed.
Vialli formed one half of the i Gemelli del gol – the goal twins – with Mancini, who also had a point to prove after sitting on the bench for the entirety of Italia 90.
Mancini represented a dichotomy of sorts, a natural playmaker with abundant skill and creativity but also a habitual moaner who bitterly complained about every decision, whether pivotal or insignificant. Nonetheless, his role cannot be diminished, scoring 12 times, and forming a potent forward trident with Lombardo and Vialli.
It was the direct attacking style, panache, verve and elan which were the most appealing characteristics of the title win at the Luigi Ferraris Stadium. A robust defence, featuring the pacy, granite-hard centre-back Pietro Vierchowod and outstanding goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca ensured just three defeats in 34 games and all to teams out of championship contention – a bitter Derby della Lanterna defeat against Genoa, away to Lecce and at home against Torino.
Galloping winger Lombardo – an icon labelled Popeye for his passing resemblance to the cartoon character – provided lung-bursting runs, a shot like a cannonball and crucial crosses on the counter, which Mancini and Vialli gleefully converted.
Later the balding wide-man would feature in the opening titles of Channel Four’s Italian football coverage, arms flailing in a celebration of uncontrollable ebullience and at one point joining Gazzetta host James Richardson for a light-hearted Lambada dance, which showed he did not take himself too seriously.
Distilling an entire season into notable fragments is no easy task but Samp’s improbable climb to the summit can be vividly captured in a few extraordinary games. Pagliuca produced a hand from nowhere, like a jump scare in a slasher movie, to deflect a Roberto Donadoni howitzer away from the top corner in a single goal win at Milan in October 1990.
The goal that beat Milan was a visually stimulating work of art worthy of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Katanec and Lombardo conjured up a magical winner for Cerezo to finish on the volley in a swift interchange in which the ball did not touch the ground.
Pinned back by garrisons of light blue marshalled by an inspired Maradona, only frantic defending and Pagliuca heroics prevented a first half battering at Napoli a month later. Astounding volleys from Vialli and Mancini after the break clinched an inconceivable 4-1 away victory. The capocannonieri dispatched a flawless effort into the top corner with the skill and precision of a Renaissance painter adding a final brushstroke to a portrait. Lombardo delivered a millimetre perfect cross and Mancini glided to the back post, leaned back and connected with the outside of his right boot to score via the post in an unforgettable moment when timing and technique joyously intertwined.
Scudetto rivals Inter were dismissed twice in decisive victories; the first in Genoa just before the start of 1991. Vialli’s brusque shoulder charge ruffled the unibrow of fearsome Nerazzurri full-back Giuseppe Bergomi, and expecting the referee to intervene, the 1982 World Cup winner disgustedly gave up as the Samp striker dragged a shot across Walter Zenga to score in the first minute. Despite a first half red card issued to Mikhailichenko – a frustrating figure of inconsistency in his only season at Samp – and an equaliser from Inter’s livewire Nicola Berti, two late goals from Vialli and Mancini claimed a morale-boosting 3-1 win.
By the time of the return, May 5 1991, Sampdoria were on the verge of reaching the promised land. The San Siro stage produced a theatrical performance of staggering goalkeeping and lethal transition finishing.
Pagliuca resembled a human shield against the iron boot of Matthaus, and then transformed into Inspector Gadget to make a miraculous penalty save by extending a limb to deny the German playmaker. Bergomi delivered a furious slap to Mancini as the pair were dismissed for butting heads and an object from the crowd struck the Inter defender as the pair reconciled on the walk to the tunnel.
Samp Midfielder Giuseppe Dossena had just turned 33 and used all his experience to collect from Vialli and direct beyond Walter Zenga as Inter were hit on the counter. The effervescent Vialli claimed the winner, displaying speed, skill, and poise to manoeuvre round Zenga and ram into the empty net to seal a two-goal winning margin. The striker’s exuberant backflip celebration sent the sizeable away support into waves of rapture as the Inter goalkeeper played the pantomime villain with a protest of apoplectic rage.
Lecce were dismissed in a flamboyant victory on May 19 to confirm the inevitable; Cerezo clipped in the opener, full-back Moreno Mannini belted in an incredible long-range second and a trademark Vialli volley prompted scenes of elation in a jam-packed stadium of expectant tifosi.
Scores of flags, flares and celebratory champagne as players were surrounded by disbelieving fans. Among them the unsung heroes: defensive stalwarts Luca Pellegrini and Marco Lanna; redoubtable ball-winning midfielder Fausto Pari and the versatile Giovanni Invernizzi; back-up striker Marco Branca, who netted five crucial goals; veteran goalscoring midfielder Dossena and reserve goalkeeper Giulio Nuciari, who made two appearances in the absence of the outstanding Pagliuca.
It has been called La Nostra Favola: Our fairy tale. Genoa’s main square, the Piazza De Ferrari, and surrounding city centre streets were bedecked in blue, white, red, and black in celebration of the 30th anniversary in May 2021.
Sampdoria Campione D’Italia. A season to savour for all Blucerchiati supporters and indeed everyone who craves a great underdog story. Mancini, Vialli and Lombardo played a key role for the Blucerchiati and will be trying to do just the same starting from Friday June 11, but looking at the games with a different perspective.
Mancini is under the spotlight being the Italy coach, but Lombardo is a key part of the Azzurri staff and Vialli is part of the set-up too. Thirty years after that incredible Samp achievement, the trio hopes history will repeat itself, with the whole country backing them.