With Salernitana and Venezia back in Serie A, Giancarlo Rinaldi takes a nostalgic look back at their 1998-99 campaign when the two sides could enjoy the likes of Marco Di Vaio, Gennaro Gattuso and El Chio Recoba.
In that summer 20-odd years ago, if you were relaxing by an Italian poolside, it was probably to the sound of Des’ree’s ubiquitous hit Life belting out from a tinny set of jukebox speakers. Juventus had just been crowned Italian champions (again), had lost a Champions League Final (again) and the UEFA Cup final had been an all-Italian affair (again). A solid Azzurri side lost out on penalties to eventual winners France at the World Cup. And – just like this summer – Salernitana and Venezia were celebrating promotion to Serie A.
It was a special moment for both sides, much as it was this year. The side from the Stadio Arechi had last seen the top flight in 1948 while the boys from the Pierluigi Penzo had only been waiting a “mere” 31 years. They joined an Italian top division that was still a major European force and had not yet suffered the economic hammer blows waiting around the corner. It was an exciting time to be a new kid on the block.
The side from Salerno went into battle with a squad that was low on superstars but high on hope. Hitman Marco Di Vaio was on the steps of a springboard that would take him to Parma, Juventus, Valencia and many more. Cameroon international Rigobert Song was signed up to help tighten the defence. And Gennaro Gattuso – freshly returned from Rangers – prowled the midfield ahead of a move to Milan which would cement his place in Calcio legend.
In Venice, they put their trust in a man who had Ibrox’s finest in his future (if only fleetingly), Pippo Maniero. Having been bought by Milan a few months earlier he was about to embark on the most successful spell of his much-travelled goalscoring career with the Arancioneroverdi. Prolific Serie B striker Stefan Schwoch and combative midfielder Beppe Iachini were among the others trying to keep the lagoon-dwellers afloat.
They also had a pretty decent goalkeeper – although Manchester United fans might struggle to believe it – in Massimo Taibi. Volcanic President Maurizio Zamparini – who would rise to greater hire-’em-fire-’em notoriety with Palermo – promised an eventful campaign.
It would prove a tough old start for both newly promoted sides. Salernitana went six weeks without a win before finally snatching three points from Lazio in early November. Venezia’s wait would be even longer – another two weeks – before they too downed the Biancocelesti. When the new boys met in Week 10 – and the side from the south grabbed a 1-0 victory – it already had the air of a relegation decider. The Venetians had sunk to the bottom of Serie A quicker than a punctured gondola while their conquerors were in a tie for the penultimate position.
By Christmas, their fates looked all but sealed and a swift return to Serie B seemed most probable. However, one of the greatest pieces of January business in history would transform the Veneto team. From a side that could hardly win, they became one that could scarcely lose. And they owed it almost all to the glorious left foot of Alvaro “El Chino” Recoba.
They drew with Juve and claimed the scalps of Roma, Fiorentina and Inter as they went on a run inspired by the mercurial Uruguayan that delivered them from abject misery to almost comfortable survival. Along the way, Walter Novellino’s side was converted from a side that looked out of its depth to one quite at home in its lofty surroundings. A Spritz or two was quaffed in celebration as mid-table safety was secured.
There was no such revival in Salerno. They gathered some impressive results, mind you, most notably a 1-0 win over Juventus in May thanks to future Bianconero Di Vaio. His dozen league goals, however, would see them fall just short of staying up but earn him a move to Parma.
That would be the end of the Salernitana story in Serie A but Venezia survived another season before making the drop to the second tier. They would bounce back under Cesare Prandelli but it was only short-lived. A season later, in 2001/02, they disappeared without trace from the top division until this year’s delightful cruise along the Grand Canal to glory.
In between times, both clubs have not had their troubles to seek. Venezia hit a financial iceberg, dropped as low as Serie D and walked along the precipice of vanishing completely before rebuilding to this year’s epic play-off finale. Salernitana, too, struck economic disaster on a couple of occasions before finding the solid footing they needed to ensure runners-up spot in Serie B and the much-dreamed return to the upper echelons of the Italian game.
In many ways, despite the hundreds of miles between them, they are typical redemption tales of Calcio. Countless fans across the peninsula have spent long spells wondering if they would even have a team to support over the last couple of decades. The footballing miracle which saw Serie A become a giant of the game in the late 1980s and 1990s was not without its casualties as too many teams played fast and loose with their finances in a bid to compete.
Supporters of Venezia and Salernitana have suffered as much as anyone and only someone with a heart of Carrara marble could grudge them their return to the top. The harsh reality of battling to survive might lie in store but for now they can enjoy being guests back at the game’s top table. Bentornati ragazzi.