Sunday was quite the day of nostalgia in Italian club football. So many memories came flooding back. In Genoa there was a memorial for Paolo Mantovani, the former owner of Sampdoria, one of calcio’s great men, who died 20 years ago.
An oil man, here was someone who also knew how to turn a football team into gold: Sampd’oro.
“He wouldn’t have bought the club if he didn’t think that he could win something and in the end he did,” recalled his son Enrico. “He was a winner.”
That he was.
In the decade between 1984 and 1994, Samp lifted the Coppa Italia four times, the Italian Super Cup once, made it to the Cup Winners’ Cup final twice, holding that much-missed trophy aloft once.
Most famously of all they triumphed in Serie A, stitching the Scudetto onto arguably football’s most beautiful shirt, the blucerchiato, and reached the European Cup final only to lose in extra-time to Barcelona, Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.
In attendance at Palazzo Ducale were the symbols of that era at Samp, who else but the gemelli del gol, or goal twins, Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli. Both the same age, they were 20 when they started playing together at Marassi.
That right there touches upon precisely what made Samp’s success different from so many that came before and went after. They achieved great things by investing in youth. For that, Mantovani’s Samp remain a model to follow.
To Mancini and Vialli, he was a father figure. “You can become [for Sampdoria] what Gianni Rivera was to Milan, what Sandro Mazzola was to Inter and what Giancarlo Antognoni is for Fiorentina: a talisman,” Mantovani told the teenage Mancini during negotiations to sign him from Bologna. “I was flattered and in the end I said: ‘Yes’.”
Another anecdote of Mancini’s gives an insight into what kind of a man Mantovani was. After beating Anderlecht in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in Gothenburg in 1990, Samp flew back to Genoa where they were welcomed home by thousands of fans.
As they got on the bus, Claudio Bostolin their kitman and, believe it or not, their capo ultra too, said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if my ill mother could touch the trophy!’ Hearing this, instead of heading back to Samp’s headquarters, Mantovani had the driver swing by ‘Boso’s’ house and made his wish come true. His dear old mother got to hold it in her arms. “A wonderful gesture,” Mancini reminisced.
“He was an extraordinary person,” added a moved Vialli. “When you spoke with the president he made you feel like the best player in the world… We were the funnest team in the world.” That they were, Sampd’oro.
Meanwhile, over in Emilia Romagna, Parma were celebrating their centenary this weekend. Formed in 1913 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the city’s most famous son and one of classical music’s greatest composers, Giuseppe Verdi, the strains of his Triumphal March from Aida were heard booming out of the Ennio Tardini.
Back in May, exactly two decades on from that performance against Royal Antwerp at Wembley, the club had commemorated its Cup Winners’ Cup win. The Curva Nord unfurled 11 banners in a 3-5-2 formation, each one bearing the name of the players involved. Those members of the team present were paraded around the pitch to rapturous applause.
Maybe it was then that president Tommaso Ghirardi had the idea to go even further for Parma’s centenary. In all, he invited 140 players, coaches and staff from past and present and put on a game between many of the greatest protagonists in the club’s history.
One team, the Crociate, wearing Parma’s traditional ‘crossed’ shirt, were coached by current boss Roberto Donadoni and Pietro Carmigiani. They could call upon the likes of Alberto Di Chiara, Lilian Thuram, Antonio Benarrivo, Luigi Apolloni, Jesper Blomqvist, Gianfranco Zola, Hernan Crespo and Antonio Cassano. “How many minutes have you got in your legs?” one reporter asked Zola. “Five or six,” he joked, “but good ones.”
Over on the other side, were the Gialloblu, who, led by Nevio Scala and Renzo Ulivieri, had the pick of Taffarel, Fernando Couto, Fabio Cannavaro, Dino Baggio, a Brolin “extra large” [copyright La Gazzetta di Parma], Patrick M’Boma, Savo Milosevic and Asprilla to name but a few.
What an occasion. Everyone had a smile on their faces. “Before heading out onto the pitch that nutter Asprilla literally made us all howl with laughter telling us all the things he used to get up to with Massimo Crippa. It was a very fun afternoon,” Scala revealed.
Asprilla had found a kindred spirit in the Parma team of today. “When I started to tell of my adventures and what I did while I was here,” he said, “at a certain point Cassano threw himself on the floor giggling. You knew what he was thinking: ‘I’ve found someone as mad as me’.”
Always good value, supporters in the stands were discussing the interview published in La Gazzetta dello Sport with Asprilla that morning. Asked how he’d describe himself to younger generations, Asprilla said: “I was a loose living genius. And still am. I had great talent and, if I had worn the shirt of Juventus, Milan or Inter I’d perhaps have won the Ballon d’Or. With all due respect to Pavel Nedved, if he can take it home then…”
Should Nedved have been watching, he would have smiled when the first chance of the game fell to Asprilla. Despite carrying a few extra pounds, Couto had got up the pitch and lofted a cross over to the far post for Tino, who leapt and headed towards goal. The former Colombia international watched as the Crociate goalkeeper, Lamberto Boranga, clawed it away.
Boranga, incidentally, is 71.
Soon enough, Baggio opened the scoring for the Gialloblu and Asprilla did redeem himself, managing to get the better of Boranga’s replacement Marco Ballotta with a stinging shot and then a penalty to give his side a 3-0 lead. Attempting his trademark goal celebration, a series of flips, Asprilla’s teammates had to help him through a handstand to much hilarity.
A Crociate comeback started with a Couto own-goal. Crespo then nodded one home and set up Mario Stanic for an equaliser. A real show was being put on, a lighthearted thriller. Finding themselves behind again, the Crociate rallied from 5-3 down to ultimately record a fun 7-5 win.
“I’m still asking myself when they lengthened the pitch by at least a 100m,” smiled an exhausted Di Chiara. “It went on forever.”
Quizzed on which of his former teammates played best, he replied: “I’d say that Thuram could perhaps still play at a high level. He impressed me with his tenacity and physicality.”
Speaking after the game, a sentimental Thuram let journalists in on a conversation he’d had many times with his son. “Papa, Papa! Which is the best club side you played for?” “Parma, for me,” he said with the utmost sincerity. That’s quite the claim considering the strength of the Juventus team he went on to be a part of.
Unlike Samp of course, the Parma sides of the `90s never won the Scudetto. They came close, very close in 1995 and 1997. Considering they’d never competed in Serie A until their promotion in 1990, an often forgotten fact, to be runners-up in those years was remarkable even though the injection of Calisto Tanzi’s money meant they went from provincial outfit to superpower.
Between 1992 and 1999, Parma won the Coppa Italia three times, the UEFA Cup twice, and the Cup Winners’ Cup and Italian Super Cup once. What an incredible ride they had, one that came to a crashing halt in 2003 when Parmalat collapsed with a €14 billion hole in its accounts.
Some raised an eyebrow at how Tanzi’s part in Parma’s history went unrecognised on Sunday. La Gazzetta for one felt he was at least owed a thank you. “Without him, il Grande Parma wouldn’t have existed,” wrote Andrea Schianchi. But considering the pain he caused, it's understandable: 135,000 investors lost the money they’d put into Parmalat’s corporate bonds, while Tanzi, who is serving an 18-year jail sentence, left Parma in a very precarious position.
Leaving all that aside, let’s briefly reflect on what a time that was in Italian football. No league has ever been at such a high standard.
“Italian football dominated in Europe, winning cup after cup after cup,” wrote Antonio Maglie in Il Corriere dello Sport. “It lost only one game: that with modernity, with innovation, a defeat that relegated Italy to fourth place behind England, Spain and Germany.”
Lessons have been learned: look at how Juventus have moved with the times, what the Americans are doing at Roma and the reasons behind the takeover at Inter, which was completed today.
Forward, not back, is where Italian football is headed. But my oh my, didn’t they have it so good.