Pitchside

Paying tribute to the miracle man who made Sampdoria

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It was a miracle. Verification was to be found in the dressing room following Sampdoria’s triumph over Lecce on May 19, 1991. Incredibly the hair of Attilio Lombardo, one of football’s most famous bald players, had grown back. It was a toupee of course but there was meaning behind this tomfoolery. If the Blucerchiati could win the championship like they did on that fine summer’s day at Marassi then, hey, anything could happen.

The worker of that miracle was coach Vujadin Boskov, “a maestro of irony, psychology and tactics” [Il Secolo XIX]. After a long illness he died at the weekend. He was 82. To get a sense of the man, I recommend listening back to his reaction to Sampdoria’s success on that historic afternoon. “It’s the most beautiful joy,” explained Boskov. “[Formed in 1946] this club isn’t yet 50 and [winning] a Scudetto here is like when your first child is born.”

For many of the footballers who played under him “he was like a father,” expressed Sinisa Mihajlovic. He had a number of illustrious sons in this sense. One of them was Francesco Totti. On March 28, 1993 Roma were playing Brescia when Boskov, then in his 60s, turned to a 16-year-old on the bench and told him to warm up. “I didn’t move because I thought he was talking to Muzzi, but Roberto shook me and said: ‘He’s talking to you. Move!’,” Totti recalled. Moments later, he made his debut in Serie A. “How could I forget [that day]? Thank you mister for giving me this unique possibility, unique like you were,” blogged the Roma captain on his website.

The player though with whom Boskov will forever be most associated remains Roberto Mancini. In a series of editorials for Il Corriere and La Gazzetta dello Sport he told some great anecdotes of their time together at Samp. His first impressions weren’t good. Boskov had rules. High standards. His players had to be clean shaven, cut their hair, comb it and dress elegantly “because when people see you they have to think that Samp is a club of style.” It explains a lot about Mancini now. But at the time he dissented. “I can’t remember to whom I turned. I just remember saying to him: ‘Does he want to be il Duce?’"

Boskov though was no dictator. “We are a democratic team,” he insisted. “Everyone can talk. Then I decide.” Mancini gave a few examples. “I remember when he asked me to be a classic No.9,” Mancini recalled, “I rebelled, telling him that I didn’t like that role and he replied: ‘Ok, then tomorrow you’ll have a free role’. Naturally I played as a classic No.9. Another day he told me Luca Fusi would be marking Ruud Gullit and I replied that Luca wouldn’t be able to do it. ‘Ok, I’ll make Pietro Vierchowod mark him then’. Naturally Fusi canceled Gullit out.”

His man-management was extraordinary. Boskov used to say: “A coach has to be a teacher, a friend and a policeman at the same time.” How else was he to control the temperamental Mancini, whose bust ups with referees, opponents and fellow team-mates were frequent. “One Sunday I really crossed the line. At half-time Boskov shouted in front of the team: ‘Mancini, you’re a dressing room terrorist!’ Oh mister, come on… Everyone was laughing, their sides splitting. In the end I calmed down too. Like all intelligent people he knew how to handle you [incidentally Boskov would be a point of reference for Mancini when managing Mario Balotelli]. He also knew how to give you confidence.”

Just think of him as Mr Brightside. Boskov was always upbeat. If Samp lost 3-0 at home to Roma, he’d tell journalists [whose heads he liked to joke were “only good for wearing hats”] that they’d go to Turin the following Sunday and beat Juventus. If Samp suffered a 6-0 defeat, he’d look at it this way: better that than losing 1-0 six times. Boskov was a sage. A citizen of the world, his wisdom was the product of vast experience. “If I were to line up all the benches I’ve sat on, I could walk for miles without touching the ground,” he smiled.

A gifted former midfield player for Yugoslavia - one of the best the great Italian journalist Gianni Brera claimed to have seen - he played against Puskas’ Hungary in the 1952 Olympic final and also appeared in two World Cups. Samp acquired him for a season in 1961. But his best years were already behind him. By then entering his 30s Boskov was in decline. “The ball was beginning to move faster than my feet…” he laughed. Retirement was nearly upon him. “I stole a wage from Samp as a player, but not as a coach.”

After hanging up his boots in Switzerland at Young Boys, Boskov embarked on the next chapter of his professional life. He coached “big teams and small teams: Real Madrid and Sporting Gijon, Feyenoord and Ado Den Haag,” wrote Gianni Mura in La Repubblica. Invited to give lectures at Italy’s coaching school in Coverciano, it was Italo Allodi, the director at the centre of so much intrigue through the '60s, '70s and '80s, that brought Boskov to Serie A. He’d admired how this nomadic tactician had won La Liga with Real and taken them to their first European Cup final in a quarter of a century only to lose to Liverpool in 1981. How had he landed at Gijon, he asked?

Allodi thought he was better than that and had him in mind for the Juventus job. So he positioned him at Ascoli, who were then in Serie B, in the expectation that Giovanni Trapattoni would leave the Old Lady in a year. Should that happen then the post would be Boskov’s. But it didn’t. In the meantime Boskov got Ascoli promoted. Allodi recommended him instead to Samp’s general manager Paolo Borea. “Hire him,” he said. “You won’t regret it.”

Borea and owner Paolo Mantovani most certainly wouldn’t. With Boskov’s appointment, their team of bright young things like the Gemelli del Gol (Goal Twins) - Mancini and Vialli - began to shine. Theirs was the age of the Sampd’Oro (Golden Samp). “With Boskov, I won everything, or almost,” reminisced Mancini. By ‘almost’ Bobby Gol of course refers to the European Cup that was so nearly Samp’s in 1992. They lost in extra-time to Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola’s Dream Team at Wembley, a Ronald Koeman free-kick proving the difference. Supposedly unsettled by rumours that he was to be sold to Juventus, Vialli had missed a couple of chances.

Had they lifted that trophy, Mancini would have been able to count it alongside the Scudetto - Samp’s one and only - and the Cup Winners’ Cup as well as the two Coppa Italias they claimed under Boskov. Just imagine for a moment if Samp had. What an era in their history. But it’s not for that alone, however, that Boskov is remembered so fondly in Italy.

He had great charisma and a way with words. He compared watching a dreadlocked Gullit play for Samp to witnessing “a stag emerge from the woods.” For Boskov, great players were those who “see motorways where others see footpaths.” And, most famous of all, he quipped it’s only a “penalty when the referee whistles.”

To paraphrase the local Genoa paper Il Secolo XIX, the final whistle blew for Boskov on Sunday. As such it’s perhaps fitting to leave the last word to Mancini, his protege. “I imagine him in heaven sat with Mantovani,” he wrote. “If I remember them well, they will already be laughing.”

James Horncastle - @JamesHorncastle

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