Now it’s La Liga, before it was the Premier League, but it was Italian football in the 1990s which captured everyone’s imagination: a colourful tapestry of attacking and defensive masterclasses woven across the television screens around the globe.
And fans adored it, lapping up the spectacular goals, as well as the passionate madness on the pitch and in the stands.
Goalscorers of the World Unite
Before the Milan side of the late 1980s, Italian football had a well-deserved reputation for defensive dourness but the arrival of Arrigo Sacchi and the Dutch masters changed everything.
Strong defences found themselves stretched by the individual attacking delights of Gianfranco Zola and Thomas Brolin at Parma, Mancini and Gullit at Sampdoria, and, Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluca Vialli at Juventus.
The impossible was made possible, from Youri Djorkaeff’s fantastic bicycle kick for Internazionale against Roma in 1997…
… to Gazza’s dribble through the Pescara defence…
… but it was George Weah who captured everything beautiful about Italian football in the 1990s, with this goal against Verona in 1996/97. Power, grace and precision.
All this against defences which were marshalled by some of the greats of modern football: Baresi, Maldini, and Costacurta at Milan, Ferrara and Pesotto at Juve along with Bergomi and Festa at Internazionale.
The Divine Ponytail vs. Bald Eagle
Stereotypically, the Italian male revelled in machismo and a key attribute of that was the haircut.
There was only one which mattered: The Divine Ponytail. Roberto Baggio; a world-record buy for £8m(!) in 1990 when he left Fiorentina for Juventus against a backdrop of riots in Florence.
Five years later, there were riots in Turin when he was sold to Milan. Rightly so, as it happened with Baggio driving the Rossoneri to the Serie A title in 1995/96, following on from the one he lifted in his final season at Juventus.
The supremely gifted midfielder was crowned Balon d’Or in 1993 and the fourth best player of the twentieth century in a FIFA poll. He is the rarest of creatures: forgiven for a decisive World Cup final miss.
In 1994, he won the Silver Ball with 5 goals at USA ’94. Had he been English and missed the decisive penalty in the Final shootout, effigies would have been burned in the street while the media crucified him and his family.
Not Baggio; he did the job himself as he recalled in his autobiography, Una Porta Nel Cierlo (A Goal in the Sky), which is where his penalty nestles. Brazil were world champions, but it speaks volumes for Baggio that he remained the poster boy of Italian football in the 90s where your hair spoke volumes.
He was Samson, with his ponytail growing longer as his powers grew
Gazzetta Football Italia
A world of pronunciation opened when the chirpy James Richardson appeared on our screens in Gazzetta Football Italia, replacing the hapless Paul Gascoigne as presenter of the Saturday morning highlights package.
It gave birth to a generation of football hipster. No longer was the capital of Lombardy known as Milan, it was ‘Meelan’ as Richardson’s weekly cappuccino and trawl through the papers quickly became required viewing.
La Gazzetta dello Sport, Tuttosport, Il Corriere Dello Sport added to the mystique. Daily newspapers about sport, sport and more sports! Football fans heaven and they passed as quickly into the English language as did calcio, capocannoniere, ultras, and centrocampista.
But no longer were we content with Inter Milan, Juventus or AC Milan – the ‘AC’ had yet to be dropped – you had to know your Nerazzurri from your Bianconeri and never confuse that with the Rossoneri. Extra points were on offer through dropping the La Vecchia Signora or I Ciucciarelli into the conversation.
With skits involving a willing Richardson as stooge to Gascoigne’s antics, football had a bright new future aware from the dreary and dull English game. And the return of Kenneth Wolstenholme to our screens. England’s most iconic commentator provided the links on the show with the air of authority. They think it’s all over; not for a few years.
The Football Weekender
On 6th September 1992, Sampdoria and Lazio met in Genoa with England internationals Des Walker and Paul Gascoigne on show as the British viewing public was introduced to Serie A.
Within twenty minutes of kick-off, Lazio led 2 – 1 as it became obvious catenaccio had been consigned to the history books. 3 – 3 at full-time and Italian football had lost the message about being dull.
This was football the fans wanted to see it. And they duly did, every week seemed to produce a masterwork of artistry. Talk in the pub about a weekend away led to the birth of a sub-industry: the football weekender.
Fans headed to their local airports and within two hours, were landing in Rome, Milan, Turin or wherever took your fancy. Couldn’t get a ticket to the north London derby? Didn’t fancy Chelsea vs Everton. Why not fly to Genoa and watch Sampdoria take on Bari and quite a few people did.
Stadia made famous during Italia ’90 found themselves hosting pockets of English fans marvelling at the atmospheres, as well as taking in the culture or finding an Irish pub in Milan next door to the local Hare Krishna temple; it was football, Jim, but not as we know it and a little slice of hipster heaven.
Supporting Second Teams Became Acceptable Again
When you were in school, it was acceptable to follow the fortunes of a second team provided they weren’t in the same division as your true love. No self-respecting Arsenal fan would support Manchester United or City but living close to Swindon? Following the Robins was allowed, support your local club and all that.
Italian football in the 90s meant you could follow a second team publicly but very loyally. Just as betraying your true love is not acceptable, the same loyalty had to be saved for Milan, Juve, Torino or whatever team you followed.
If you were Irriducibili, you stayed Irriducibili and you knew everything which was happening around your club. The players, the ins and outs of the team, and more importantly how to score points over your friends whose allegiances were pinned to another’s mast.