Luca Cetta tells the story of a truly remarkable team.
Late 1980’s Serie A was touted as the strongest league in the world. Milan, under the guidance of Arrigo Sacchi and with the Dutch trio and impenetrable defence, were the main attraction. Napoli were enjoying their finest period and could boast arguably the world’s greatest ever player in Diego Maradona. Inter swept all before them in 1989 to claim the Scudetto and had their trio of West Germans, while Juventus were in transition but still a formidable opponent. In the midst of this was Sampdoria, who built a vibrant team under the much-loved oil entrepreneur Paolo Mantovani and the leadership of eccentric Yugoslav Vujadin Boskov to win their one and only Scudetto in 1991 – and come so close to becoming Europe’s best.
Sampdoria was founded in 1946, but its history predates that year. The club formed through the merger of two older clubs, Andrea Doria and Sampierdarenese and resulted in their distinctive colours: blue represents Andrea Doria, while red, white and black signifies Sampierdarenese. The new club was a Serie A mainstay from 1946 until 1977 and promoted after finishing second in 1981/82, by which time they had been taken over by Mantovani.
Sampdoria constructed their side around exciting youngsters like Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini in addition to experienced players such as Graeme Souness and Liam Brady. Upper table finishes combined with their first piece of silverware, the 1984/85 Italian Cup, where Milan was bested 3-1 on aggregate. The Blucerchiati struggled to 11th the following season and were Italian Cup finalists, going down to Roma.
Toninho Cerezo, Gianluca Pagliuca and Attilio Lombardo (nicknamed the Bald Eagle in his Crystal Palace days) joined the ranks as the team grew in stature. During subsequent seasons, Doria were Cup specialists. Twice they triumphed in the Italian Cup, overcoming Torino 3-2 on aggregate in 1987/88 and thrashing Napoli a year later. The port city club displayed their talents to the European audience, reaching the 1988/89 Cup Winners Cup final, where they succumbed to Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’. Not to be denied, Sampdoria claimed European glory a year later, beating Anderlecht in the same competition, with Vialli scoring an extra-time brace.
Vialli and Mancini were fast becoming the most devastating strike partnership in Italy. Collectively known as the ‘gemelli dei gol’ (‘goal twins’), they were a lethal mix of technical ability and goal-scoring prowess. Curiously, the duo never reached great heights on the international stage; nonetheless, in Genoa they were unstoppable.
By 1990/91 Boskov had moulded a formidable squad and unity was high amongst the players. Many were friends. That unity was in evidence on the pitch as their wall-like defence and scintillating counter-attacking football ran like clockwork. Sampdoria lost just three times and picked up numerous points on the road thanks to their watertight defence, which leaked only five goals away from home. Pietro Vierchowod (nicknamed the Tsar because his father was a Soviet Red Army soldier), a lightning-quick player said to have never been outpaced in his career, marshalled the backline with authority. Up front they finished top scorers, led by Vialli netting 19 in 26 matches and Mancini’s 12 in 30.
The Blucerchiati triumphed in difficult fixtures which cemented their status as genuine Scudetto contenders. In round seven Sampdoria travelled to Milan and won 1-0. Two weeks later they were outplayed by Napoli but walked away with a 4-1 victory. Doria hosted Inter in round 14 having won just one of the past four but rose to the challenge and dispatched the Nerazzurri 3-1. A Vialli goal meant victory over Juventus, while the twins netted in the 2-0 win against Milan. The European Champions would have their revenge however, beating Samp 3-1 over two legs in the UEFA Super Cup. Although Genoa came up trumps in the Derby della Lanterna (Derby of the Lantern), winning 2-1 before a 0-0 draw, Samp marched towards the Scudetto. The southerners were once again dispatched 4-1, a match notable for being Maradona’s last for Napoli. Thus, Milan and Inter stood as their main rivals on the path to glory.
With only four games left and holding a three point advantage over Inter, Samp faced the Nerazzurri at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Inter needed to win, Sampdoria could not lose. An all-time classic ensued. Commentator Martin Tyler was astounded by the exhilarating proceedings and proclaimed: “In years to come, people will be saying, ‘I was here. I was at that game’...Grown men, hardened football-watchers, are scarcely able to turn their eyes to this.”
Inter played like men possessed, harassing Samp at every turn. Yet when they beat Vierchowod and co., they were met by Pagliuca, having the game of his life. Inter had 24 shots to Sampdoria’s six. While Walter Zenga did not make a save, Pagliuca made 14, including one to deny Lothar Matthaus from the penalty spot. Jurgen Klinsmann had a goal disallowed. Mancini and Giuseppe Bergomi were sent off in the first half for a minor altercation. Giuseppe Dossena opened the scoring on the hour and Vialli rounded Zenga to seal it fifteen minutes from time. Inter’s fans went ballistic in the stands, causing a halt in proceedings late on. Pagliuca earned a rating of 10 from Italian newspapers, an absolute rarity. Normally, a rating of 8 equals a fantastic performance.
The Scudetto was assured in the penultimate match, a 3-0 triumph against Lecce. Samp celebrated by all bleaching their hair for the final game, another sign of the togetherness. It was the first Scudetto claimed in the city post-World War II.
Samp claimed their first Italian Super Cup to begin the new campaign, after two previous defeats. Yet Doria struggled as champions, occupying a spot in the relegation zone in December and only managing sixth. Europe was on their mind as they reached the European Cup final. Barcelona was again the opponent and Vialli was guilty of missing three clear chances before a controversial free kick converted by Ronald Koeman gave the Catalans victory in extra-time.
Vialli left, joining Juventus for a world-record fee of £12m. Boskov moved on and the team splintered. Ruud Gullit joined for the 1993/94 campaign as Doria finished third in Serie A and claimed their fourth Italian Cup – their final trophy to date – thrashing Ancona 6-1. The season was tinged in sadness however, as Mantovani died suddenly in October 1993. Nevertheless, the slide set in and was compounded by relegation in 1999.
Antonio Cassano joined the club in 2007, with Sampdoria back in Serie A and competitive once more. Paired together with Giampaolo Pazzini, fans hailed their new goal twins. Samp reached the Italian Cup final in 2008/09 but was defeated by Lazio on penalties. They qualified for the Champions League the following year, earning a playoff against Werder Bremen. The newspapers evoked memories of their last European Cup campaign, but Sampdoria was eliminated in extra time and the season ended disastrously. A disagreement with President Riccardo Garrone in October 2010 meant Cassano was ostracised from the team and sold in January, while Pazzini also departed. Incredibly, from the Champions League, Sampdoria was relegated nine months later.
Adjusting to life in Serie B, they are favourites for a quick return to the top division. All the while, fans remember their incredible, Scudetto winning team, which took the club to heights never thought possible.
Follow Luca on Twitter @L_Cetta.