Serie A of the 1990s; a footballing mecca, the most all-imposing, all-conquering league in the history of the sport, home to the best players, managers (and for a short time) stadiums on the planet. It was and remains the Holy Grail for all domestic leagues the world over. Yet even by its lofty standards, the 1997-98 edition was something truly special, and yet so controversial, that arguments pertaining to it rumble on to the current day.
It was a season of the very highest quality – with an array of sublime footballers awash throughout the league - a season so highly contentious it was debated in the house of Parliament. A season that was essentially dominated by two teams, and to be more specific, by two players, the finest pair on the planet, pushing their respective teams towards glory.
The landscape of Serie A in the summer of 1997 was similar to pretty much every summer that came before it during the decade; an influx of some of the finest stranieri in the world game. Cafu, Diego Simeone and Patrick Kluivert all arrived on the peninsula, Jurgen Klinsmann also returned, signing for Sampdoria. Nevertheless it was the signing of a buck-toothed Brazilian by Inter that was the talk of the entire country. Ronaldo de Lima, the current FIFA World Player of the Year.
Inter had exploited the breakdown in communication between Ronaldo’s agents and Barcelona to swoop in and pay his release fee of £19.5 million. The Catalans were helpless as Ronaldo swapped Camp Nou for Guiseppe Meazza. Inter and Ronaldo had flirted several years before, with Inter president Massimo Moratti inviting Ronaldo over for a long weekend in Milan as his guest when he was playing for PSV Eindhoven. “How many times I have rued the day I never put in a bid…what a folly on my part.” Moratti once remarked. Now he got his man.
Other movers and shakers saw reigning champions Juventus sell Christian Vieri to Atletico Madrid and replace him with the previous seasons’ Capocannoniere Pippo Inzaghi. Roberto Baggio left Milan after two incredibly underwhelming years and after being snubbed by Carlo Ancelotti at Parma whilst also rejecting offers from Derby County and Man Utd, the Divine Ponytail joined Bologna.
Lazio and the ever-ambitious owner Sergio Cragnotti once again made a splurge, resigning Alen Boksic whilst also nabbing Vladimir Jugovic and Roberto Mancini to spearhead a title challenge. Milan meanwhile, in a season in which they tried to relive past glories, signed Ajax duo Patrick Kluivert and Winston Bogarde, to go alongside Edgar Davids. Once again there was a Dutch trio at the club. The results couldn’t have contrasted more with the original Dutch three.
The opening round of the season kicked off in the last weekend of August, with all eyes on Inter as they faced newly promoted Brescia and the Serie A debut of Ronaldo. The Brazilian superstar was subdued on his debut, quickly realizing that he wasn’t going to be gifted the oceans of space he was afforded in his single season in La Liga. Step forward Alvaro ‘El Chino’ Recoba, a twenty-one year old signed from Uruguayan side Nacional. He replaced the ineffective Maurizio Ganz and promptly produced one of the most memorable debuts in the history of Serie A.
Dario Hubner had gave the visitors a shock lead deep in the second half, seven minutes later, Benoit Cauet squared the ball to Recoba some twenty-five yards from goal on the left hand side of the Brescia half, he took one touch to set himself and rifled the ball spectacularly at the goal, the shot continually rising as it zeroed diagonally into the top corner. Five minutes later he repeated the trick, scoring an equally outrageous goal, from a free kick slightly further back, bending the ball beautifully into the opposite corner this time.
Inter were off to the races and would win their opening four games, sending them top of the table. Ronaldo would score his first league goal in round two, against Bologna in a clash billed as ‘Ronaldo vs Baggio’. He made a mockery of a Bologna defender as he swiveled past him with his right foot and coolly placing the ball into the bottom corner with his left. “He has all the qualities to raise the game to a new level.” Baggio said after the game. It would become a familiar picture during the season.
Juventus beat Leece 2 – 0 on the opening weekend and by week six of the season were in second place behind Inter. As the months progressed both sides were relentless and going into the winter break only a single point separated them. Only Inter had lost a single game, a defeat away to Alberto Zaccheroni’s Udinese with Oliver Bierhoff scoring a last minute header.
It was becoming increasingly clear that Ronaldo and Del Piero were in a league of their own and one of them would ultimately decide the fate of the scudetto, by Christmas the Brazilian had scored nine times in the league, with his rival scoring one more. In early 1998 Ronaldo was awarded the Ballon d’Or, further cementing his already burgeoning legacy.
The first showdown between the two no.10’s was scheduled for the opening weekend of the New Year. A packed San Siro bore witness to a feisty yet pulsating encounter in which O Fenomeno, as the Italian press now dubbed him, got the better of his counterpart. In the 46th minute he shrugged off the challenge of infamously tenacious Paolo Montero, stayed on his feet after an attempted hack on the back of his calf by Mark Iuliano and broke into the Juve box before sliding a pass into the path of Youri Djorkaeff. The Frenchman made no mistake from five yards out and slammed the ball past Angelo Peruzzi. Inter held on to claim victory and were now four points ahead.
Two weeks later and the gap was once more reduced to a single point. An example of the relative strength of the league could be found in Bari, promoted to Serie A after finishing fourth in Serie B the previous season, securing a 0-1 victory away to Inter. Juventus responded by winning 3-1 at Bologna, a game that saw a furious Roberto Baggio walk out of the stadium after learning that he was to be dropped by manager Renzo Ulvieri.
The following week saw Inter relinquish top spot for the first time in the season after dropping points away to Empoli in a game that produced two stunning strikes. Carmine Esposito gave the Tuscans the lead with a sublime first-time lobbing volley and then with less than ten minutes left on the clock, and never one to be outdone by a spectacular goal, Alvaro Recoba, again, scored his own lob. ‘El Chino’ gained possession of the ball just inside the Empoli half and wound his gorgeous left foot back and let fly.
All the players watched as the ball arched up and down over the stranded Marco Rocatti into the net. It was to be his last goal of the season, but all three were outrageous. The expectation for future greatness was something Recoba could never hope to live up to, becoming a noose around his neck in later years.
Inter were now struggling to find consistency in the league and in early February lost again at home in another belter of a game against Bologna. Roberto Baggio crossing the ball for Michelle Paramatti to hit a volley that squirmed past Gianluca Pagliuca. Both clubs had reinforced their squads by signing midfielders in the January transfer window; Inter paid Borussia Dortmund £4 million for former Juve midfielder Paulo Sousa.
Juventus meanwhile signed Edgar Davids from Milan for just over £5 million and it was the latter who was making the more immediate impact, scoring a long-range free kick in a 3-1 victory over Roma in a contemptuous and controversial (that word again) encounter that saw the Roman’s denied a clear penalty.
The remainder of the month saw Inter failing to capitalise when Juventus stuttered; they drew when Juve drew and likewise lost when Juve lost, both sides incidentally receiving 3 – 0 pasting’s from Lazio and Fiorentina in round 22.
In March it was the turn of The Old Lady to suffer a rough patch, they only won a single game, drawing three. Temporarily allowing Sven Goran Eriksson’s Lazio to enter the title race for a couple of weeks. Juve’s dip in form coincided with the return of the Champions League, which pitted them against Dynamo Kiev. Inter were also in European action, taking on Schalke in the quarter final of the UEFA Cup.
Marcello Lippi’s side however ended a lackluster month in style by dishing out a 4-1 hammering to Milan in what was turning out to be a horror show of a season for the returning Fabio Capello, this defeat had followed a 3 – 0 defeat to Inter in the Derby Della Madonnina a week prior, proving that the idea of minestra riscaldata (reheated soup) rarely succeeds.
The season was now edging towards the final straight and April saw both challengers hit full steam, winning all of their games and conceding only one goal between them. Further to this both sides booked their places in the final of the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. On April 26th the pair would clash in what most expected to be the title decider: Juve vs Inter, Del Piero vs Ronaldo, the game’s two best players, the entire season would boil down to this game. The stakes couldn’t get any higher.
To put into perspective of how infamous this game on that Sunday became, one has to take into account that despite this fixture being dubbed the ‘Derby d’Italia’, it was always a ‘derby’ based on sporting excellence. The term first coined by legendary Italian journalist Gianni Brera in the 1960s. There was little in the way of controversy between both clubs throughout the 20th century. By the conclusion of this match however, the entire fabric of this fixture would never be the same again.
The match kicked off at a belting pace, both sides at full strength. Juve took the lead when Edgar Davids fed Del Piero the ball on the left hand side of the pitch, the Italian sped into the Inter penalty box and was confronted by Salvatore Fresi. Del Piero dashed past Fresi and attempted to shoot with his left foot, however the ball stuck under his foot and as Fresi tried to change his momentum, the ball fell kindly to the Padova native - this time on his right foot - and snookered the ball into opposite corner.
Following the goal Inter poured forward and Ronaldo hit a free kick (something he didn’t do later in his career) that glazed the roof of the net. Minutes later he really should have equalised after producing a truly frightening burst of pace whilst latching on to a back heel from Diego Simeone on the edge of the box and leaving three Juve players eating dust, but he dragged his shot wide of Angelo Peruzzi’s post.
The second half began much in the same vein as the end of the first. Ronaldo again went close with a free kick and Simeone headed just over from an in-swinging free kick. There were off the ball scuffle’s involving Del Piero, Fresi, Colonnese, Davids and Zamarano. The temperature was rising.
And then it happened, in the 69th minute, the incident that forever changed the relationship between both clubs. Ronaldo and Moreno Torricelli contested a long punt deep into Juve’s half, the ball lands to Zamarano who surges into the Juve box. Defender Alessandro Birindelli, a second half substitute, makes a wild swing that misses both the ball and Zamarano. The ball is now in the path of Ronaldo yet slightly ahead of him, it’s now a race between he and Mark Iuliano to gain control of it.
The Brazilian gets there first and touches the ball with the intention of skipping by the defender, however Iuliano just simply floors the striker to the ground with an interception that wouldn’t look out of place in a NFL game, and gets nowhere close to the ball.
Inter players expect referee Piero Ceccarini, hailing from Livorno, to blow for a penalty, but the whistle never arrives. They are furious as they run towards him to remonstrate. Juve meanwhile keep on playing and Davids spreads the ball to the left hand side of the pitch to Zinedine Zidane, who in turn plays a through ball towards the periphery of the box to the onrushing Del Piero. The no.10 is running at full pace and is bundled over by the Nigerian Taribo West and this time Ceccarini blows for a penalty.
Every Inter player is incensed and perform Olympic style sprints to confront Ceccarini, he is swarmed by black and blue jerseys and makes the Roy Keane/Jaap Stam/Nicky Butt incident with Andy D’urso at Old Trafford look like a gentlemanly chat on a Sunday morning. Inter’s usually placid manager, Gigi Simoni, is in hysterics on the sidelines and can’t believe it. “Shameful!” He cries.
Del Piero dusted himself off and saw his penalty saved by the legs of Gianluca Pagliuca and the game remained 1 – 0. Inter then saw substitute Ze Elias sent off following a rash challenge on Didier Deschamps. Simoni was also sent to the stands.
Inter once more poured forward in search of a goal however Peruzzi thwarted their best efforts and the game would finish 1 – 0 to the home side. Pandemonium then ensued as Pagliuca had to be dragged away by Juve’s Torricelli from fighting a Juventus fan that goaded the stopper over the result. To quote legendary professional wrestling commentator Jim Ross, the game was a ‘slobberknocker’.
Three days later the game was the cause of a heated exchange in the Italian house of parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. Domenico Gramazio had to be held back as he lunged after Massimo Mauro, a former Juve player now turned politician on the opposite side of the political spectrum, whilst shouting, “They are all thieves!”
The debate was being broadcast live on television and had to be suspended, with Deputy Prime Minister Walter Veltroni remarking, “We are not at a stadium. This is a spectacle that is unworthy, embarrassing and grotesque.” The game was the talk of the country.
Milan’s Gazzetta dello Sport talked of ‘psychological favouritism’ towards Juve from Ceccarini, who was a vastly experienced referee and had officiated games in Serie A since 1992 and had refereed at Euro ’96. In 2009, eleven years after the incident, he admitted to making an error in not awarding Inter a penalty. His reasoning being that he missed the clash between Ronaldo and Iuliano as his focus lay on the potential awarding of a penalty in the earlier clash of Birindelli and Zamarano.
Recently however Ceccarini has altered his stance on the incident, claiming, “I wouldn’t give that penalty even if I was under torture” and he believes the contact between Ronaldo and Iuliano simply didn’t warrant a penalty.
Regardless of whether you believe Inter deserved a penalty or not, the truth of the matter is they spurned multiple chances before and after the incident. A lack of finishing is what ultimately cost them the title. Not due to the incompetence of the referee.
Some Inter players have been haunted by the incident, Ronaldo claiming on many occasions over the years that Juventus ‘stole’ the title from him, whilst Beppe Bergomi and Pagliuca say they have never forgotten that day. Manager Simoni also never forgot about the match meanwhile Ceccarini’s name has become synonymous with the rivalry.
Inter would only win one of their three remaining games, drawing to Piacenza and losing – again – to Bari with Phil Masinga – again - scoring the decisive goal. Juve sealed their 25th scudetto on May 10th after beating Bologna at home in a 3-2 thriller. They would finish five points clear of Inter.
Further down the table, Napoli finally succumb to years of financial mismanagement dating back to the Diego Maradona era and finished rock bottom with only fourteen points. In the last twenty years only Ancona have been relegated with a fewer points tally. Joining them were Brescia (containing a young Andrea Pirlo), Atalanta and Leece.
Udinese, the surprise package of the season, finished third whilst Roberto Baggio’s gamble to join Bologna paid off as he guided the club to 8th position and a place in the Intertoto cup whilst earning himself a place in the Azzurri squad for France ’98 and the chance for redemption. Six of the fabled ‘seven sisters’ qualified for Europe, only Milan were left in the cold, finishing 10th.
It was a season defined by two clubs, and with the glory of hindsight, by two players in the absolute peak of their powers. Neither Del Piero nor Ronaldo would ever again be as devastatingly brilliant as they were in 1997/98. Knee injuries robbing them of that electric burst of acceleration that put the fear of God into the hearts of defenders across Europe. Between them in all competitions they plundered sixty-six goals, in a league packed full of stars, they were head and shoulders above the rest.
Inter would console themselves by winning the UEFA Cup, beating Lazio 3 – 0 in the fourth all Italian final of the decade. Juve would once again suffer the ignominy of defeat in the final of the Champions League, despite being overwhelming favourites to beat Real Madrid, they lost their second consecutive final.
It was a bitter end to what was a thrilling and controversy-filled season for Juventus, and Italy has been hard pressed to produce as good a campaign as 97/98 since.
Emmet is @E_I_M_G.