Vincenzo Scifo is not, in many ways, so very different from thousands of other 18-year-olds growing up in Belgium. He is fascinated by the sight and sounds of a smart sports car and in his spare time he delights in a game of tennis. He is the youngest of three children - he has an elder sister and brother and still lives at home with his parents. But young Enzo also plays football. Very well. And that means not merely to first division level in Belgium but on a plane where he may one day match the level of genius attained by the previous great names in his attacking midfield role. Men such as the great Dutchman Johan Cruyff, or Italy's Gianni Rivera, or Michel Platini. And yet those who would draw comparisons might more aptly do so not between Scifo and Platini, but between Scifo and one of the very greatest French players of another era: Raymond Kopa.
Kopa starred with Reims, Real Madrid of Spain and then Reims again in the 1950s, and also inspired France to third place in the 1958 World Cup. He had been born in France, but his parents were Polish, his father a miner who had crossed Europe to the west, looking for work down among the coal seams. It was seeing the reality of life below ground which turned Kopa against mining and fired his determination to earn a living in the sun. Just so with Scifo, though in his case his parents are Italian.
His father, Agostini is Sicilian. In 1957 he turned his back on the small town of Aragona on the south-west of the island, some 80 miles from Palermo, and headed for Belgium. He had been told there was work to be found. There was - in the mines. But there, in La Louviere some 35 miles from Brussels, Agostino also found a wife.
Alfonsina was the daughter of a family from the same Agrigenta region of Sicily. They married and raised a family on his miner's pay. Their first child, a girl, Angelina, was followed by a son, Giuseppe - but known to everyone then and now as Pino. And finally, on February 19, 1966, Enzo was born, at the village of Haine Saint Paul.
Born in Belgium he may have been, but from childhood young Enzo was bitten as deeply as any starry-eyed Italian boy by a love of football. Brother Pino already played in the youth sections of the La Louviere club. So Enzo joined too - aged seven.
As he learned about football so, by keeping his ears open, he learned about life. Scifo now recalls: “I soon realised that football was about the only talent I had which offered a better life than that of my father. I used to see him come home from the mine every night and he'd tell us about his day and about what sounded like hell-the mud, the dirt, the danger, and working on your knees buried away from the sun and the sky." Nothing should come before football, for Enzo. Later he would drop his accountancy studies at a crucial point - preferring to gamble on the chance offered by a professional contract with Anderlecht. But that comes much further on in the story.
At La Louviere, Scifo was "spotted". The man with his eyes open for youthful talent was Jef Jurion. Captain of Belgium and Anderlecht in the early 1960s, Jurion had been an outstanding midfield player. Later bribery and "black money" scandals would shatter his image, but they couldn't undermine his football judgment. Jurion told his directors; "We have a remarkable little teenager coming through. His name is Enzo Scifo and though he's not much bigger than a blade of grass he has a great natural talent."
Statistics proved the point. In four seasons with the juniors Scifo ran up a staggering 432 goals. But then, the sons of Italian immigrants had to show an extra level of ability to defy some of the Belgian jealousy which restricted their chances. In more reflective moments Scifo has wondered aloud whether it wasn't prejudice which destroyed the dreams of brother Pino and close friends Salvatore Chiarelli and Silvino Marinelli. All of them played in the La Louviere juniors. None of them made the grade.
Enzo's teenage precocity could not be ignored, however. Particularly after he starred, at the age of 15, in a youth tournament in West Berlin. Among football circles his fame was spreading. So, at 16, La Louviere found a deputation from Anderlecht on the doorstep. They had come for Scifo.
The Brussels club spent £15,000 and immediately implemented their takeover of the player by sweeping him away to the capital. That was not a clever move. Scifo didn't like Brussels. Or rather, he didn't like the size of it and quickly grew homesick. He recalls: "I missed all my family badly, and my mother in particular. I'd go home at the weekend and spend half the time worrying about going back to Brussels.”
Depression didn't suit his game so Anderlecht relented. Scifo could live at home and, before he was able to drive, his father ferried him to training early each morning. His form improved and, at the start of the 1982-83 season, Scifo was told he might get a couple of first team competitive games. Yugoslav Tomislav Ivic was then the coach and Scifo was kept waiting until in the autumn of 1982, Ivic was sacked and replaced by Paul Van Himst - formerly Belgium's greatest-ever player and most recently youth coach to Anderlecht. And to Scifo.
Van Himst well knew Scifo's talent and was determined to protect him. In the spring of 1983 Scifo was in the Anderlecht party who travelled to his parents’ home country of Italy to play in a minor four-team tournament. Ludo Coeck, then Anderlecht’s midfield general, recalls; “Enzo came for the experience. He was on the bench most of the time. But when he did play you didn't need a degree to see that he had what it takes.”
That amounted to two brief appearances as a substitute. The first came at the start of the 1983-84 season when Scifo was sent on against Beerschut to play out the last half-hour; the second provided a European debut as replacement for Kenneth Brylle against the Norwegian part-timers Bryne. "He's good," admitted skipper and fellow midfielder Frankie Vercauteren. "But he tries to do too much on his own. In football terms he still has a lot of growing up to do.” But then Scifo was still only 17 when, on Friday, December 16, 1983, Van Himst decided he had earned t he chance to start his first league match against Waterschei.
There was a 19,000 crowd in the Pare Astrid to see the game and for much of the time they were extremely restless. Anderlecht failed to take control at all in the first half and went a goal behind (to Vliegen) in the tenth minute of the second half. One minute later and Scifo struck back with a fine equaliser. That goal provided an injection of confidence for both player and team. In the last 10 minutes, with Scifo at the heart of a revival, Anderlecht scored three times. Goals from Alex Czerniatynski (80th and 89th minutes) and Erwin Vandenbergh (85) sealed a runaway victory.
Van Himst said afterwards: “If he goes on like that he can be another Lozano.” An interesting idea - Juan Lozano was the son of Spanish immigrants to Belgium who grew up into a fine midfield player with Antwerp and later Anderlecht. He was instrumental in their UEFA Cup triumph in 1983 and then transferred to Spain to play for Real Madrid. His departure had left a gap in the Anderlecht midfield. And now here, apparently, was another Latin émigré’s son to fill that vacancy.
Scifo's arrival on the fringe of the first team had not gone unremarked in Italy. After his successful appearance against Waterschei, Scifo was the subject of a letter which landed one day on the desk of Franco Previtali, general manager of Italian second division club Atalanta. The letter was from an old friend, a former Atalanta player who now lived in Belgium. Previtali was invited to spend a few days in Belgium and take a look at an "Italian boy'" with Anderlecht. Previtali put the invitation to one side and didn’t give it another thought until the start of February. Later he would bitterly regret the delay. For, when he went to Brussels to watch Scifo in action, he was very impressed. Previtali says: '"He reminded me so much of Gianni Rivera-with greater potential. A star in the making."
He was sufficiently convinced to seek out Scifo senior and talk about the possibility of a transfer. He knew he couldn't expect Scifo to move if Atalanta remained in the second division, so he suggested that, if his club gained promotion, then in return for Scifo's signature, Atalanta would take the entire family to live in Italy. If, that is, Anderlecht could be persuaded, for Scifo had a contract which ran until 1986.
Previtali recalls now: "A pity. We had nothing written down. Just verbal promises. Just think - if I’d gone a couple of weeks earlier I'm sure I could have tied up a deal for around £30,000. But almost as soon as I went to Belgium, he just took off."
The international launching pad was Anderlecht's UEFA Cup quarter-final against Spartak Moscow. Scifo played a key role in the home leg which Anderlecht won 4-2. Later the Italian match referee, Palo Bergamo, said; "He played as if he were from another planet. You know a referee concentrates so hard on running the game he rarely notices the players' performances. But Scifo's ability, you couldn't miss." In the return, played in Tbilisi because Moscow was ice-bound, Scifo came in as a late replacement for the injured Vercauteren and was again one of Anderlecht's best players in a rearguard action which hinged eventually on a penalty save by goalkeeper Jacques Munaron. Anderlecht lost 1-0 but won 4-3 on aggregate to earn a semi-final against Nottingham Forest. Anderlecht lost 2-0 at the City Ground then recovered to win 3-0 in Brussels. Scifo was sensational - scoring their first goal with a toe skimming drive which surprised Hans Van Breukelen in goal, and forcing the goalkeeper to a couple of fine saves with the power of his shooting from the edge of the penalty box.
The reports which sped around Europe of this potential new superstar were received with greatest interest at Inter Milan. For a couple of months new president Ernesto Pallegrini had been receiving dozens of letters from emigrant fans in Belgium alerting him to Scifo's ability-and the Italian connection. At Easter, Inter had sent veteran youth coach and former international Arcadio Venturi to take a look at him. Venturi was full of praise and, if Inter wanted Scifo, then they had a slight time advantage with the groundwork thus prepared. Scifo was now attracting enormous publicity. Italian newspapers had made him headline news and devoted full-page features to him. Again and again he was quoted as saying that his great dream was to play for an Italian club and then for the national team. That was why he would retain his Italian parental qualifications and had never thought of taking up Belgian citizenship. Such patriotic sentiments appealed to the fans in faraway Italy. But behind the scenes other factors were at work.
First, Anderlecht were pressing Scifo to sign a new five-year contract on vastly improved terms. Anderlecht were also mindful of the national interest, so all they asked in return - with the blessing of the Belgian federation - was Scifo's signature on both the basic contract and to a clause agreeing to take out Belgian citizenship. In the long-term he could prove a priceless national team asset; in the short-term there might yet be time for him to acquire citizenship to play in Belgium's patched-up team at the finals of the European championship. The second factor was that, despite all the publicity - television had carried Scifo's goal against Forest right round Europe - there had been no contact from Enzo Bearzot or the Italian federation inquiring about Scifo's willingness to play for Italy. Thirdly, despite all the wild talk about transfers to Italy, no official approaches had been made with the Italian deadline approaching. First thoughts that Scifo would be able ignore any forthcoming ban on foreign signings were dispelled when the rule was studied. This prohibits the signing of players from "under the jurisdiction of another federation”. Scifo would thus have to transfer now or wait several years. And which clubs were prepared to gamble on an 18-year-old, however vast his potential?
Scifo's future was the subject of more concern than his football. Events were now moving fast. On May 9 Scifo played for Anderlecht in the 1-1 draw against Tottenham in the first (Brussels) leg of the UEFA Cup Final. On May 17 he announced, in an interview on Belgian television, that he had decided to seek Belgian citizenship. The next day, May 18, he signed that binding two-way contract with Anderlecht. On May 22 he was voted runner-up to Jan Ceulemans in the Belgian Footballer of the Year poll, and on May 23 he was playing against Tottenham again - this time in the UEFA Cup Final return in London which Anderlecht lost 4-3 on penalties. Gambling that there would be no last-minute hitches, the federation duly named Scifo in their squad for France. Then they obtained special permission from FIFA - given the unique circumstances - to play Scifo against Hungary in a warm-up friendly.
Ironically, as he prepared to take the international stage with such success in the European finals, so, back home in La Louviere, frantic efforts were being made to stave off bankruptcy at the club who had once sold this now highly-priced teenager for a mere £15,000. The rest, as they say, is history...and for Scifo, if not his old club, a future, never mind Madrid in the UEFA Cup, of immense promise.
Scifo played against Hungary and in all three of Belgium's matches in the first round of the European finals. He was brilliant in the 2-0 win over Yugoslavia, anonymous - and substituted in the 5-0 defeat by France and a bit of a mixture in the 3-2 defeat by Denmark.
This article originally appeared in the February 1985 edition of World Soccer Magazine. You can subscribe to World Soccer for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.
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