Think of Italian football and you come up with Juventus, Milan and Internazionale, in that order. Then add to that Roma and Napoli, perhaps Lazio. Today, you need to scratch deeper to bring names like Sampdoria to the fore. Sampdoria, from Genoa…pesto, minestrone, Pandoce Alto and, of course, football. But it is Genoa 1893, the oldest football club in Italy and, with nine Serie A titles, the fourth most successful club in Italy, that historically has been the more celebrated of the Genovese clubs. But the last time Genoa won anything meaningful was in 1937, when I Rossoblu lifted the Italian Cup. Their last Serie A title was in 1924. It’s a club with a past.
Sampdoria and Genoa share the same home ground, the Luigi Ferraris Stadium. Their rivalry is fierce, the oldest club in Italy versus the country’s youngest – Sampdoria were founded in 1946. It’s hardly new kids on the block, but the Genoa fans like to remind their co-tennants that they have a longer and richer history when they meet in the Derby Della Lanterna (the Italians have such romantic and descriptive nicknames and terms to describe their football – in England, we have “the North London derby”, “the Manchester derby”, “the Merseyside derby”).
In 1990-91, Sampdoria surprised everyone by winning their solitary Serie A title – the Scudetto. It was, in fact, a good year for the city of Genoa, because Samp’s rival finished fourth, with the two Milans sandwiched in between.
It was more mild surprise than shock, because Sampdoria did have some fine players and had been building up to something, winning three Coppa Italias in 1985, 1988 and 1989 and finishing runners-up in 1986. And in Europe, they had won the Cup-Winners Cup in 1990, the year after losing in the final. Yet this was in a golden age for Italian football, when the country’s top clubs hired the cream of world football talent – Milan with their Dutch masters, Inter with their clinical Germans, Juve with Platini and Napoli, the champions in 1987 and 1990, with the great Diego Maradona. It was a fascinating time for Serie A and an exciting era for Sampdoria under Yugoslav coach Vujadin Boskov. Italian football was the benchmark for other domestic league competitions, with its huge crowds, vibrant atmosphere and all-star teams. The strength in depth of the Serie A during that period is underlined by the fact that between 1980-81 and 1990-91, seven different clubs won the title (Juventus, Milan, Inter, Verona, Napoli, Roma and Sampdoria).
While Milan were sweeping up everything at home and in Europe in 1988, Sampdoria lifted the Coppa Italia by beating Torino 3-2 on aggregate. They also finished fifth in Serie A, finishing eight points behind champions Milan and ahead of Inter and Juventus. They regained their Coppa Italia title in 1988-89, overcoming Napoli 4-0 in the second leg after losing 1-0 in Naples. They also enjoyed a run to the final of the European Cup-Winners Cup, losing 2-0 to Barcelona in Berne. The team, however, was shaping up to be very special, with players like Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli coming to the fore.
A year later, Sampdoria went one better in Europe, slaloming their way past Norway’s Brann (3-0 on agg), Borussia Dortmund (3-1), Grasshopper (4-1) and Monaco (4-2) before meeting Anderlecht in the Gothenburg final.
Sampdoria won 2-0 in the Ullevi Stadium, thanks to two goals from Vialli in extra time 105 and 108 minutes. Vialli topped the competition’s goalscorers with seven goals in 1989-90. In Serie A, Vialli scored 10 goals in 22 games for Sampdoria, while his partner, Mancini, scored 11 in 31. Sampdoria finished fifth, eight points behind champions Napoli. But something was definitely brewing in Genoa.
The terrible twins
The 1990-91 season marked the end of an era for Italian football in some ways. Napoli, twice champions in four seasons, were no longer the force they were because of Maradona’s decline and eventual departure. Milan were not as consistent as they had been in previous years.
It simply all came right for Sampdoria. They scored more goals than anyone else, conceded only 24 in 34 games, bettered only by Milan’s 19, and they lost just three Serie A games, of which only one was away from home.
Vialli and Mancini really clicked, with the former topping the Serie A list with 19 goals in 26 games. Vialli had something to prove in 1990-91 as he had not performed well in Italia ’90 for the national team. Mancini netted 12 goals in the league, but the complementary play of the two front men was key in securing the Scudetto for Sampdoria.
Vialli and Mancini were fed by speedy wide-man Attilio Lombardo, who had cost Sampdoria four billion lira in 1989 when he signed from Cremonese. Lombardo, who looked considerably older than his years, was not a highly technical player, but he had the simple but valued ability of beating defenders and sending in dangerous crosses. Given that Sampdoria liked to play on the break, Lombardo’s contribution was crucial and he scarcely missed a game in the 1990-91 season.
But Sampdoria’s real strength was their defence. In goal was Gianluca Pagliuca, would go on to play in three World Cups for Italy and play more than 600 league games. Then there was centre back Pietro Vierchowod, the son of a Ukrainian Red Army soldier who was capped 45 times by Italy. He was considered to be one of the outstanding defenders of his generation in Italy. He could be exceptionally quick and really organised the Sampdoria defence. In midfield, Lombardo played alongside Giovanni Invernizzi and Oleksiy Mikhaijlichenko, the latter joining the club in 1990 from Dynamo Kiev. And up front, when Vialli or Mancini were missing, Boskov could call on Marco Branca.
Sampdoria started the season solidly, if not spectacular, with a 1-0 win at home to Cesena. By the end of September, they had conceded just one goal and had held Juventus to a 0-0 draw in Turin. Milan and Inter led the way, but they were just a point behind. At the end of October, they beat leaders Milan 1-0 in the San Siro, thanks to a goal from Cerezo, and took over top spot.
Three weeks later, they went to champions Napoli and won 4-1 with Vialli and Mancini scoring two apiece. Their first defeat came in the next game, their 10th, when they lost the Genoa derby 1-2. Inter, Sampdoria and Juventus were all on 15 points at the top at this stage.
When Inter were beaten 3-1 in Genoa, Sampdoria ended the year on top with 21 points, one ahead of Milan and two in front of Inter. But two defeats at the start of January, against Torino and Lecce, sent Boskov’s side down to fourth, two points shy of Milan at the top. It was a really tight Serie A.
They ended their bad patch with a 1-0 win at Cesena at the end of January and with Inter stuttering and Milan dropping points, February saw all three teams on level points. Juventus were also in the hunt, but a 1-0 win, a goal from Vialli, saw them go three points clear of the Turin side and one clear of the Milan duo.
A double from Vialli-Mancini inspired a 2-0 win against Milan on the same day Inter beat Juve, meant that in early March, Inter and Sampdoria were on 35 and Milan 32. The rossoneri were fast fading, as a 0-1 home defeat against Atalanta demonstrated. But Milan then beat Inter to damage their rivals’ chances of a second Scudetto in three years.
As April drew to a close, Sampdoria had a three point advantage over Inter and the two sides were due to meet on May 5 in Milan. There were four games to go. If Vialli & co. could win, they would have one hand on the title.
Inter literally “battered” the leaders, but two second half goals, by Dossena and Vialli, won the game 2-0. On the same weekend, Milan won 3-0 at Juventus to rekindle their feint hopes, although four points was a lot to make up with three games remaining. Milan found some extra vigour, beating Bologna 6-0 as Sampdoria stuttered 1-1 at Torino. Three points separated the two teams with two games to go – Boskov was almost there. Milan slipped up again at Bari as Sampdoria raced into a 3-0 lead against Lecce, which made any recovery by Milan worthless. The title was clinched. In the final analysis, Sampdoria were “campione” by five clear points.
Today Italy, tomorrow Europe
It was always going to be hard for Sampdoria to retain their Serie A title, and their very first game in its defence was lost – 3-2 against Cagliari on Sardinia. They finished sixth in Serie A in 1991-92, but the club went within a whisker of winning the European Cup. They made light work of Rosenborg in the first round of the competition, beating the Norwegians 7-1 on aggregate. In round two, they overcome a 2-1 deficit against Hungary’s Honved to win 4-3 over the two legs. In to the group stage, Sampdoria came out on top against Red Star Belgrade, Anderlecht and Panathinaikos to reach the Wembley final against Barcelona.The game was tight and was goalless after 90 minutes. Eventually, it was settled by an extra-time piledriver from Ronald Koeman. It was Barca’s first European Cup win.
For a brief period, Sampdoria broke the mould in Italy, challenging the domination of the Milan clubs and Juventus. It didn’t last for long, but the men that wore the distinctive shirts of I Blucerchiati will never be forgotten in the ancient city of Genoa.