As the previous season fades into the distance and we embark on a new one, memories of the previous 12 months will intensify. In recent times many of the year-end football high points have been provided by Barcelona and Real Madrid, but in 2014 it was another Spanish club riding the wave of glory.
Atlético Madrid’s triumph of will against the two juggernauts of Spanish football was only augmented by a heartbreaking and crushing near-miss against their city rivals in the Champions League final. Despite losing at the final hurdle in Europe, Atleti’s La Liga triumph capped a remarkable two and a half years of unheralded success. Diego Simeone coaxed every last breath of energy and defiance from a squad of mostly unfashionable players, sticking it to the established order in the process.
Atléti’s achievements reconcile the idea that with the right set of circumstances, an unfancied group can upstage the cemented hierarchy. In the modern age of mega rich super clubs, breaking their stranglehold is ever more difficult. Oligarch owners and enormous commercial money preclude the ambition a great deal of football clubs garner. For clubs who break the glass ceiling, the shelf life of success is limited, as Borussia Dortmund are finding to their chagrin. Alternatively, Dortmund’s effervescent run to the 2013 Champions League final is fondly recalled, but they weren’t trailblazers in that regard. Rewind to the early ’90s and a middling club on the Mediterranean coastline swept through Italian and European football on a wave of enthusiasm.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Italian football was in the midst of its golden period. Never before or since has a domestic league had such superiority. Serie A housed the best players, coaches and teams throughout Europe and the world. Giovanni Trapattoni’s Internazionale won the scudetto by 11 points in 1989 and Napoli won only their second title in 1990, as Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan won back-to-back European Cup’s. Inter had the German galacticos Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme. Milan had the Dutch equivalent in Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. Juventus had Roberto Baggio, Napoli had Diego Maradona and yet, a great deal of the silverware was won by Unione Calcio Sampdoria.
Traditionally, Sampdoria have rotated between Serie A and Serie B for much of their existence. That changed in 1986 with the appointment of their former player Vujadin Boškov as manager. The cosmopolitan Yugoslavian was a well-versed coach who had spells in charge of Feyenoord, Real Zaragoza and also Real Madrid, who he led to a European Cup final they lost to Liverpool. Despite managing arguably the most famous club in world football, the insular nature of Italian football hindered his chances of receiving a job at one of Italian football’s giants. So he managed Ascoli before Samp approached him.
Before Boškov, Sampdoria had won just one major trophy, the 1985 Coppa Italia. Boškov reinvigorated Samp and steered them through an extraordinary eight-year journey that culminated in a Champions League final defeat to Barcelona.
In the early 1980s Sampdoria brought in British and Irish imports Trevor Francis, Liam Brady and Graeme Souness. When they left, Boškov initiated a process of creating a team built around homegrown youth. Gianluca Vialli, Moreno Mannini, Pietro Vierchowod and Roberto Mancini would form the basis of Samp’s team for the proceeding decade. A sixth-place finish in the first campaign began a continuous theme, namely Vialli ending as Samp’s top scorer. The nucleus of a good team emerged and the signing of Brazilian Toninho Cerezo from Roma reinforced their midfield.
In 1988 Sampdoria improved on their previous season, finishing fourth in Serie A. The season is remembered more so for their Coppa Italia glory, just the second major trophy in their then 41-year history. It’s easy to forget that Italian Cup finals were played over two legs until 2007, and Samp won the first leg against Torino 2-0 with goals from Vialli and Hans-Peter Briegel. The second leg in the Stadio Olimpico in Turin was a much tougher affair. A 2-0 Torino win brought the final into extra-time, but Fausto Salsano was the hero for Sampdoria, scoring what turned out to be the winning goal in the 112th minute.
That cup glory opened an avenue into European competition the following season. Back to back Coppa Italia’s were secured, but the lingering disappointment in Europe would be a precursor to future pain. Sampdoria encountered some of Europe’s lesser lights in their run to the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. IFK Norrköping, Carl Zeiss Jena, Dinamo Bucharest and KV Mechelen fell to the Italians and Barcelona lay in wait in the showpiece. Johan Cruyff’s revolution at Barça was in its infancy and England’s Gary Lineker started the final up front. Samp would have to wait a year for their moment in Europe, Barca winning 2-0 courtesy of goals from Julio Salinas and Luis López Rekarte at the now demolished Wankdorfstadion in Bern.
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Read | A Tale of One City: Genoa
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Their repeat Coppa Italia victory over Napoli again gave them entry to the Cup Winners’ Cup. Boškov strengthened his squad in the summer. Srečko Katanec arrived from Stuttgart, but it was the less conspicuous signings that elevated the team. Attilio Lombardo was brought in from Serie B side Cremonese, the former club of Vialli. 1982 World Cup winner Beppe Dossena was dismissed as too old by sections of the Italian media, but Samp took a gamble on him and were suitably rewarded. The prize was winning the Cup Winners’ Cup, atoning for their defeat in 1989 in a memorable final with Anderlecht. With the game locked at 0-0 in extra time, Vialli scored two goals without reply to deliver Samp’s first continental trophy.
In contrast to their prolific cup strike rate, Sampdoria hovered between fourth and sixth in Serie A during Boškov’s tenure. That all changed in the 1990-91 season when Samp banished their league inconsistencies. In the post-Italia 90 period when Serie A had attracted the world’s best players, no one dared consider a Samp title tilt, and with good reason. Milan were consecutive European champions, Inter had just signed three West German World Cup winners, a cash-infused Juve were rejuvenated and Maradona was still weaving his magic for Serie A champions Napoli. Sampdoria’s European performances harnessed belief within their squad that they could achieve the unthinkable in the world’s strongest league.
Initially Sampdoria struggled to put together results without primary scorer Vialli. The wheels were set in motion when Samp won 1-0 at Milan with Pelé in attendance at the San Siro. A few weeks later, they would snatch a scarcely believable victory at the San Paolo against Napoli. Thoroughly outplayed for the majority of the 90 minutes, Vialli and Mancini both scored equally delectable volleys in a 4-1 comeback. They encountered harsher times in the latter part of the season, losing back-to-back games to Torino and Lecce to drop to fifth place. Mancini, as he so often did, steadied things with a vital last-minute winner at Parma before they defeated Milan 2-0 to gain a pivotal two points (it wasn’t until 1994 that three points were awarded for a victory in Italy).
Mancini, a classy and sophisticated player, embodied the Sampdoria attitude. His partnership with Vialli was fruitful. Mancini was the creator as Vialli finished as capocannoniere with 19 goals. The strike duo were imperious, but Vierchowod and goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca were understatedly influential. The title was virtually wrapped up with four games to go, as Samp beat second-place Inter 2-0 in a classic. Inter pounded Sampdoria’s goal, and the attempts were weighted in their favour (24-6). Pagliuca made 14 saves alone, most notably stopping a penalty from the usually unflappable Lothar Matthäus. They won the title in style at the Marassi, dispatching Lecce 3-0. The improbable turned out to be possible.
No Sampdoria ultra would ever have imagined a scudetto, but that’s just what Boškov delivered: “In my life I’ve won but the scudetto won with Sampdoria was the most beautiful; the sweetest. Because I won it in the most difficult and most balanced league in the world and because it was the first for a club that had yet to celebrate half a century of existence. It is a bit like when your first child is born. The joy is greater.”
It turned out that 1991-92 would be his last season with I blucerchiati, yet he almost grasped the biggest prize in club football on his way out the door. Sampdoria stormed through the European Cup, eliminating Rosenborg and Honvéd. They followed that up by topping a group featuring old foes Anderlecht, Red Star Belgrade and Panathinaikos in the final year before the tournament was repackaged as the Champions League. Samp reached their first European Cup final and they would meet a familiar adversary at Wembley Stadium in London, FC Barcelona.
Cruyff’s ‘dream team’ of Stoichkov, Salinas, Laudrup and Guardiola were pushed to extra time again by Boškov’s resilient band of underdogs. Despite Cruyff instructing his team to “have fun” in his pre-match talk, nerves were frayed and the tension was at times unbearable. It took a thunderbolt free-kick from Ronald Koeman in the 112th minute to finally see off the Italian champions. Barcelona’s first time lifting Ol’ Big Ears set the precedent for their future successes. Similarly, Sampdoria’s crushing close shave commenced a downward spiral.
Vialli moved to Juventus for a record transfer fee of £12.5 million. Boškov vacated his position as manager and joined Serie A rivals Roma. Mancini stayed, but despite the major signings of Ruud Gullit and David Platt, they fell short of previous standards. In the late ’90s, Juan Sebastián Verón, Ariel Ortega, Clarence Seedorf and Christian Karembeu all lined out for Samp at various points before departing for major clubs. Sampdoria were relegated in 1999 and were absent from the top flight until 2002. They have flirted with both Champions League qualification and relegation in recent years.
Samp will be hoping to push for European football again under Marco Giampaolo, rekindling memories of Boškov and his side.
Boškov passed away in April 2014, aged 82. It was fitting that Atlético won La Liga shortly after his death. While Boškov had no connection to Atleti, the Madrid club’s upstaging of their more illustrious opponents had much in common with his Samp. There were stylistic differences, but it reconnected with the time when a small Genoese football club defied logic to topple the giants of calcio.
By Conor Kelly. Follow @ConorPacKelly