Torino, Mondonico and the UEFA Cup odyssey of 1991/92

Torino, Mondonico and the UEFA Cup odyssey of 1991/92

In his boxing anthology, Hugh McIlvanney argued triumph is fleeting and losers should be remembered more fondly. “Anyone who cannot feel the for the loser in boxing shouldn’t be allowed through the doors of the arena,” he wrote in McIlvanney on Boxing.

As Emiliano Mondonico raised a chair above his head in anger to the Amsterdam sky on a balmy spring night almost three decades ago, only the hardest of hearts and the most cynical of minds would have not felt for him and his Torino side. “There is only one club in the world that could lose a final like this,” a tearful Roberto Cravero reflected shortly after the final whistle of the return leg of the 1992 UEFA Cup final. “This is Torino. We are cursed. I don’t know what to say.”

It would be hard to argue with the statement. Fate had always played a major, often tragic, role in the Granata‘s fabled history, but seldom had it been so cruel from a sporting standpoint. There can be few pills as bitter to swallow than losing a final without tasting defeat over 180 minutes of football.

A 2-2 draw in Turin had left the Granata in a precarious position as they travelled to Amsterdam with their back up against the wall and precious little to lose. Like a boxer trailing on the scorecard but who retains belief in his ability to floor his opponent, Torino threw caution to the wind but Ajax’s dam stubbornly refused to budge.

It soon became apparent that if Louis van Gaal’s team did indeed falter, fate would intervene. In the first half alone, Walter Casagrande hit the post, before Cravero was floored in the box by Frank de Boer only for referee Zoran Petrović to wave play on. As his players surrounded the Yugoslav official demanding a penalty – the contact was admittedly dubious – Mondonico picked up his chair and waved it menacingly above his head and towards the sky.

The image became an endearing memory of Torino’s sense of injustice and misfortune. A gesture, as Turin-based and journalist and die-hard Torino fan Massimo Gramellini succinctly put it years later, which epitomised “the Granata defiance in the face of destiny’s injustice”.

With the chair back by his side, Mondonico allowed himself the rueful smile of a man who knows destiny has long made its mind up, a prescient warning of the further disappointment that would unfold in the second half. As someone who had spent two seasons with the Granata as a player, the man they called “Il Mondo” was all too acquainted with the feeling of being denied by intangible forces that is second nature for all of those connected with the club.

What Mondonico already seemed to expect, came to pass. Twice Torino came within an inch of metaphorically sending Ajax to the canvas and twice their celebrations were stopped in their tracks, the ball crashing against the woodwork to deny Roberto Mussi and Gianluca Sordo.

Had Sordo’s half-volley with 89 minutes gone not smacked against the bar, Torino’s recent history may have taken an altogether different course, one not involving the club lurching from one financial crisis to the other with impeccable regularity over the next two decades. Unfortunately for everyone of a Toro persuasion, the woodwork kept Mondonico’s band at arm’s length from glory.

Perversely, however, rather than being banished to a dark corner of the club’s psyche never to be spoken of again, the 1992 UEFA Cup final has become part of their folklore. Like a footballing Stockholm syndrome, the second leg against Ajax remains a pivotal moment in the club’s history, reminisced upon by those who witnessed it and discovered through grainy YouTube footage by the younger generations.

Read  |  The rage of Emiliano Mondonico’s unforgettable Torino highs

Partly it is because as a club Torino has for so long played David to the black and white Goliath across town that it has come to regard heroic shortcomings to be as important as success. Mostly, however, it is because the run that took the Granata to their first European final was an exhilarating cavalcade.

Technically, Torino’s UEFA Cup run began in Reykjavik eight months before the final, but the fuse had been lit over a year earlier in the boardroom, rather than on the pitch. Having been relegated at the end of the 1988/89 campaign, the Granata returned to the top flight at the first time of asking after topping the Serie B table under the tutelage of Eugenio Fascetti. 

Instead of preparing for life in Serie A, Fascetti was soon clearing his office as Torino’s notoriously capricious president Gian Mauro Borsano turned to Mondonico. A polarising figure in the free-for-all rodeo that was Italian football at the turn of the 1990s, Borsano’s dodgy dealings would make some of the rogue owners that have polluted English football look like choirboys.

His penchant for playing fast and loose with accountancy and financial regulations would ultimately lead to Torino’s demise within three years of the final against Ajax – by May 1996, the Dutch giants looked to win a second Champions League in a row, while the Granata had just been relegated. 

Borsano, meanwhile, would be jailed twice and face over ten counts of bankruptcy and money laundering. 

By the summer of 1990, however, the 44-year-old had grand plans for the club he had purchased only 12 months earlier and which he saw as the perfect vehicle to further his bulging political ambitions. Borsano became the protege of former Italian Prime Minister and leader of Italy’s Socialist Party Bettino Craxi – who also happened to be a Torino fan – and was elected as MP just weeks before the UEFA Cup final. The only aspect of Borsano and Craxi’s lives that moved faster than their meteoric rise was their sudden, swift and definite decline.

Away from the political corridors, Fascetti’s over-conservative style did not suit the profile of a man shooting for the stars like Borsano, who turned to one of the rising stars of calcio’s managerial landscape.

After taking Atalanta to the semifinal of the Cup Winners’ Cup while still in Serie B, before finishing sixth and seventh in his two Serie A campaigns, Mondonico arrived on the banks of the River Po with a growing reputation as a man whose teams were more than the sum of their parts.

His stock only grew as he led the Granata to a fifth-place finish in his inaugural season under the shadow of the Mole Antonelliana, ahead of defending champions Napoli and, far more importantly, Juventus, who were left out of European football for the first time in 39 years.

A temperamental maverick during his playing career, Mondonico showed a far more pragmatic side in the dugout. In an era when Serie A was dominated by tactical revolutionaries such as Arrigo Sacchi and Zdeněk Zeman, he stuck to a less dogmatic but no less efficient philosophy, which became defined as Pane e Salame.

Read  |  Remembering the misunderstood genius of Enzo Scifo

The monicker translates literally to “Bread and Salami”, which may seem an odd way to define a football philosophy until one realises both culinary items are staples of working-class cuisine in Northern Italy. “No frills” or “blue-collar” would be the English equivalent Mondonico’s approach.

While Il Mondo was happy to embrace the monicker’s workmanlike nature, it would be unjust to describe his 1-3-5-1 formation as route one football. The rugged approach of the defensive trio comprising Enrico Annoni, Roberto Policano and Pasquale Bruno was completed by the studious elegance of Cravero in his role as libero. Similarly, the industrious defensive midfield duo of Luca Fusi and Sordo was enriched by the grace of former Real Madrid star Rafael Martín Vázquez and Enzo Scifo, while Gianluigi Lentini’s impish young talent found the perfect foil in Walter Casagrande, a languid yet effective centre-forward. 

Financial equality may have not have been as much of a luxury in football three decades ago as it is now, but suggesting Torino were a rags-to-riches story would be wide of the mark. Bankrolled by Borsano, the Granata signed Scifo and Casagrande in the summer of 1991, who would have been statement signings had they been completed by an established Serie A side, let alone a club that had just returned to the top flight. 

Central to both signings was Luciano Moggi who, like Mondonico, had just returned to Turin for a second spell. Having spent five seasons as the club’s general manager in the early 1980s, Moggi resigned following criticism of his handling of a number of deals, but returned under the Alps with a growing reputation after spending four seasons along with Diego Maradona at Napoli.

Borsano’s finances and Moggi’s growing influence played their role on the pitch as much as they did off it, specifically in hotel rooms. Here, the call girls Moggi and his assistant Gigi Pavarese had procured met referees and linesmen ahead of at least two home fixtures Torino played during their UEFA Cup campaign – against Boavista and AEK Athens.

The arrangement only came to light in 1993, when Torino’s former accountant Giovanni Matta testified that the club had forked out 6.3 million lira to ensure officials for two games enjoyed their stay in Turin. The money, as Borsano himself would confirm later, came from a secret account that was used to finance a series of illicit practices, such as off-the-record payments to players and agents.

Moggi was charged with soliciting prostitution but never convicted and it must be noted his illicit activities shouldn’t detract from Mondonico’s achievements on the pitch – the latter never liked the former and made his feelings clear after they had both left the club. 

Less connected men than Moggi would have had their reputation tarnished beyond repair and their career ended, but the former railway worker instead went on to dominate the corridors of Italian football for the next 15 years as Juventus general manager. Eventually, his penchant for considering himself above the law caught up with him in the Calciopoli scandal that brought Italian football to its knees in 2006.

No favours, however, were required in the first round as Torino kicked off their European campaign with a competent 2-0 victory against KR Reykjavik in the Icelandic capital, courtesy of goals from Mussi and Annoni. With qualification to the second round all but secured, the first European night at the brand new Stadio delle Alpi amounted to little more than a training session, as the Granata routed their opponents 6-1.

Serie A heavyweights Parma and Inter were absent from the urn for the second round draw, which pitted Torino against Boavista, who had just accounted for the Nerazzurri. Goals from Lentini and Annoni gave Toro a solid advantage to take to Portugal, where an explosive environment repeatedly threatened to escalate into something far more serious. 

Read  |  The unfulfilled career of Gianluigi Lentini, once the world’s most expensive player

Goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani was bombarded with missiles by the Boavista fans, who showered him with coins, lighters and even a small transistor radio. Meanwhile, Borsano had to appeal for calm over the stadium tannoy as the away fans got involved in skirmishes with the local police, before Lentini got himself sent off. 

Mondonico’s men, however, played the role of firefighters to perfection, earning a stalemate draw and qualification to the round of 16. Despite Lentini’s absence, goals from Bresciani and Casagrande secured a draw in Athens against AEK, before a solitary goal from the Brazilian in the second punched a ticket to the last eight.

One of two Serie A representatives along with Genoa in a draw that also featured bonafide European heavyweights like Liverpool, Real Madrid and Ajax – then a genuine contender, as opposed to a brilliant aberration like last season – the cookie crumbled favourably for the Granata, who were pitted against Boldklubben 1903.

The Danish had shellacked the mighty Bayern Munich 6-2 in the second round, but goals from Casagrande and Policano in Copenhagen effectively put the tie to bed after 90 minutes and an own goal in the second leg secured Toro’s place in a first continental semifinal in 27 years.

With the river of relatively benign draws now running dry, Real Madrid stood between Torino and a maiden European final. 

The advent of modern football has stripped some of the sport’s great venues of their cavernous, visceral feeling and transformed them into gigantic theme parks that play stage to football games. The Santiago Bernabéu hasn’t escaped such fate, but at the beginning of April 1992 it was still a raucous cauldron, where the fans’ priority was to intimidate and unsettle their opponents as opposed to demand entertainment in between selfies.

The ground reserved its most hostile for one of its former idols: Vázquez. A former member of La Quinta del Buitre – the five youth products who developed into pillars of the Real side that won five LaLiga titles in a row between 1986 and 1990 – the midfielder was left in doubt he was persona non grata rather than prodigal son as he returned to Madrid two years after leaving for Turin.

If the visitors were fazed by the atmosphere, they didn’t show it. Their all-maroon kit looking like a curious blot on the all-white copybook of the Bernabéu, the Granata even dared taking the lead as Casagrande pounced on a howler by Real goalkeeper Paco Buyo to prod home from a couple of yards arguably the easiest goal of his career.

Style points, understandably, were not at the forefront of the aways fans nestled in the upper tier of the Bernabéu, who greeted the opener after 58 minutes with delirious abandon.

The joy was fleeting as, within five minutes, Real found themselves 2-1 ahead courtesy of goals from Gheorghe Hagi and Fernando Hierro. However, despite being in the land of bullfighting, Toro had no intention of becoming Real’s sacrificial victim and escaped Madrid with a crucial away goal, despite Policano’s customary red card.

Order  |  Calcio II

Two weeks later, it was the Delle Alpi’s turn to resemble a gloriously raucous football arena, not words who anyone who had the misfortune of visiting the soulless concrete bowl that stood on the edge of Turin would have ever uttered with any conviction. For one special night, however, the much-maligned stadium stepped up to the occasion in style. Draped in maroon flags as far as the eyes could see, it crackled with anticipation and within seven minutes the fuse was lit. 

Lentini found himself in space and delivered a cross aimed for Casagrande. With the Brazilian lurking with intent in the box, Real defender Ricardo Rocha launched himself into a desperate lunge to clear the ball, but only succeeded in deflecting it beyond Buyo.

Defending a lead for 83 minutes in a European semi-final against a side of Real’s calibre requires belief and intelligence. Luckily for Torino, Mondonico had both and delivered a tactical masterclass. Bruno and Annoni neutralised Emilio Butragueño, while Fusi and Giorgio Venturin tackled and harassed Real’s midfielders like men possessed and ran themselves to a standstill. Up top, Lentini and Casagrande took it upon themselves to unsettle Real’s defence.

The 64,000 in the stands, meanwhile, shouted themselves hoarse and wishing the minutes away, as Torino’s lead looked increasingly fragile in the second half. 

Soon after, Scifo and Vázquez exchanged passes to feed Lentini, who took on Chendo and motored past him before squaring the ball back across the six-yard box. The ball evaded a host of players before Fusi, in a rare offensive foray, slotted it past Buyo to spark maroon-tinged pandemonium.

A fortnight on from the exploits against Real Madrid, Torino welcomed Van Gaal’s young Ajax team packed with Dutch internationals, including Dennis Bergkamp, Bryan Roy, Aron Winter and Frank de Boer, who had come through the club’s fabled academy and were aged between 22 and 25.

As was his wont then and throughout his career, Van Gaal’s fired the verbal opening salvo, describing the final as a contest between Total Football and Catenaccio. As the first leg proved, it turned out to be anything but.

Their limbs frozen stiffs by stage freight, Torino were given a rude awakening as Wim Jonk’s long-range effort found its way past Luca Marchegiani, before Casagrande levelled the score halfway through the second half with a poacher’s finish. The hosts’ relief was short-lived, as a defensive mistake gifted Ajax a penalty, which Stefan Pettersson duly converted.

With Torino staring down the proverbial barrel, there was still time for Casagrande to score his sixth European goal of the season, as he mesmerised Ajax’s captain Danny Blind before slotting the ball past Stanley Menzo with less than ten minutes left.

Without the suspended Bruno and Annoni, but with Policano and Fusi back in the side, the Granata convened for a date with destiny at Amsterdam’s creaking Olympisch Stadion. Hope quickly gave way to frustration as Casagrande rattled the post and Cravero went down in the box. Mondonico’s rage turned into sheer incredulity as Mussi’s shot ricocheted off the post and then Sordo’s half-volley with time running out thundered against the bar.

By the time those feelings evaporated, all that was left was acceptance. Torino, as Cravero said, were cursed. 

By Dan Cancian @dan_cancian

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