The story of Inter vs Sampdoria, one of Serie A’s greatest games

The story of Inter vs Sampdoria, one of Serie A’s greatest games

It’s been 30 years since Sampdoria lifted the Scudetto. Where has the time gone? As part of the celebrations, These Football Times and Cult Kits have joined forces for a weekend of fun, with features, a podcast, giveaways and more all online.

Even if you don’t remember Sampdoria’s extraordinary – and I don’t use the adjective lightly – victory over Inter on 4 May 1991, you’ll be familiar with many of the game’s key components.

Firstly, the stadium. Brutal, beautiful San Siro. The concrete monolith which, less than a year previous, had been the setting for the start of Italia 90 and that game between Argentina and Cameroon.

Second, Gianluca Vialli. The striker who had endured a miserable World Cup (no goals, one missed penalty) but had, over the course of the season that followed, rediscovered the potent brilliance that had made him one of Serie A’s most lethal attackers.

Next, giant goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca. At just 24, Samp’s number one was still a relative rookie but was fast establishing himself as one of his country’s best stoppers.

And finally, the Germans. Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme. Inter’s Deutsche trinity. The beating heart of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Nerazzurri.

The fixture came towards the end of a pulsating season, one which had been lit up by the relative minnows from Genoa, who, despite being significantly outspent by many of the other perennial title challengers, had led Serie A for most of the 1990/91 campaign.

But before we dive into that, some context.

Thirty years ago, as is oft recounted, there was no finer league in world football than Serie A. Italian football was otherworldly, a glamourous cocktail of global superstars, huge stadia and eccentric owners. It was football’s Hollywood. And virtually all of the best players were there. 

Inter had their German galácticos, Milan had the Dutch equivalent in Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. Juventus had Roberto Baggio. Napoli had Diego Maradona.

Of the ten outfield players selected for the 1990 World Cup team of the tournament, only Dragan Stojković, Paul Gascoigne and Roger Milla didn’t play for one of Sampdoria’s rivals.

That’s not to say the Blucerchiati were a team without talent. Far from it. Vialli and Roberto Mancini were as fine a front two as any other in the division. Attilio Lombardo (whose hair was already giving up even though he was only in his mid-20s) brought pace, strength and stamina. Defender Pietro Vierchowod, who would go on to make 562 Serie A appearances before retiring aged 41, added experience and no little class. And in goal, youth team product Pagliuca was already considered one of the best in the world (and who would concede just 24 times that season).

But despite their obvious quality, Samp’s much-travelled Serb manager Vujadin Boškov was operating with a lean squad and a modest budget.

And yet – and yet – as April gave way to May, Samp were still sitting top of Serie A, in glorious defiance of a) the odds and B) their esteemed rivals. The team that had never finished higher than fourth were in serious contention of winning their first-ever Scudetto.

But as close as they were to the title, the grandmasters of Internazionale stood in their way.

Ahead of the week 31 fixtures, Samp were three points ahead of Inter with four games to play. With two points for a win, only a home victory was enough to keep Inter’s title hopes alive.

And Trapattoni’s players certainly understood the mathematical equation. Inter, who had not lost at home to a team other than their city rivals for three years, swarmed all over Samp in the opening exchanges – a narrative that would underpin much of one of the most dramatic, adrenaline-fuelled afternoons Italian football has ever witnessed.

Had Gazzetta Football Italia been broadcasting back then, James Richardson would have needed to devote an entire episode to what would play out at San Siro that day.

Inter pounded Sampdoria’s goal (24 shots to Samp’s six, 13 corners to the visitors’ one). Pagliuca made 14 saves alone – many of which were genuinely breath-taking. There were red cards for Mancini and Inter’s Giuseppe Bergomi, the pair sent off for what looked like little more than playground pushing and shoving. Both men walked off together in a daze, discussing the absurdity of their dismissal. 

As half time approached, it looked as though Klinsmann had given Inter a deserved lead – only for the goal to be ruled out for offside. It was a ridiculous, inexplicable decision but one which was strangely befitting of the occasion. 

Chances – so many chances – came and went in a cauldron of feral intensity that seemed completely at odds with the cold and clinical Serie A we knew and respected. It was chaos. 

Trapattoni – aged just 52 but looking like an elderly Milanese detective tempted out of retirement to crack one last case – gazed on in bewilderment. His team had done everything but score. Samp could barely get out of their own half. 

Alessandro Bianchi somehow missed an open goal. Aldo Serena’s thumping volley was punched away by Pagliuca. The pressure was relentless. It was incessant, a siege.

And then … a misplaced Matthäus pass falls to Vialli, who collects the ball and runs at Massimo Paganin. Inter regroup and the opportunity seems to have faded. But Vialli knows what he’s doing. He cuts back inside, waiting for 33-year-old midfielder Giuseppe Dossena who runs on to his teammate’s perfectly weighted pass and bang! Samp’s first attack of the second half and, incredibly, they’re ahead. 

Inter are stunned. Samp can barely believe it either. 

But still the hosts swarm forward. Nicola Berti is body checked inside the box. Penalty! But the usually unflappable Matthäus’s spot-kick is saved and the rebound scrambled away. None of this – not one bit – makes any sense. 

On a rare counter-attack, Lombardo breaks free of the last man before rounding Walter Zenga … and rolling the ball against the post. He collects the rebound and finds Vialli whose shot is somehow cleared off the line. A sell-out San Siro can’t take much more.

Inter attack. The crowd urge – no, demand – them to score. But Pagliuca is having the game of his life. It’s his magnum opus. He won’t be beaten. Not today. 

With 15 minutes remaining, the unthinkable happens: Samp score again. Inter have thrown everything at their title rivals. But Boškov’s team – as they have done so often this season – turn water into wine and double their advantage. Vialli, that magnificent man of redemption, shrugs off Riccardo Ferri, surges past Zenga, and, after what seems like a lifetime, lashes the ball into the net – and they’re home and hosed. The title is surely theirs (spoiler alert – it is theirs). 

As the clock ticked towards 90 minutes and as Inter continued in vain to find the net, sections of the home fans began tearing out seats and hurling flares on the pitch, despite the pleading protestations of Klinsmann, Matthäus and co. It was all too much for them. 

When the final whistle blew, Vialli, Pagliuca and co danced on the pitch. They knew it now: Samp were there. Well, pretty much. Three points were required from their final three games. A point at Torino and a 3-0 victory over Lecce on 19 May followed and the impossible, implausible dream had been made reality. 

You probably know what happened next. A European Cup final defeat to Barcelona at Wembley a year later, followed shortly after by the departure of manager Boškov, Vialli and Pagliuca, and then a gradual fall from grace that saw the Genoese relegated before the millennium was out. 

But nothing that came after could take away from the drama and glory of a ridiculous spring afternoon at the Giuseppe Meazza. A match – and a season – that defied the odds and logic.

By Josh Warwick @Joshy_No4

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