Vujadin Boškov: the mastermind behind Sampdoria’s iconic Scudetto

Vujadin Boškov: the mastermind behind Sampdoria’s iconic Scudetto

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.

Football in the form of wood. A pliable material that can both conform to the textbook and be manipulated into esoteric shapes. Vujadin Boškov was the son of a carpenter, and he arguably took some of his father’s skills into his coaching career. Crafting his teams in both his image and to fit within their environment, he made the leap from playing to coaching with consummate ease. 

A vital component in Yugoslavia’s 1954 and 1958 World Cup squads and a silver medallist at the 1952 Olympics, Boškov was a mainstay of the FK Vojvodina team for well over a decade, forsaking the interest of the giants of Belgrade, Zagreb and Split to remain loyal to the club that had given him his route into football. 

Winger, midfielder and occasional defender, Boškov was happy to fill whatever role Vojvodina needed him to, only to miss out on major honours. A Yugoslav Cup final lost in 1951, a defeat in the 1957 Mitropa Cup final, and a near-miss on the Yugoslav First League in 1958/59, at the age of 30 his loyalty was repaid when the club paved the way for a transfer to Sampdoria. 

It was to be a brief but illuminating stay at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris for Boškov, as he readily accepted his first managerial role a year later in the Swiss Regionalliga A with Young Fellows Zürich. A turbulent baptism, his first season in charge ended in relegation, and after failing to lead them to an immediate return to the top-flight, he was happy to return to Vojvodina to take up the position of technical director, overseeing a league title success that was denied him with the club as a player. 

Renowned for his intellect, keen to absorb his varying surroundings, Boškov’s travels had resulted in him picking up new languages, which served him well after becoming part of the Yugoslavia national team’s coaching setup, initially on a part-time basis, before rising to head-coach in 1971, upon which he relinquished his duties with Vojvodina. 

Despite putting Yugoslavia within touching distance of qualifying for the 1974 World Cup, Boškov was replaced with one game to go by a five-man committee. It was a decision that almost backfired on the Football Association of Yugoslavia, as they came to within seconds of elimination before snatching an injury-time goal in Athens against Greece that won them the reprieve of a playoff with Spain, a game they would go on to prevail in. 

Boškov’s next move took him to the Eredivisie and into the employment of Den Haag, where he mixed league inconsistencies with a surprise glory in the 1975 KNVB Cup final, defeating a talented Twente. This was followed up by being narrowly edged out of the Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final in 1975/76. 

This attracted the attention of Feyenoord, but after two years of toil, Boškov moved on, this time heading to Spain and into the welcoming arms of Real Zaragoza, where he first crossed paths with midfielder Víctor Muñoz, a player he would take to Sampdoria a decade later. It was at La Romareda that Boškov also influenced the future coaching philosophies of Radomir Antić. 

A wild season with Zaragoza, while anything seemed possible on home soil, on the road it was an entirely different matter for Boškov’s side as they navigated the entire campaign without an away win in the league. This was offset by victories on home territory against Real Madrid, Atlético, Athletic, Real Sociedad, Valencia and Sevilla. They even put eight past Espanyol. 

Attractive and free-scoring, if somewhat self-destructive, Boškov’s Zaragoza avoided the relegation zone by just two points, impeded by a leaky defence that was only eclipsed by the teams that finished bottom. Conversely, only Real Madrid and Barcelona outscored them. 

Despite the mood swings of his Zaragoza side, Real had seen enough potency in those La Romareda days to offer Boškov the opportunity to succeed Luis Molowny at the Santiago Bernabéu for the 1979/80 season. 

Handed the wonderfully talented Laurie Cunningham, Boškov was able to ally him to local legend Santillana and the steadily improving Juanito in an attack-minded front-three. With the measured Uli Stielike prompting from midfield, it was surprising that Los Blancos were made to sweat on LaLiga title success, eventually handed the advantage with just one game left to play during a desperately close two-horse race with the fast-developing threat of Sociedad. 

A season of fine margins, while the title was narrowly won, Real had carelessly fumbled a place in the 1980 European Cup final, capitulating in the second leg of the semi-final against Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg. To exacerbate the disappointment, the final was being held at the Bernabéu. 

To at least partially cushion the blow, Boškov and Real closed out the domestic double when soundly defeating their reserve side, Castilla, in the Copa del Rey final. 

Twelve months later, the opposite applied. Real missed out on the title on the head-to-head rule to Sociedad via Zamora’s iconic last gasp goal at a rain-swept El Molinón against Gijón. Yet, they did go one step better in the European Cup, overcoming Inter in the semi-final. At the Parc des Princes, however, they lost out to Bob Paisley’s Liverpool in a game that didn’t live up to its billing. 

Between Real becoming European champions in 1966 and 1998, this was the only time the club reached the continent’s most elevated stage. Despite this, and within a fit of pique, the hierarchy had dispensed with the services of Boškov at end of March 1982, not long after his team had been torn apart by Kaiserslautern in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. A damaging league defeat at Las Palmas was the last straw, a result that left the league difficult, but not impossible, to win, while Copa del Rey success was still very much a possibility. 

Cast aside by Real Madrid, Boškov remained in LaLiga for another two years, taking over at Gijón, where he honed the art of pragmatism. While his Zaragoza and Real Madrid sides had not been shy to attack, at Gijón the approach was much more measured, building his team around what was at times a stubborn six-man defence.

An eighth-placed finish and a run to the Copa del Rey semi-finals was a good return for the 1982/83 season, beaten in the last four by his previous employers, but not without threatening an unlikely second leg fightback after being overwhelmed at the Bernabéu. 

For the following campaign, Boškov attempted to add a little extra imagination to the Gijón attack, luring Cunningham from Madrid. Well-positioned to challenge for UEFA Cup qualification and having secured a place in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey, all looked promising at the beginning of March, until they hit an inexplicable wall, fading away quite compellingly. 

Perhaps feeling that he had taken Gijón as far as he could, there was a parting of the ways in the summer of 1984. After an almost four-decade attachment to football in one capacity or another, Boškov was suddenly on the outside looking in. By November, this unexpected sabbatical was over, however. 

It was Boškov’s modest work at Gijón, rather than his days of expansive football with Real Madrid, that attracted the interest of Ascoli, with the little team from the historic and picturesque town of the same name swooping for his visionary talents, before anyone else had the same idea. The offer of a move to Serie A was impossible to refuse. 

Ascoli had made a poor start to the 1984/85 season, and when Carlo Mazzone was shown the door, Boškov was hired under the auspices of technical director to work alongside Mario Colautti. While it took until February, and their 11th attempt, before they procured a first victory – ironically against Sampdoria – the new regime had very quickly made Ascoli harder to beat. 

Despite waiting so long for a first win, Boškov and Colautti had held Roma, Juventus, Inter and Torino to draws, and fallen only to a late winner against Milan. Handed an easier set of fixtures as an introduction to Serie A, Ascoli could have risen quickly. 

To validate this theory, the victory against Sampdoria instigated a seven-game unbeaten run comprising three wins and four draws. As part of this upturn in results, Ascoli took a point from Michael Laudrup and Lazio, beat the Daniel Passarella-powered Fiorentina, and came to within a late Diego Maradona equaliser of a win at Napoli. The main source of inspiration for Boškov’s attempted rescue mission was Brazil international, Dirceu. 

Hope sprang eternal at the Stadio Cino e Lillo Del Duca, but in a 16-team Serie A the toughest fixtures imaginable were always waiting just around the corner. Roma, Juventus, Milan and Inter contributed to a perilous last six games, as did relegation rivals Udinese, who could boast the services of Zico at number 10.

Outclassed at the Stadio Olimpico by Roma, Ascoli then took a precious point at home to Juventus, before a critical and narrow defeat when Udinese visited. Boškov and his players responded to this blow by taking a spirited fight to the San Siro against Milan. Again, they were unlucky to come away without reward, but on the penultimate weekend, an entertaining win was picked off Cremonese, which gave Ascoli a faint but lingering hope of a miracle. 

Unfortunately, to have any chance of avoiding the drop into Serie B, Ascoli’s task was to return to the San Siro to beat Inter, while also relying upon a competitive game being played out by Milan at Como, on an afternoon when a mutually beneficial draw would result in the Rossoneri securing UEFA Cup qualification and Como avoiding relegation. 

While Ascoli threw caution to the wind at the San Siro, crashing to a 5-1 defeat, Como and Milan painfully shuddered their way to an uninspiring yet fruitful goalless stalemate. 

For Boškov, there was a choice to be made. While having marginally failed in his bid to keep Ascoli in Serie A, he had impressed many observers in his attempts, and alternative options wouldn’t have been in short supply. Yet, he opted to stick with the club, throwing all his focus into an immediate return from Serie B. Colautti did depart, however, replaced by Aldo Sensibile, a former Ascoli assistant coach who would team up again with Boškov a decade later at Napoli. 

In a competitive and turbulent 1985/86 season, Ascoli fended off the challenge of Brescia and Vicenza to claim not just a swift return to Serie A, but also the Serie B title. A landscape ravaged by the repercussions of a second Totonero scandal, third-placed Vicenza were barred from entry to the 1986/87 Serie A, while amongst other sanctions, mid-table Lazio only avoided being demoted to Serie C1 on appeal, Perugia were demoted to Serie C2 and Palermo effectively went bankrupt. 

Fuelled by the goals of Massimo Barbuti, who Boškov recruited from Parma, Giuseppe Incocciati, on loan from Milan, and another former Rossoneri graduate, Francesco Vincenzi, Ascoli were both clean in the execution of their campaign, totally dominant in doing so in what was a Serie B littered with fallen giants including Genoa, Bologna, Lazio, and Cagliari.

In the summer of 1986, having delivered Ascoli back to Serie A, Boškov was in no position to decline the offer of Sampdoria to succeed Eugenio Bersellini, the man who in his second spell at the Marassi had ledBlucerchiati to their first major honour via glory in the 1985 Coppa Italia final.

For a former Inter coach, it would have been an especially sweet success for Bersellini, yet it still didn’t stop him embracing a fresh challenge with Fiorentina for the 1986/87 season. 

In many respects, the achievements of Bersellini had made Boškov’s task both a free swing and a seemingly impossible mission. Fail and he would be readily picked up by another lower-ranked Serie A club, or by one of those fallen giants of Serie B; succeed and he would be leading Sampdoria to something special, as he was arriving just as they had enjoyed the greatest era in their history to date. 

In July 1979, Sampdoria had been purchased by the oil entrepreneur, Paolo Mantovani. Roman by birth but an adopted son of the city of Genoa, it was with the team that shares the name of the city that he first hoped to make an impression. 

A Lazio supporter as a youngster, when in search of a football fix, it was to Sampdoria’s great rivals that Mantovani was first attracted. In 1964, he even subscribed to the club for two years, pledging his money through the turnstiles, along with thousands of others, in a deal with the club president, Giacomo Berrino, that would ensure he would not cash in on their star player, the gifted yet tragic Gigi Meroni. 

When escalating debts led to Berrino going back on his promise, Mantovani withdrew his interest in i Rossoblù, and by 1973 he was juggling the role of managing his growing oil business with that of his position as Sampdoria’s press secretary. In the right place at the right time to make a mountain of money from the 1979 Oil Crisis, he gained ownership of the club in the same year, and so began a footballing revolution that would take Sampdoria to the Scudetto and a European Cup final beyond it.

As president, Mantovani was in a class of his own. With ill-health meaning he had to step back from either his business dealings or football, it was oil that he waved goodbye to. Building a familial environment at Sampdoria, everything was grounded in loyalty, and from dedicating the vast majority of his playing days to Vojvodina to refusing to cut-and-run on Ascoli, Boškov fitted the theme perfectly. 

Mantovani and Boškov were the ideal match for one another, and their six-year union was to be a magical one. Already blessed by a system that combined well-judged foreign signings with astutely recruited domestic talent, when he arrived in order to take the club into the 1986/87 campaign, Boškov inherited many of the components that would be transferable to his 1990/91 title-winning team. 

World Cup winner Pietro Vierchowod was the cornerstone of both the defence that Boškov inherited and the team that went on to conquer Serie A, playing alongside club captain Luca Pellegrini, while Moreno Mannini occupied right-back. Injury would keep Pellegrini out of action for over four months during the title-winning campaign, before returning for the run-in, yet all three provided the foundations for Boškov’s iconic 1990/91 success.

To Vierchowod, Pellegrini and Mannini, Boškov would add the teenage talents of Marco Lanna, who climbed through the youth ranks to replace not only the retiring West Germany international Hans-Peter Briegel, but also the excellent Amedeo Carboni, rising to a position of great prominence by 1990/91, primarily at left-back, but also in deputising centrally for Pellegrini.

Eventually, during the 1988/89 season, this solid defensive unit was under the watchful goalkeeping eye of Gianluca Pagliuca, snared as a teenager from his hometown team, Bologna. 

In midfield, Boškov was blessed to be gifted the deep-lying presence of Fausto Pari, a player who could also cover both full-back positions. Within weeks of the new manager’s arrival, Pari had been paired up with Toninho Cerezo, the wonderful Brazil international who was coaxed to the Marassi from Roma. 

Over the course of the next three years, Boškov focused on perfecting the chemistry of his midfield, as Luca Fusi was brought in from Como, moulded into a player of international standing, then moved on to Napoli, while the understated but influential Fausto Salsano was allowed to depart for Roma as part of a double sale with Carboni, eventually returning to the club in 1993. Another to be sold in the summer of 1990 was Spain international Muñoz, who had played under Boškov at Zaragoza.  

Bold in the reshuffling of his midfield, the signing of veteran playmaker Giuseppe Dossena from Udinese, a year after being deemed surplus to requirements at Torino, was an intelligent twist, while Giovanni Invernizzi gradually grew in importance after he arrived from Como. Added to this, the purchases of the Yugoslav international Srečko Katanec from VfB Stuttgart and the emblematic Attilio Lombardo from Cremonese were inspired. 

It all combined to make the Sampdoria midfield one that balanced a hard work ethic, with determined skill rather than the whimsical flair of other Serie A teams. There was also flexibility, as Katanec could drop into defence when required and Lombardo, dangerous on the wing, could play in central midfield too, as well as push up as a second-striker whenever Roberto Mancini wasn’t available. It meant that the inconsistency of Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko and Ivano Bonetti could be absorbed. 

The composition of Boškov’s midfield facilitated a formation that loaded the flair at the front, with Mancini and Gianluca Vialli forming the deadliest partnership in Serie A. So potent were they that the raw talent of a young Enrico Chiesa was farmed out on loan to Teramo, while Maurizio Ganz would have to leave the club to make his name elsewhere. Meanwhile, the marvellously artistic Marco Branca was restricted to a cameo role. 

Season upon season, Boškov’s Sampdoria improved. From a near-miss on UEFA Cup qualification in 1987 to back-to-back Coppa Italia successes in 1988 and 1989, the latter combined to a Cup Winners’ Cup final defeat to Barcelona, before returning 12 months later, where they beat Anderlecht. By the time the 1990/91 season drew into view, Mantovani was convinced that Boškov had created a team that could win lo Scudetto. 

In a bid to prove their president correct, Boškov’s players went unbeaten until late-November, picking up standout victories, 1-0 at the San Siro, against Arrigo Sacchi’s iconic Milan, and stunningly, 4-1 at the San Paolo against the reigning champions, Napoli. Sampdoria then bounced into the first Derby della Lanterna of the season and promptly lost 2-1. 

This is where the wheels could easily have come off – and they certainly wobbled. UEFA Super Cup lost to Milan, the defeat to Genoa set in motion a seven-game Serie A run where Boškov’s team claimed just one win. Having topped the table from the early weeks, Sampdoria yielded the lead to Inter in mid-December. 

Yet, the one solitary win within that poor winter run was a crucial one at home to i Nerazzurri in their last game of 1990. Top-spot was seized once again by Boškov’s men, but a mid-January loss at Lecce saw them usurped by Sacchi’s seasoned campaigners, inevitably leading to suggestions that Sampdoria would begin to fade from the title chase. 

However, despite dropping down to fourth, unbeknownst to anybody, with this shock loss to Lecce Sampdoria had tasted Serie A defeat for the last time that season. A week later, they ground out a 1-1 draw at home to Lazio, while Milan lost at Roma. In this wonderful game of footballing leapfrog, Inter went back to the summit, and the top five teams were separated at the halfway point of the campaign by just two points, with Juventus and Parma also keeping pace. 

Three days after the draw against Lazio, Sampdoria’s run to glory began in earnest at home to Roma, the replaying of a game that was abandoned amid a torrential downpour in early December. A nervous 2-1 victory, it was followed by a scrappy 1-0 win at Cesena that put Boškov’s team to within a point of Inter and level with a resurgent Juventus, Branca with the only goal of the game. 

Branca was the hero again a week later, scorer of a late winner at home to Fiorentina on an afternoon when Inter were restricted to a draw at Bologna. With Milan also rediscovering their mojo, Boškov was locked within a magnificent strategic battle with not only Sacchi, but also Giovanni Trapattoni, two rivals who had seen it all within Serie A. 

Keeping pace with a comfortable victory at Bologna, when Sampdoria then welcomed Juventus to the Marassi in mid-February, it was a pivotal moment. In a keenly contested duel, Vialli decided the outcome with an early second-half penalty. With Inter held to a draw at Roma, it was a result that took Boškov’s team back to the top of the table. 

It was with a growing sense of collective determination that Mancini then plundered an injury-time winner against Parma. It was a win that removed their opponents as a title contender on a profitable day when both Milan and Juventus failed to win. 

At the beginning of March, Sampdoria dropped a point away to Atalanta with Claudio Caniggia grabbing the equaliser. It was a result that offered Inter an invitation to reclaim top spot, and they accepted it with a narrow win at Pisa. Meanwhile, Milan applied pressure with the demolition of the ailing Napoli.  

Seven days later, Sampdoria went up against Milan at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. In a true test of nerve, it was the home team who dominated the first half, without obtaining the reward of the goal their play deserved. 

It would have been so easy for Sampdoria to crumble from this stage within the spotlight of facing Sacchi’s Milan maestros. When Boškov’s side had won at the San Siro five months earlier, it was a victory gained during the still early exchanges of the campaign, and as joyously as it was embraced, it was a win obtained with little pressure on them. By the time Sampdoria faced Milan again in March, it was a game that represented a fork in the road. Failure would have been costly – enough to derail a title chase.  

Five minutes into the second half, Vialli struck from the penalty spot, and despite Milan making it a closer contest for the remainder of the game, even having a Ruud Gullit effort disallowed, it was Mancini who settled the contest with a second Sampdoria goal 20 minutes from the end.  

A result that put a three-point gap between Sampdoria and Milan, this was a pivotal moment, despite Inter remaining top, thanks to their own crucial victory over Juventus. For Boškov’s team to prevail against Milan when the pressure was on was a huge boost to their chances of winning a first Scudetto. 

Sampdoria then followed this up with a 3-0 victory at Pisa, which wasn’t as simple as the scoreline suggests, as the relegation-bound home side kept the title-chasing visitors at bay until the last 25 minutes. With Inter held to a draw by Parma, coupled with a shock loss for Milan at home to Atalanta, it meant Boškov’s team returned to the top of the table. With two months remaining, it now seemed to be a two-horse race.

With nine games to play, fate seemed to be beckoning Sampdoria as, a week later, while they were dismantling the self-destructing Napoli, it was Sacchi’s team who were narrowly winning the Derby della Madonnina against Trapattoni’s labouring Inter. A turn of events that handed Boškov’s team a three-point advantage in what was still the two points for a win era, it was a significant cushion. Sampdoria then headed into the second Genoese derby of the campaign. 

This is where the nerves kicked in for Sampdoria; on consecutive weekends at the Marassi, they were held to draws, first by Genoa and then by Cagliari. While the first might have been viewed as a point gained, the second was very much a point dropped, as the relegation-threatened Sardinian club clawed back from 2-0 down to snatch a valuable draw thanks to a late Daniel Fonseca brace. 

While Inter closed the gap on Sampdoria by a point, it was Milan who made the most of this stumble, winning both their games, condensing the top three to a three-point swing with just six games to play. 

Added to this, Boškov and his players had the more foreboding looking run-in, with four of their six away from home, inclusive of a huge task at the San Siro against Inter, and two trips to Rome’s Olimpico. With Sacchi and Trapattoni possessing all the Scudetto-winning experience, while Sampdoria had the narrow points advantage, it was their Milanese rivals who hogged all the know-how. If there was to be a stage where Sampdoria were to crack, this was surely to be it. 

A season of great cup exploits offset by league inconsistencies, Roma had lost just one of their previous 11 Serie A fixtures when Sampdoria came to visit in mid-April. Conversely, they had also won only one of their last six, though. Vierchowod proved to be the unlikely hero, scoring the only goal of the game. Toe-to-toe, Inter and Milan picked off victories of their own, and with five left to play, the points gap went unaltered.

Their first Roman test passed by Sampdoria with flying colours, now it was Milan’s turn to face i Giallorossi, albeit at the San Siro. Sacchi’s side were fortunate to take a point, reliant upon an injury-time equaliser, from Massimo Agostini, while Inter failed to break their goalless deadlock at Fiorentina. Meanwhile, at the Marassi, Boškov breathed a sigh of relief as his team closed out an entertaining but nervous 3-2 win against Bari.  

Three points clear of Inter and four ahead of Milan with four games to play, the beginning of May brought a Sunday afternoon of reckoning. As Milan were impressively sweeping to victory at the Stadio delle Alpi against Juventus, Sampdoria were at the San Siro in a battle of the top two, safe in the knowledge that should they lose to Inter, the worst-case scenario would be that they still topped the table with only three games remaining. 

A wonderfully passionate encounter that upon occasion erupted into naked fury, Pagliuca had to be at his absolute best to fend off the advances of Jürgen Klinsmann when making a string of fine saves, benefitting from a disallowed goal in a first half that ended with an altercation between Mancini and Giuseppe Bergomi that resulted in both being sent off.

With the second half picking up where the first had left off, it was largely a rear-guard action for Sampdoria in front of a sizeable travelling contingent of support. Pagliuca continued to pull off save after save, confounding a disbelieving Inter attack, until Dossena snatched a precious goal on the hour. It was completely against the run of play.

Incensed, Inter poured forward in search of goals, yet Pagliuca was in defiant form, blocking everything that was thrown at him, inclusive of a Lothar Matthäus penalty. On the break, Vialli settled the issue with a second Sampdoria goal. 

A truly incredible game of football that provoked disturbances in the San Siro stands, Pagliuca was even struck by a projectile as frustration got the better of some Inter supporters. A 2-0 win for Sampdoria, a week later Inter were out of the race when Genoa turned them over at the Marassi on an afternoon when Milan were at their destructive best at home to Bologna, and Boškov’s side were content to accept a point away to Torino. 

With two to play, Sampdoria needed just two points to be assured of the title. They collected them at home to Lecce in a 3-0 victory that was wrapped up within the opening half-hour in front of an expectant crowd who had come in celebratory mood, a visual pageant on display, a congregation prepared to experience the greatest day in their history. 

Boškov’s men were imperious as they swept home three beautiful goals, the first, quite fittingly from the veteran Cerezo, before Mannini caught one on the volley and Vialli celebrated rifling in the third by performing a cartwheel. Cruising through the remainder of the game, Sampdoria could have scored twice as many goals, but the party was in full flow. Upon the final whistle, the scene became a delirious one. 

Unassailable with one game to spare, this was the richest reward of Boškov’s career, from where he and his team closed out their title-winning campaign with an almost exhibition 3-3 draw away to Lazio, a game that they had trailed 2-0 and led 3-2. 

Cast in iconography, Boškov and Sampdoria’s success marked the end of an incredible era, a seventh different Serie A champion within a nine-season span. In comparison, during the 30 years since i Blucerchiati’s Scudetto, only twice has the title eluded the clutches of Juventus, Inter or Milan, the last of those now residing 20 years ago.  

That season represented the pinnacle of Boškov’s incredible union with Sampdoria, a peak the club has never since been able to return to, and perhaps never will, but one which stands the test of time as one of the most enduring and popular Serie A successes. It was ultimately a glory that marked a line in the sand, not only for Sampdoria but for the wider environment of Italian football too. Football has arguably never been the same since.   

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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