The roots of this I cannot be certain, but early into my following of Calcio in the early 90s, I developed a fascination with German striker Oliver Bierhoff.
Not your Euro 96 winning goal scorer or even the 1998 Serie A top scorer Bierhoff, but the early 90s version who played for Ascoli.
It was more the idea of him. This young man foreign to Italy, a straniero, travelling the peninsula, learning the language and getting to know the sights and sounds of il bel paese and manfully trying to work his way to the top in Serie A.
As a keen young player who loved all things Italian football, perhaps it was the career trajectory that I wanted for myself.
I remember when having a kick about, I would sometimes pretend to be Bierhoff. My younger brother would step into the role of teammate Pietro Zaini, who in theory, would be Bierhoff’s main supply line of goals. An impish, lively winger with a Richie Sambora hairdo, Zaini always initiated Ascoli’s best moments in the brief highlights that we had seen.
This whole setup worked out well. Hairstyles aside, me coming in at around 5ft and my eight-year-old brother at 3ft 9’, we were straight out of central casting for this classic little and large offensive tandem.
In reality, what was remarkable about Bierhoff during this time, was that when he got the ball, almost nothing happened. Goals were hard to come by in Italy. They were hard to come by for Bierhoff certainly, and Ascoli were dreadful.
After relegation in 1992, I Picchi (The Woodpeckers), spent the rest of the 90s either in the second tier (where Bierhoff did score), or lower than that, once he left.
Nevertheless, an archetype in my mind had already been set. The foreign striker playing for provincial minnows in the world’s best league. It was all so alluring.
So, flouting convention, and unlike The Pichichi Trophy or Lev Yashin Award, “The Nwankwo Simy Award 1990-2006” is named after a contemporary player or a player-from-the-future.
Contenders for a Simy are those who arrived in the Italian provinces from a faraway land, who despite the limitations of their team mates, still managed to score regularly in Italy.
Byronic heroes the lot of them, these men could mostly be seen in the middle of the field. Often, rolling the ball forward to restart the game. Or giving their team some respite by earning a free kick just inside the opponent’s half.
But every now and then, each of these marvels had the endurance to take a kicking from Bergomi, Ferri, Maldini, Baresi, Montero, Ferrara, Nesta, Cannavaro, Thuram et al, and still possess the ingenuity to get on the score sheet.
Some are one-season wonders, others went onto much bigger things. But these often-consolation goal kings were all part of the rich tapestry of Serie A.
Controversially, this list does not include players who were part of great “projects”. Nor did they inspire their colleagues to be half-decent and thus have the whole team “punching above their weight” or God forbid, qualify for European competition.
Marcelo Otero falls into this category for his first two years at Vicenza (1995-1997), and thus the Uruguayan stays at home empty-handed.
Indeed, none of the teams on this list got higher than 10th in the final standings. The Nwankwo Simy Award seeks to pay homage to the diamond in the rough or the jewel in the turd. To recognise the virtuoso who was buckled up in the backseat of the clown car, but trying desperately to get out.
Bonus points were given if this man’s scoring exploits kept his team in the top flight. It also runs from 1990-2006, when the task of scoring in Italy was at its most fierce.
Here’s the top ten:
10. Julio Dely Valdés (Cagliari) 13 goals in 32 appearances 1993-94
Cagliari used to churn these guys out like butter. Manteca meaning butter was this Panama international’s nickname back in Uruguay, where he scored 120 goals before coming to Italy. Forming a fruitful tandem with Belgian international, Luís Airton Oliveira, both men kept Cagliari in Serie A scoring 25 goals between them. The quality of his strike partner, and others around him, means he ranks no higher on this list, but an impressive debut in Serie A, nonetheless.
9. Gustavo Dezotti (Cremonese) 13 goals in 32 appearances 1989-90
In his style of play, it’s hard to think of anyone else who embodies this archetype more. Cremonese were poor, but Argentine Dezotti was not. While sorely tempted to rank him higher, two relegations in three years count against him here, especially when drawing a comparison with the others. In addition, Dezotti began his Italian adventure at big-city club Lazio of Rome, and then took a step back. This might put him more in line for another award for another category at another time.
8. Florin Răducioiu (Brescia) 13 goals in 29 appearances 1992-93
Just as in the case of Dezotti and Cremonese, this Romanian’s goals proved in vain for his team. Brescia still went down, albeit through a playoff in 1993. Previous stints at Bari and Verona in his first two years in Italy were unremarkable. However, uniting with compatriots Gheorge Hagi and Ioan Sabău at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti, saw Răducioiu blossom. He immediately earned a move to Milan and looked the bee’s knees at USA 94. His 92-93 campaign in Italy proved to be the most impressive of his club career.
7. Daniel Fonseca (Cagliari) 9 goals in 23 appearances 1991-92
As one might benefit from Hagi’s presence at Brescia, Daniel Fonseca was no doubt aided by his fellow countryman, Enzo Francescoli at Cagliari. But Fonseca was the real deal as he would go on to prove at Napoli, Roma and Juventus. His speed and technique made him as much at home on the flanks and outside the penalty area as he was inside it. He was also something of an early Football Italia icon in the UK.
6. João Paulo (Bari) 12 goals in 29 appearances 1990-91
In his first two years in Italy, this Brazilian’s goals played a significant part in keeping Bari in Serie A. The following year, he looked just as lively. That is until he broke his leg in an early home game against Sampdoria. The writing was on the wall from then on for Bari. Despite big money spent and the best efforts of David Platt, they were relegated. They missed João Paulo.
5. Mirko Vučinić (Lecce) 19 goals in 28 appearances 2004-05
In 2004, the Montenegrin Mirko Vučinić inherited the task previously given to such luminaries as Pedro Pasculli, Davor Vugrinec and Javier Chevanton— to keep perennial yo-yo team Lecce in the top flight. Helped no doubt by the attacking style of Czech coach, Zdeněk Zeman, Vučinić duly delivered. Injuries prevented a repeat performance the following season, but Vučinić would later go on to star for Roma and Juventus.
4. David Suazo (Cagliari) 22 goals in 37 appearances 2005-06
La Pantera took time to make his mark in Sardinia, but he exploded in 2005-06. His 22 goals kept Cagliari in Serie A and made him a joint winner of Best Foreign Player of the Year, along with Milan’s Kaka. The following season The Panther showed more of the same again with 18 goals, prompting a tug-of-war with both Milan clubs for his signature. The Honduran ended up at Inter, but things did not work out. Those last two years at Cagliari were the high point for Suazo in Italy.
3. Oliver Bierhoff (Udinese) 17 goals in 31 appearances 1995-96
Where all this madness began. When this German Bomber took off for Udine in the summer of 1995, life became very different. In Alberto Zaccheroni’s first year as a coach in Serie A, Bierhoff’s goals helped Udinese retain their place in Italy’s top-flight, and bring international success with Germany at Euro 96. By the end of 97-98, Udinese would finish third in Serie A and Bierhoff would be the league’s top scorer with 27 goals. He would later follow Zaccheroni to Milan, where they would both win the league there at the first time of asking. The twelve-year-old me must have known he had it in him all along.
2. Javier Chevanton (Lecce) 19 goals in 31 appearances 2003-04
Another Lecce man and another Uruguayan, but Cheva was unique. He would leave Lecce as their all-time top goalscorer and where he is still fondly remembered. His 11 goals in 01/02 were not enough to keep his side in Serie A, but his 19 goals and all-around performances two years later took Lecce as high as tenth. Rapid pace, scorer of free-kicks and spectacular goals with accompanying manic celebrations, give him cult status at the Via Del Mare.
1. Abel Balbo (Udinese) 21 goals in 32 appearances in 1992-93
Of course, all of the above are Simys in their own right; but when you take into consideration the quality (or lack thereof) of teammates and the strength and depth of the competition, Abel Balbo’s 92-93 campaign for Udinese was extraordinary. Milan, Inter or Juventus, the former River Plate man scored against all of them. He crucially added one more in the relegation playoff, saving Udinese from the drop and sending Răducioiu’s Brescia down instead. Later, Balbo would form a devastating partnership with Daniel Fonseca at Roma. He would prove a consistent goal scorer in Serie A for much of the 90s.
So there it is. But one last thought :
Bierhoff’s final game in Serie A was for Chievo at champions Juventus in 2003. Juventus won 4-3 and Bierhoff scored all three of Chievo’s goals.
This game in isolation could be considered a template for a Nwankwo Simy Award-winning performance.
Thank you for indulging.