Napoli’s favourite adopted son, Diego Armando Maradona, wheeled away in celebration during the 1990 World Cup semi-final penalty shoot-out and Gianluca Vialli could only sit and watch.
Vialli had been substituted for Aldo Serena earlier that evening, it was Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea’s save from Serena’s subsequent kick, that saw hosts Italy dumped out of their World Cup.
Sampdoria’s Vialli was hotly tipped to be one of the stars of the tournament and shoot Italy to World Cup glory. Instead, it had all come to an end at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples and he had not registered a single goal.
Perhaps his most telling contribution at Italia 90 came in Italy’s first game against Austria. It was his cross that enabled Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci to head in his first goal of the competition. Juventus forward Schillaci would go on to add five more during the tournament and claim the Golden Boot as its top scorer.
Schillaci returned to Turin as a national hero and start the new season alongside Roberto Baggio. Baggio had recently joined Juventus from Fiorentina for a world-record fee, provoking much consternation in Florence. But Baggio too was embraced nationally when he scored the goal of the World Cup against Czechoslovakia in the group stages.
For Maradona, the Argentina captain’s joy would be short-lived. Days after that warm and fateful Neapolitan evening, his hot-blooded team were finally overcome in Rome by a cool-headed West Germany.
The West Germans were worthy world champions and in their captain, Inter’s Lothar Matthäus, they had the player of the tournament.
By contrast, German arch-rivals and one of the pre-tournament favourites, The Netherlands had a poor World Cup. But its stars Milan’s Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten along with Vialli, Maradona, Schillaci, Baggio and Matthäus were the biggest names in world football in the summer of 1990.
All would soon resume rivalries across the same Italian stadia during the months ahead. Only this time it would be in their club colours.
Maradona’s Napoli would be defending their Serie A title from the previous year, while Milan and their dutch contingent were the current holders of the European Cup.
Juventus had overcome Baggio’s Fiorentina the previous May to win the UEFA cup and with two goals from Vialli in the final in Stockholm, Sampdoria had made it an Italian clean sweep of European club competitions by winning the Cup Winners Cup.
With its riches and its dominance, Italy was the place to be for the world’s best players.
The summer transfer activity of 1990 only reinforced this. Spanish star Rafael Martin Vasquez would swap Real Madrid for Torino and the Uruguayan genius Enzo Francescoli left French giants Marseille for newly promoted Cagliari.
World Cup winners Thomas Haessler and Karl Heinz Riedle joined Juventus and Lazio respectively, Brazilian defender Aldair joined Roma and with the recent fall of the Berlin wall and the gradual collapse of the Iron Curtain, a host of Eastern Europeans came to Italian shores.
Romanians Florin Răducioiu (Bari) and Marius Lacatus (Fiorentina), the Soviet midfielder, Alexei Mikhailichenko would join Sampdoria and the Czech striker Tomas Skuhravy, scorer of five goals at Italia 90, would move to the same city as Mikhailichenko by signing for Genoa.
Parma, making their debut in Serie A, brought in Belgian defender Georges Grun, Brazilian goalkeeper Taffarel, and a baby-faced young forward who scored against Taffarel at the World Cup, Tomas Brolin of Sweden.
Elsewhere of note, another Serie A newcomer, a young feisty Argentine midfielder would arrive at Pisa from Velez Sarsfield. His name? Diego Pablo Simeone.
Among the coaches, there was plenty of intrigue in how Gigi Maifredi would fare at Juventus. Maifredi, a former champagne salesman, was one of a number of maverick coaches emerging in Italy at the time and whose emphasis lay on a zonal defence and attacking football.
Juve’s last title had come in 1986 and the success of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan had inspired the Juventus hierarchy to try a new approach. It was hoped that if Maifredi could repeat his feats at Bologna on the bigger stage in Turin, especially now with Baggio, Schillaci and a young Paolo Di Canio in tow, that wait for a Scudetto would soon come to an end.
Elsewhere, Napoli’s 1987 scudetto-winning coach Ottavio Bianchi joined Roma and Fiorentina hired Sebastiano Lazaroni, who left his post as coach of Brazil.
Milan president Silvio Berlusconi had boasted that his Milan team were light years ahead of any national team on show at the 1990 World Cup.
Under Sacchi, Milan were current World Club Cup holders and winners of the last two editions of the European Cup. A testament to Milan’s strength, yes, but also indicative of the growing belief that it was Serie A and not the FIFA World Cup, where the best level of football was on offer.
By the time the first international break came around in October, with five rounds played, it was Milan that was leading the way at the top of Serie A. Two points adrift were coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter, Maifredi’s Juventus and Vujadin Boskov’s Sampdoria.
Absent through injury, Sampdoria were unable to count on Vialli. While Inter’s German striker Jürgen Klinsmann, who had scored an opening day hattrick away at Cagliari, led the scoring charts alongside Van Basten of Milan and Andrea Carnevale of Roma.
Carnevale had left Napoli a league winner in the summer, and his former team got off to a sluggish start in the league. It was all the more surprising, as they looked irresistible in the season’s curtain-raiser, thrashing Juventus 5-1 in the Italian Super Cup.
Only in Week 4 at home to Pisa did Napoli secure their first league win of the campaign. A scoreless opening day visit to Lecce, the champions then proceeded to lose both encounters to newly-promoted clubs. Going down 2-1 at home to Cagliari and then a week later, 1-0 away at Parma.
Maifredi’s Juventus got off to a satisfactory start in Serie A with seven points from a possible ten but champagne football it was not. New signing Baggio had three goals in four, all from the penalty spot, but Schillaci’s luck in front of the goal seemed to have deserted him. The Sicilian was yet to get his name on the scoresheet.
Atalanta’s Claudio Caniggia was having no such issues translating his superb form at Italia 90 form to matters domestic. Both the pacey Argentine and his Brazilian accomplice, Evair, had three goals each in what was looking like a very promising South American striking tandem over in Bergamo.
It was Milan’s visit to Napoli in October which would provide the first real test for the league leaders. With seven minutes remaining, Maradona looked to have won the game by opening the scoring for the home side, cooly converting a penalty in much the same manner and at the same end, as he had for Argentina in that semi-final three months prior. Milan would respond five minutes later and it would be fitting that it was Gullit who would score his first goal in over a year.
So long regarded as Milan’s answer to Maradona since his arrival in 1987, the two number tens had been legendary in that first season. Two years later, It was the dreadlocked dutchman who was on the spot to volley in from a Van Basten flicked header.
Schillaci would finally get off the mark a week later. The new Juventus finally impressing with a scintillating 4-2 home win over Inter in the Derby d’Italia.
Elsewhere in Week 7, in an early top-of-the-table clash, there would be no late equaliser for Milan as they succumbed to their first defeat of the season at home to Sampdoria.
A goal from the Brazilian veteran midfielder Cerezo enabled Samp to leapfrog Milan and move into first place. With Vialli due to return the following week, there was cautious optimism at the port-city club that a creditable title challenge may be on the cards.
Neighbours Genoa looked to keep pace by adding Brazilian left-back, Branco during the November transfer window. Branco’s international colleague, the classy midfielder Silas was brought in by Marcelo Lippi’s Cesena.
By November, a disenchanted Maradona was causing more controversy down in Naples. Locking himself in his villa, he refused to travel for the European cup second leg away at Spartak Moscow.
Since his inflammatory comments before World Cup Semi-Final, questioning whether the often-slighted Neapolitans should support Italy over his Argentina, Maradona was becoming a reviled figure across Italy.
Training only sparingly and looking increasingly out of shape, the Argentine was agitating for a move out of Napoli and Italy. His club was growing weary of the unprofessional conduct that went with it too.
Maradona did make it to Moscow eventually but was unable to prevent his team from going out of the European Cup at the second-round stage.
Napoli’s defence of the title was also in tatters by Week 9. Vialli returned to the scene where his World Cup dream ended just four months earlier, and along with his goal twin, Roberto Mancini, proceeded to take apart the spirited Neapolitans in a notable 4-1 victory for Sampdoria.
If Vialli had a disappointing Italia 90, Mancini’s was non-existent. The Sampdoria captain did not even get on the field during the tournament. Well-rested and in fine form in the season’s early stages, Sampdoria were beginning to look like the real deal.
That same Sunday, Milan would lose a second successive home game, this time in the Milan derby. A stout-looking Inter absorbed Milan’s waves of attack throughout, when with only five minutes remaining, Italian international midfielder Nicola Berti, nodded in a late winner from a Klinsmann cross.
An aggrieved Milan would fall three points behind leaders Sampdoria. Inter would move ahead of their crosstown rivals and into third place. A Schillaci hattrick in a 5-0 thrashing of Roma saw Juventus move into second.
By the year’s end, the campaign was beginning to take shape and the league table made compelling viewing. Only four points separated first from sixth in the most open Serie A season in years.
While last year’s champions Napoli were a big disappointment, rooted in mid-table, Nevio Scala’s Parma exceeded all expectations and lay in fifth. Parma striker Alessandro Melli leading the goalscoring charts on eight goals along with newly-crowned Ballon d’Or winner, Inter’s Lothar Matthäus.
Branco was proving a hit in Genoa. Scoring the winner with one of his trademark free-kicks in the Genoa derby, the Brazilian international inflicted Sampdoria’s first defeat of the season.
His form along with that of Genoa’s two other foreign stars, Carlos Aguilera and Tomas Skuhravy meant Genoa were gunning for the European places in sixth.
A classic little and large partnership, Aguilera and Skuhravy were starting to show signs of gelling together and under coach Osvaldo Bagnoli, the oldest side in Italy had one of its wiliest coaches.
Newly promoted Cagliari may have had Enzo Francescoli and had won away at Napoli in Week 2, but by the end of 1990, they were in last place on eight points. There was much work to be done in Sardinia if they were to avoid dropping back to Serie B.
Week 14 saw the year close out with encounters between the top four. Fourth-place Milan flattened a beleaguered second-placed Juventus at San Siro with second-half goals from Carlo Ancelotti and Gullit.
In Genoa, Sampdoria played host to Inter. The first of two enduring showdowns between the two sides that season.
An assertive Sampdoria struck early, Vialli beating Inter’s Walter Zenga with a crisp shot within twenty-five seconds. Inter would soon have a numerical advantage when Mikhailichenko struck out against Inter captain Bergomi and was promptly sent off just before half-time.
Inter equalised after the restart through Berti, but a late penalty dispatched by Vialli and then an emphatic late strike from Mancini gave ten-man Sampdoria the 3-1 victory.
As a consequence, Inter and Sampdoria were tied at the Serie A summit with nineteen points each.
But this early-season sparring and intrigue would soon give way to explosions and fireworks, both on and off the pitch, as the world of Italian football entered 1991…
Part Two: The Story of the 1990-91 Serie A Season. The fall of Maradona, the rise of MaraZola and the redemption of Gianluca Vialli
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