Serie A and the 90s Calcio Boom

If you’re a British football fan of a certain age, a few images will be engrained in your memory. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winner at the Nou Camp, David Beckham’s sending off in Saint Etienne and Gazza’s tears are three that come to mind.

However, many of my generation will always remember James Richardson sat outside of an Italian cafe every weekend with a cappuccino and an Italian newspaper.

Football Italia was a flagship show on Channel 4 in the 90s and, with a possible hint of hyperbole, helped to usher in the 90s Serie A boom that we experienced in England. Shortly after Italia 90, Sky TV bought the rights to the Premier League games and the average working class football fan was left without a fix every weekend.

Football Italia helped to fill that void.

Interest in Italian Calcio was at a bit of an all-time high, England did very well in Italia 90 and Paul Gascoigne had moved to Lazio in 1992 and would spend three years in Rome. Italian clubs were rather dominant in 80s Europe too, with AC Milan and Juventus in particular leading the charge with legendary players such as Platini, Baresi and the iconic Dutch trio of Rijkaard, van Basten and Gullit.

Before this we had only seen these players on European nights, but now here they were in our living rooms every weekend for free.

But just what made Serie A so special in the 90s?

Despite the reputation for boring and stifling Catenaccio, Italy was a hotbed for technically sound yet glamorous football at this time. Every club could boast at least one genuine world-class talent.

Lazio had Juan Sebastian Veron, Pavel Nedved and Alessandro Nesta.

Fiorentina had Gabriel “Batigol” Batistuta and Manuel Rui Costa.

Udinese had their own goal machine in Oliver Bierhoff.

Inter had Javier Zanetti, Ivan Zammorano and Ronaldo.

Parma had Gianluigi Buffon, Lillian Thuram and Hernan Crespo.

You could find stars in every team from bottom to top. Stars were flocking from all around the world to play in Italy, could you imagine stars from La Liga itching to play for Sampdoria in the modern game? The 90s saw Clarence Seedorf do just that as he left Real Madrid to play for Sampdoria.

Whereas today’s players would rather play in Madrid, Barcelona or anywhere in the Premier League, Italy was the place to be in the 90s.

Of course, Italian clubs had the money to pay for the top talent at this time, but if the Premier League is hailed as “the best league in the world” because of its ability to pay top money for talent, then Serie A was undoubtedly the best league in the 90s.

Serie A at this time was also competitive. The 90s were bookended with title wins for Sampdoria and Lazio, and despite AC Milan and Juventus winning every league title in between, 8 different clubs finished in 2nd and 3rd place in 8 consecutive seasons.

Compare that to the top 5 leagues of this decade where there’s a traditional “top 4”, particularly in England and even worse in Spain where there is the top 2. Yes, Montpellier, Atletico Madrid and Leicester have broken the mould in recent seasons, but this has not been sustainable. 8 consecutive seasons with a different top 3, whichever way you spin it, shows competition.

You could genuinely see 6 or 7 clubs winning the league that year. In any other league, they may well have done too.

Italian clubs were also flying high in both the UEFA Cup and Champions League in the 90s. 13 out of 20 finalists were Italian and Italian clubs won 7 out 10 finals in this decade too. Only the 1996 final between Bayern Munich and Bordeaux did not feature an Italian club.

In the Champions League, Serie A was represented in 8 out of 10 finals but would only win three of these finals (AC Milan in 1990 and 1994, Juventus in 1996). Not quite the dominance of the UEFA Cup but still, consistency matters in sport and Italian clubs had it in spades.

One of the common gripes about the Premier League behemoth is that the England national team will continue to suffer as long as the clubs prioritise expensive foreign talent over home grown talent, and whilst to an extent I do agree with this, the Italian national team enjoyed a solid decade.

In the World Cup they finished third (with Salvatore Schillaci winning the golden boot with 6 goals), second (and were probably a Roberto Baggio penalty away from winning it) and were quarter finalists in 1998 (losing to eventual winners France on penalties).

However, in the European Championships they were much less prosperous. Italy had failed to qualify in 1992 when only 8 teams were able to qualify, in 1996 they failed to get out of their group on goal difference and in 2000 they were beaten in the final by France thanks to a David Trezeguet golden goal.

While they were never really a threat in the European Championships, this is still more consistency than most national teams will ever experience. Consistency is key.

Serie A and Italy would continue to be a force after the turn of the millennium. AC Milan would win 2 out of 3 finals and of course, the Azzurri would win the World Cup in 2006 and appear in 2 European Championship finals, but the 90s was the last great boom for Italian Calcio and it was a joy to watch.

Serie A in the 90s was the first time that a foreign league was broadcast on terrestrial TV and whether it was Gazza’s pranks, a Batistuta thunderbolt or James Richardson with his cappuccino, Serie A captivated audiences in England and I doubt that we’ll ever look back on a league in a decade with such fondness again.

Golaccio, indeed.

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