The golden years of Sampdoria – Calcio’s ‘Hipster’ club.

 On 6 September 1992, Channel Four launched its ‘Football Italia’ series relaying live Serie A games to a UK audience broadly unaware of the delights of the domestic Italian game. Experience of Italian football had been largely limited to teams competing against British clubs in European competition, but from that date, the gates to a broader appreciation of Calcio were thrown open. Any thoughts that viewers may have had that the experiment would wilt as defensively dominated football would be a turn-off were dispelled by the opening game as Sampdoria and Lazio featured in a hugely entertaining 3-3 draw.

Whoever chose that particular match-up to introduce Serie A to a potentially sceptical public had selected wisely. Lazio had just secured the services of Paul Gascoigne, although injury prevented him taking part in this game and ‘Samp’, as they were widely known, were one of the top clubs in the country. In fact, the previous season market the zenith of their powers and the end of a glorious four-year period for the Genoese club who had risen to prominence with a roster of legendary players, a coach who delivered outstanding performances from his players, and a shirt that became the byword for football hipster wear at the time.

Sampdoria were been formed just after the Second World War and their shirt and ‘Blucerchiati’ (blue and circled) appellation were representative of the two clubs amalgamated to form Sampdoria, Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria, with colours of both clubs incorporated.

For much of the following years, the club pottered around Serie B. After winning that league in 1967 though, they reached the top tier of the Italian game. It would be a short tenure at such exalted heights however. Most of their time was spent in the lower reaches of the league and as the seventies progressed they survived the drop back to Serie B by single places and single points. At the end of the 1976-77 season though, the seemingly inevitable dawned as Samp were relegated. As all good stories go though, that dark hour was the harbinger of a renaissance. It was a rise to glory worthy of the work of Peter Paul Rubens who had lived and worked in the city. Not quite the elegance of the master’s ‘Three Graces’ but a rise to the top of Italian football that the Blucerchiati tifosi viewing the gathering of stars at the club may have considered as something akin to his ‘The Origin of Milky Way.’

In 1979, with Sampdoria still in Serie B, the oil tycoon Paolo Mantovani, purchased the club and invested to launch their voyage to success. A man used to success exhibited a characteristic lack of patience as a series of managers were moved out of the club for failing to deliver promotion back to Serie A. Lamberto Giorgis, Lauro Toneatto and Enzo Riccomini all had single season tenures before paying the price for failure. In 1981 though, Mantovani appointed Renzo Ulivieri who performed the oracle and Mantovani’s club returned to Serie A after finishing joint second in the 1981-82 Serie B table, a point adrift of champions Verona.

Mantovani had loftier ambitions though and if he was to achieve his aspirations, a squad that finished equal second in Serie B was unlikely to be sufficient, and the owner began to add the type of players that would later become stars of the game that made up Samp’s ‘Milky Way’. Promotion bought Roberto Mancini to the club, signed from Bologna for just over £2million after playing a single season in the top flight with the Rossoblu. Together, he and Mantovani would orchestrate great times for Samp. He would stay with the Genoa club for fifteen years and be the last of the stars to leave at the end of the golden years. Trevor Francis, England’s first £1million footballer also moved to Genoa, leaving Manchester City. Although only in his late twenties at this time, injuries were already plaguing the striker’s career though and across four years with the club he would only feature in 68 league games.

With their new signings in place, the season back amongst the big guns of Italian football saw a highly creditable seventh place finish, just four points away from a UEFA Cup berth. A decent achievement for sure, but Mantovani was ambitious for more than merely above the average. The centre-back Pietro Vierchowod was acquired from Roma, again after just a single season in the top flight. He would be at the club for a dozen years. Mantovani was building, rather than looking for a quick hit this time. Achieving success in Serie A required an entirely different approach to the methods he had deployed to escape Italian football’s second tier.

The 1983-84 season saw another seventh-place finish, and further investment resulted, plus a change of manager. Eugenio Bersellini had served as Sampdoria’s manager between 1975 and 1977, and Mantovani brought him back to the club with a remit to deliver the club’s first silverware since winning Serie B in the mid-sixties. To aid the process, he also signed Gianluca Vialli from Cremonese to bolster the attack. The new man would form a potent partnership with Mancini. This signing showed a slight change into Mantiovani’s tactics. By this time, the striker already had more than 100 league games under his belt with his first club and was bordering on being the finest article. The same, but more so, was true of Graeme Sounness who moved to the club from Liverpool after six glory filled years on red half of Merseyside.

The changes had the desired effect. Sampdoria climbed to fourth in the league, and would have qualified for the UEFA Cup, but had no need of that, as they also lifted the 1984-85 Copa Italia, giving qualification for the Cup Winners Cup, after defeating AC Milan both home and away in the two-legged final. Sounness netted the winner in the San Siro, before both Mancini and Vialli scored back at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. Mantovani had his first taste of success. Sampdoria’s renaissance was gathering pace.

The club’s European excursion was broadly disappointing though. A clumsy passage to the second round was achieved with 2-1 aggregate victory over Greece’s Athlitiki Enosi Larissa FC,  but only after a late Mancini goal achieved a draw in Greece and the same player netted the sole goal in the home leg. Benfica ended Samp’s interest though, when a single goal from Giuseppe Lorenzo in Genoa was insufficient to pull back a 2-0 defeat in Lisbon. The league position also crumbled and Samp fell to eleventh position.

It was time for another change of manager and Bersellini’s cup triumph was insufficient protection from the owner’s disappointment. He was removed and, in his stead, Vujadin Boškov was appointed. The experienced Serb had coached in both Holland and Spain, as well as his native country, and would prove to be the ideal manager to take Sampdoria on. Trevor Francis followed the erstwhile manager through the exit door.

The club’s backline was strengthened by the arrival of German defender Hans-Peter Briegel, who moved to Genoa when his contract expired after winning the Scudetto with Hellas Verona. Toninho Cerezo also joined. Although 31 years old at the time, the Brazilian international was precisely the steadying hand in midfield required to protect the backline and initiate attacks. Having played in two World Cups for the Seleção, and with 70 Serie A games under his belt with Roma, he was the reliable, experienced player the club needed, to replace Sounness who was to move on to Glasgow Rangers.

Although hardly spectacular, some improvement followed, and Samp climbed to sixth in Serie A in the 1986-87 season, and a play-off for qualification to the UEFA Cup, but lost out to AC Milan. The following season though would see them bring forward a young goalkeeper who would flourish both for the club and the Azzurri national team. They would also begin a four-year period of outstanding success. The most celebrated years in the club’s history to date.

Gianluca Pagliuca broke into the Sampdoria first team in 1987 and, over the following seven years, would play almost 200 league games for the club, before being sold to Inter Milan when Samp accepted a £7million world record fee for a goalkeeper from the Nerazzurri.

The first trophy under Boškov’s management was delivered when Sampdoria lifted the Coppa Italia in 1988. In the two-legged final, goals from Vialli and Briegel at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris seemed to put them on the way to glory, but in the away leg, two own goals squared things for Torino before half-time. It would take extra-time to decide matters and a strike by Fausto Salsano with eight minutes remaining sent the cup to Genoa. The league position improved as well. Samp were up to fourth and would have UEFA Cup qualification had they not taken the Cup Winners Cup spot thanks to Salsano’s late goal in Turin.

Excursions into Europe up to this point had been short, and hardly sweet, but that would change over the next couple of seasons, albeit that this venture into  Cup Winners Cup was to end in disappointment at the final hurdle. A scrappy First Round 3-2 aggregate victory over Norwegian club IFK Norrköping hardly held out the promise of success, but things would improve. East Germany’s Carl Zeiss Jena proved less tricky fare, and victory took Samp to a semi-final match-up with the holders, KV Mechelen of Belgium. A 74th minute Vialli goal in Belgium meant just a 2-1 defeat and a rousing 3-0 home win, with three goals in the last 20 minutes back home in Genoa did the business. It meant a final against Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ but an early goal by Salinas and late strike by Rekarte brought disappointment. There would be a sad echo of the outcome a few years down the line, but the tournament had suggested that Sampdoria could compete at this level. They would be back the following year to prove the point.

Another run at the tournament was assured when a four-goal mauling of a Napoli team containing the magical skills of Diego Maradona in the home leg following a 1-0 defeat at the Stadio San Paolo meant that the Coppa Italia was retained. A fifth place finish in Sere A was a solid performance given the European and domestic cup exertions. To keep up the momentum of a progressive club Mantovani added the Cremonese midfielder Attilio Lombardo to the squad. He had four years’ experience with the Grigiorossi, and his Mercurial wing play fitted neatly into the image of Samp as an attacking unit playing expansive and entertaining football. Their popularity among football’s cognoscenti was growing, and they were accumulating new fans and trophies with increasing regularity

In the league, Samp’s status as a solid top six club Serie A, if still some way short of being title challengers, was underscored as they again achieved fifth spot in the 1989-90 season. Their attention however would be drawn again towards Europe. The Cup Winners Cup again began with a tie against Norwegian opposition as they skipped past Brann with 3-0 aggregate victory, winning both legs. Borussia Dortmund would provide stiffer opposition in the Second Round though and with two minutes remaining of the first leg in Germany it looked likely that Samp would have to overturn a 1-0 defeat back in Genoa. A late goal Mancini however put an entirely different complexion on things though and two Vailli strikes without reply at home eased Samp into a last eight berth. They accounted for Grasshoppers with some ease, winning 4-1 on aggregate. Sampdoria were in the last four of the competition again.

Facing AS Monaco, a 2-2 draw in France opened the door to the final as Vialli again struck twice. Goals from Vierchowod and Lombardo completed the job in Genoa and Sampdoria returned to the final of the Cup Winners Cup to facing Anderlecht. In a tense encounter the score remained goalless after 90 minutes, but in the extra period, it was Vialli again who decided the issue netting a brace to bring Samp’s first European trophy. Mantovani’s dynamic and bustling new kids on the block, under Boškov’s management, were beginning to make a big noise, and more was to follow.

A European trophy was a magnificent achievement of course, but in Italy, genuine respect has to be earned in Serie A and up to this point, Samp had been broadly seen as plucky also-rans, scrambling around for European qualification. The 1990-91 season would change that. Samp’s defence of the Cup Winners Cup petered out at the Quarter-Final stage with a surprising 3-2 defeat to Legia Warsaw after progressing against Kaiserslautern and Olimpiacos. Concentration was then was transferred solely to the league campaign. It brought great reward.

Across the 34-game league season they lost only three games, and Vialli finished as the Capocannoniere with 19 goals. The Scudetto went to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris for the first, and so far only, time. Hipster heroes. The Blucerchiati stars were aligned as a galaxy of talents took the unlikely Sampdoria to the top of Italian football. Later that same year, they add the Supercoppa Italiana to underscore their position as top dogs and all that remained now was to transfer that champion status into Europe.

The European Cup venture began with the now traditional First Round tie against Norwegian opposition. Rosenborg were crushed 7-1 on aggregate. Apparently, Samp now had the measure of Scandinavian teams. Honved were trickier opposition and a 2-1 defeat in Budapest meant there was work to do back in Genoa, but a goal from Lombardo and a brace from Vialli had the job done and a Fausto Pari own goal for the Hungarians was rendered meaningless.

Onto the group stage, and Samp were pitted against Red Star Belgrade, Anderlecht and Panathinaikos of Greece. A victory at home to Red Star was followed by a draw in Athens, and then a defeat in Belgium. The Italians rallied from there though and defeated Anderlecht at home and a 1-3 victory against Red Star almost had them home and hosed, although security issues in Yugoslavia meant that Red Star had to play their ‘home’ games in Hungary. A second draw with the Greeks was sufficient to top the group as Red Star lost in Belgium. Barcelona topped the other group and, as was the case in the Cup Winners Cup Final of 1989, Sampdoria would face Barcelona, this time at Wembley for European club football’s top prize.

Conversely, it would surely have tarnished the legend had the club that so many had come to consider as the veritable and worthy underdogs had succeeded on that May evening. It’s difficult to be the iconoclast when you’ve become the establishment, but Sampdoria’s reputation as the lovably glorious club with the iconic jerseys was retained as Ronald Koeman netted a free-kick in extra-time to kindle Catalan euphoria. To all intents and purposes, Sampdoria had reached the summit of fan approval. Sadly, their fate would be downhill from there.

The Coppa Italia was won again in 1994, but that was a last flaring of the glory years as the players who had brought such colour and entertainment to Genoa drifted away to pursue glory elsewhere. Vialli would leave for a liaison with Turin’s Old Lady for the following season, with Cerezo heading home to Brazil at the same time. The manager also decided to cash in his chips when his standing was at its highest, and he decamped to Roma. Two years later Pagliuca joined Internazionale. Next it was Vierchowod and Lombardo beating a track to Juventus and even Mancini left in 1997.

The European Cup Final defeat marked the end of Sampdoria’s golden years, despite estimable but ultimately fruitless progress in European competition in later years. The club remains though a warm glow in the memory of fans introduced to Italian football in that era. After all, who wants to be European champions, when you can be Calcio’s Hipster club.

(This article was originally produced for These Football Times’ ‘Calcio II’ magazine).

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