The hand of fate
It’s Wednesday July 17, 1996 in New York City and AC Milan defender Christian Panucci is pacing the departure lounge at John F. Kennedy airport. He is waiting for the first of two connecting flights that will take him back to his home land. It is late afternoon, he is getting tired and to make matters even worse, he has just been informed that his luggage has mysteriously vanished.
His mind flashes back to a few days earlier: He had been in Atlanta, Georgia, preparing for the 1996 Summer Olympics having been named captain of Italy by Coach Cesare Maldini. Then, during a routine warm-up match, he picked up an injury and was forced to leave the Italian camp. He curses his luck and continues pacing.
With the clock ticking towards the departure time of his TWA flight to Paris, and his suitcases still nowhere to be seen, Panucci approaches a member of Alitalia airways staff and explains his situation. The sympathetic worker checks the schedule and explains that there are seats available on a later flight heading direct to Milan. Unfortunately, it is departing from Newark airport which is an hour’s cab-ride, traffic permitting.
After ordering another strong coffee and weighing up his options, Panucci decides that taking the later Alitalia flight would make more sense. Not only will it increase his chances of being reunited with his luggage, but it also means that he can avoid a stop-off in Paris and a domestic flight from Rome to Milan. He walks back to the Alitalia desk to make the necessary arrangements, unaware that he has just made a decision that will ultimately save his life.
Shortly before 8:00pm, while the two-time Serie A champion is preparing to make the journey west to Newark, the last boarding call is made for the TWA flight 800 from New York to Paris. Several minutes later, with the gate finally closed, the plane taxis towards the runway and is given the all-clear for take-off.
Flight 800 never made it to Paris. Just 46 minutes into its journey, the Boeing 747 crashed into the sea off Long Island, killing all 230 passengers on board.
It is no surprise that this remarkable turn of events had a profound impact on the 23-year-old footballer. From that moment, he felt as if he was living a second life and decided to make every second count.
At that early stage of his career, Panucci already had two Italian League titles, one Champions League trophy, two Italian Super Cups and one UEFA Super Cup to his name. So by the time he returned to Milan, he was ready for a new adventure – and he didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to arise. In late 1996, former Milan Coach Fabio Capello offered the young defender the chance to join him at Spanish La Liga side Real Madrid. The move came as a great relief for the player who had recently fallen out of favour with returning Rossoneri boss Arrigo Sacchi.
At the time, very few Italians had ever played in Spain. Aridex Calligaris, Sergio Del Pinto and Angelo Bollano were the first to arrive in the late 1940s and early 50s but all three failed to make any significant impact. Forty-five years later, in the summer of 1996, midfielder Damiano Longhi arrived in Alicante to play for newly-promoted Hercules. But after six months and just 13 appearances, the former Padova player was on his way back to Italy. The transfer of Panucci was different however. No Italian player had ever arrived in Spain with such an impressive CV or such a huge reputation. And of course, this was Real Madrid.
Becoming the first Italian to play for the Spanish giants was not a burden that weighed heavily and he wasted no time in making his mark on the team. Madrid had recently signed highly-rated Porto right-back Carlos Secretario but the arrival of Panucci restricted the Portuguese player to just 13 starts in the famous white shirt.
In his two-and-a-half seasons in the Spanish capital, the former Genoa youth player made 96 appearances, winning the Spanish League, the Champions League and the Spanish Super Cup in the process. But despite this success, he was still overlooked for national team selection.
After playing for four different coaches during his time at Los Blancos, he became increasingly restless and often clashed with his superiors. He was popular amongst the fans but earned the reputation of being a hot-headed maverick and it came as no surprise when in 1999, following an offer from Inter, he packed his bags and headed home.
A complex character
The Savona-born player was never afraid of speaking his mind and his brush with death did little to curtail his penchant for brutal honesty. Early on in his career, his criticisms of Italy boss Arrigo Sacchi had a negative impact on his international prospects; as did his later altercations with Inter and Azzurri coach Marcello Lippi.
He publicly criticised his teammates during his time in at Real Madrid and had training ground bust-ups with colleagues at several clubs, including Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink at Chelsea and Alberto Aquilani at Roma. Later on, there were reports of further spats with coaches and club owners including Didier Deschamps, Luigi Del Neri, Luciano Spaletti, Francesco Guidolin, Fabio Capello and Enrico Preziosi.
Despite his spiky nature and belligerent tendencies, he did enjoy a welcome period of stability during his eight year spell with Roma. He made 311 appearances for the capital club between 2001 and 2009 and scored a total of 29 goals, making him the highest scoring defender in the clubs history.
His performances for the Giallorossi prompted the Italian national team coach Roberto Donadoni to include him in the squad for the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. Subsequently, at the age of 34, he became the oldest player to score an outfield goal in a European Championship finals match.
During his 14-year international career he made a total of 57 appearances and scored four goals. His 50th cap was greeted by a standing ovation at Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris, the venue where he began his professional career.
In 2010, after a brief spell with Parma, Christian Panucci finally hung up his boots.
The complex Italian is still remembered fondly by Madrid fans as an important member of the team that won the Septima (the seventh European Cup). He described the moment as the best of his career and later emphasised the confidence within that team by claiming: “We won the trophy nine months before; we had already won it in our minds.”
Read Part 1 of Italians in Spain here
Part 3 here
Part 4 here