Paolo Poggi: the forgotten story of Italy’s itinerant goalscorer

If Italian football was a Trivial Pursuit category, Paolo Poggi would feature prominently among the answers. The scorer of the fastest-ever goal in Serie A? Poggi, of course. The oldest scorer in the history of Serie B playoff? The former Venezia, Torino and Udinese striker, obviously. The striker whose sticker was believed to be impossible to find? By now, you have probably guessed the answer.

To elaborate on those answers: It took Poggi eight seconds to put Piacenza ahead against Fiorentina in December 2001, a record which remains unbeaten today. Later, in 2006, the striker, whose personal tour of the peninsula had by then taken him to Mantova, marked his return to Turin by scoring against Torino in the Serie B playoff final, as his former side pipped the Virgiliani to promotion. Prior to these events, back in 1998, Poggi had found himself in the spotlight as the collectible sticker depicting him was so difficult to find that some began to wonder whether it existed at all.

However, to dismiss Poggi as simply a statistical anomaly would be very naive, for while he never quite managed to force himself into the upper echelon of strikers who dazzled Serie A across the 1990s and early 2000s, the Venice-born forward was in many ways a precursor for modern strikers. “I used to cover a lot of ground during games and was always happy to sacrifice myself for my teammates,” he once recalled in an interview.

For all his work ethic, Poggi was hardly shy in the box, as his 123 career goals demonstrate. However, it was his desire to run himself into the ground for the greater good that truly endeared him to his managers. Poggi’s selflessness was a crucial ingredient of the Udinese side that under Alberto Zaccheroni’s guidance went from Serie B to the UEFA Cup within three seasons, before clinching an incredible third place finish in the 1997-98 season. The Venetian was a perfect foil for Marcio Amoroso and Oliver Biehroff as the trio combined to score 80 goals in two seasons.

“During the game, Zaccheroni’s tactics created situations that were unpredictable and difficult to cope with for our opponents,” Poggi recalled. “It wasn’t so much what we were doing, it was how we were doing it: At full speed, like a well-oiled machine.”

The seed of a special relationship between Poggi and Zaccheroni had been sown at the beginning of the 1990s, when the latter took charge of Venezia in Serie C1. With the post-Italia 90 hangover still in full force, Poggi scored six times in 25 games as Venezia secured promotion in their first season under Zaccheroni, beating Como 2-1 in the playoffs.

Poggi, who had made his professional debut in the previous campaign as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, would spend another season in his hometown before making the leap to Serie A, signing a 5 billion lire deal with Torino.

The Torino side of 1992-93 was not as brimming with talent as the one that had reached the UEFA Cup final the previous season, but retained a host of excellent players and remained a brilliant team to watch. More importantly, the Granata regrouped from the disappointment of missing out on what would have been a maiden European trophy and embarked on a truly memorable Coppa Italia run.

Having disposed of Monza and Lazio in the earlier rounds, Juventus stood between Emiliano Mondonico’s men and a spot in the final. Every Derby della Mole requires a hero and Poggi, who up until then had found first team opportunities frustratingly hard to come by, wrote himself into Granata’s folklore.

In the first leg, with Torino trailing 1-0 to a Roberto Baggio penalty, Poggi came off the bench to score an acrobatic equaliser with 10 minutes to go and then repeated the trick in the second leg, before Carlos Aguilera’s goal took Torino through by virtue of away goals.

“That was my big chance as Torino meant business,” Poggi recounted in an interview with Sky Sports in 2011. “I was lucky enough to score twice against Juventus in the semi-finals. Can you imagine what it meant, for a youngster like me, to score in a derby?”

The Granata would go on to lift their first trophy since the 1976 Scudetto and, to date, their last piece of silverware. However, if Poggi’s introduction to the Curva Maratona’s faithful had proved exhilarating, it was also as good as it would get for him on the banks of the River Po, as the Venetian was loaned out to Udinese at the end of the following season.

Poggi’s return east meant taking a step down to Serie B, but it also meant being reunited with Zaccheroni, an alliance that helped Udinese secure promotion during the player’s first season at the Stadio Friuli. Zaccheroni’s men and their vibrant brand of football breathed new life into Serie A, finishing fifth and third respectively in their first two years back in the top flight. Only defeat at home to Perugia in the final game of the 1998-99 season prevented the Bianconeri from securing a Champions League spot. By then, Zaccheroni and Biehroff had already swapped Udine for the black and red half of Milan, where they would win the Scudetto at the first time of asking.

“It was the first season Serie A had four Champions League spots,” Poggi said. “It would have been brilliant to be part of it with that Udinese side.”

Udinese_1997-98

The Udinese team of 1997-98 featuring Márcio Amoroso, Oliver Bierhoff and Paolo Poggi.

Alas for Poggi it wasn’t to be and with the lights of Serie A’s Seven Sisters shining brightly, he soon departed Friuli himself, joining Roma halfway through the 1999-2000 season. Since the day he left Udine, Poggi has steadfastly maintained the decision was not his doing, although he acknowledged the move allowed him to play for a bigger club, while injecting some much-needed funds in Udinese’s coffers.

Joining a forward line boasting the likes of Francesco Totti and Gabriel Batistuta would have whet the appetite of most strikers in the world, but Poggi’s romance with the Giallorossi never quite blossomed. With trademark humility, he acknowledged as much during an interview with Italian magazine Rivista Undici.

“I don’t know why things never worked out in Rome, perhaps it was not the right context,” he said. “Ultimately, however, the responsibility was only mine. The club gave me the best possible chance of fulfilling my potential.”

Poggi’s goalless spell in the Eternal City was made even more disappointing by the fact Fabio Capello, who had looked to bring the striker to Milan earlier in his career, was one of his biggest fans. “He was a winner and his attitude rubbed off on everyone else at the club,” Poggi noted of the former England manager.

With his stay in Rome cut short halfway through the season, Poggi moved onto Bari for the second half of the campaign, scoring four times in 16 games as his former teammates clinched the Scudetto. With Bari relegated to Serie B, Poggi moved to Piacenza for a single season. And if three goals in 29 games sounds like a meagre return for a striker of his experience, one of them at least remains the fastest ever goal scored in Serie A.

At the beginning of 2002, Poggi took a huge pay cut to return home to Venezia for a season, before continuing his personal tour of the peninsula with spells at Ancona and then Mantova in Serie C1. Poggi’s 11 league goals (including two in the playoffs) helped Mantova to secure a first promotion to Serie B in 32 years, and he came agonisingly close to celebrating another promotion the following season, only to be denied by Torino.

His goal at the Delle Alpi in the return leg of the 2006 playoff semi-final would prove to be his last for Mantova before his itinerant nature brought him back to Venezia, the place where it had all began in 1989 and where, exactly two decades later, it would all come to an end.

Initially, unlike many of his contemporaries, Poggi was not one to reinvent himself as a coach and instead opted to fulfil a life-long dream, by opening a small hotel in his hometown.

“It’s what I dreamt of as a kid,” the former Venezia forward recalled. “So I opened a small bed and breakfast in the middle of town. You can see St Mark’s Square from the balcony.” He continued, “Some of the customers, occasionally recognise me and want my autograph. But I’m not gonna give them a discount.”

The lure of football, however, proved too hard to resist and in 2009, Poggi joined the coaching staff at Mantova, before moving onto Udinese’s academy four years later. In 2016, he made yet another homecoming, this time as a director of Venezia.

Words by Dan Cancian: @mufc_dan87

A journalist by trade and a glory hunter since birth, Dan is a regular contributor to Red News, Manchester United’s oldest fanzine and to other United websites. Fell in love with Italian football when it was cool.

Featured image source: @paolopoggi71 via Twitter