With a little luck, a professional footballer’s career can last 15 years or more. During such a long period, there will be many moments a player remembers fondly, some more significant than others. And sometimes there is one key instant that defines a player’s career – for good or bad. For Italian midfielder Mauro Bressan, that moment came on November 2, 1999.
Prior to that, Bressan had enjoyed a steady but unspectacular trajectory. His first break came as a 20-year-old at Como, where he developed his role in the centre of midfield for three seasons. In the summer of 1994, the 23-year-old’s impressive performances attracted the attention of Foggia, and a move was agreed. However, the Satanelli struggled after losing head coach Zdeněk Zeman to Lazio in the summer and were relegated.
Despite this disappointment, Bressan was one of Foggia’s standout performers. It was clear he had the ability to compete in Italy’s top flight and in 1995, Cagliari came calling. He spent two years in Sardinia before experiencing the pain of relegation for a second time. Once again, he moved to remain in Serie A, this time with newly promoted Bari.
The Biancorossi had a vibrant squad, boasting several promising youngsters including Nicola Ventola, Antonio Cassano and Gianluca Zambrotta. Bressan may not have been a glamour player who hogged the headlines, but he was an important component in the side, diligent in retaining possession and supplying Bari’s attack. After two years, the 28-year-old’s consistency earned him a move to one of Italy’s Seven Sisters, Fiorentina.
This was a big step up from his previous clubs. The Viola had players of immeasurable quality: Gabriel Batistuta, Rui Costa, Angelo Di Livio, Francesco Toldo and Enrico Chiesa. Moreover, under Mister Giovanni Trapattoni, they had finished third in the 1998/99 Serie A campaign and qualified for the Champions League.
Bressan played a bit part role during his first few months at the club as Fiorentina suffered contrasting fortunes in the league and Europe. In November, they were winless in five in the league, following three defeats and two draws, yet their fortunes were markedly different in the Champions League. Drawn in a challenging group with Arsenal, Barcelona and AIK Solna, Fiorentina twice beat AIK and famously dispatched Arsenal 1-0 at the old Wembley Stadium thanks to a Batigol screamer.
Their final group game came on the November 2, 1999 against Barcelona in Florence. The Catalans had won the reverse fixture 4-2 in late September. Fiorentina required a point to seal their passage to the second group stage and Bressan had been given a rare start in midfield. It was an imposing Barcelona side, captained by Pep Guardiola who was supported by the likes of Luis Figo, Patrick Kluivert, Rivaldo and two of the finest young players on the continent, Xavi and Carlos Puyol. Despite the stellar opposition, Mauro Bressan enjoyed a night he would never forget.
With the game approaching the 15 minute mark, Chiesa was played into space on the right of Barca’s penalty area but his low cross was cleared to the edge of the box by Guardiola. Viola midfielder Jörg Heinrich’s attempt to control the ball served only to hoist it into the air.
Heinrich and Rivaldo contested the ball but neither connected and it bounced again. As it hung in the air, Mauro Bressan bided his time and adjusted his position, his back to goal. He measured the speed at which the ball was falling before attempting a bicycle kick from 25-yards out.
The ball looped into the air, the pace and trajectory bringing the crowd to their feet as they dared to believe Bressan had pulled off the impossible. Barcelona’s keeper, Francesc Arnau, scooted back towards his line but was powerless to stop the ball hitting the underside of the bar and nestling into the back of the net.
The 25,000 strong crowd erupted, delirious at what they just witnessed. A goal so brilliantly unorthodox many realised they may never see another like it. As Arnau lay tangled in the corner of his own net, Bressan wheeled away in delight, his teammates chasing him down to embrace him.
Momentarily stunned by Bressan’s wondrous strike, the Catalans regrouped and hit back within five minutes, Luis Figo skipping past two defenders before stroking the ball past Toldo to equalise. Just before half-time, Barcelona went in front, Rivaldo striking a fierce free-kick past the keeper low into the bottom corner.
Conceding a goal before the interval can be a morale-breaker for any team, but Fiorentina came out fighting in the second-half, inspiring Mauro Bressan to produce another piece of individual brilliance.
In the 56th minute, Argentine striker Abel Balbo collected a pass roughly 30-yards from goal. He played a square pass to Bressan and made a forward run. The Italian midfielder spotted the run and produced an outrageous first-time back heel pass that carved open the Barcelona defence allowing Balbo to curl the ball past Arnau to equalise.
Balbo’s own brilliant night continued as he gave Fiorentina the lead on the 70th minute, coolly turning his marker and dispatching the ball past the Barca keeper. Just like in the first half, Barcelona responded quickly, taking just four minutes to equalise, Rivaldo controlling Patrick Kluivert’s cross and volleying home from seven yards out.
The game ended 3-3 and while Fiorentina fans may have been disappointed not to hold on for a famous victory, the draw secured qualification ahead of Arsenal and marked a memorable night in the club’s history. The image of Mauro Bressan’s career-defining bicycle kick was etched into the memory of many football fans, but few remember just how good a performance he produced against a talented Barcelona side that night. As well as providing a goal and an assist, he was the crucial midfield engine in Trapattoni’s 3-4-1-2 formation.
Bressan’s successful spell at Fiorentina culminated in a Coppa Italia win in 2001 before he spent a year each at Venezia and Genoa. He returned to his boyhood team Como where he played for another two seasons, before ending his career in Switzerland with FC Lugano and FC Chiasso. When he finally hung up his boots in 2009, Bressan was 38 years old.
In 2011, controversy engulfed Bressan as he was arrested along with 15 other people, including ex-Lazio captain Giuseppe Signori, for suspected match fixing in Italy’s lower leagues. In August 2012, the Italian Football Federation’s (FIGC) disciplinary committee banned him from football for three-and-a-half years.
Despite losing his way after retiring, Bressan will be fondly remembered by fans of a Viola persuasion for that November evening in Florence when he wrote his name into Champions League history.
Words by Yousef Teclab: @yousef_teclab