Massimo Bonini: The Juventus dynamo who became San Marino’s greatest

During his tenure with Internazionale in the 2012/13 season, Antonio Cassano issued a scathing statement about bitter rivals Juventus. Cassano recalled how they had tried to sign him thrice in past but he had rebuffed them. Using the term “soldatini” – little or toy soldiers, he added that Juventus only wanted players who fitted that description, “who are always going straight. I am one who often leaves the tracks”.

A famed bad boy of Italian football, “l Gioiello di Bari Vecchia” may have derisively used the word soldatini but he also had a point. Throughout their history, Juventus has fielded some of the greatest attacking talents football has ever seen – from Omar Sivori to Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Cristiano Ronaldo at present. Yet, at the same time, Juventus have always had hard-working players who kept their great teams ticking by doing the dirty work behind illustrious stars. They were not “toys” but they were certainly soldiers who fought for the club. It is this potent mixture of flair and steel that has cemented Juve’s unique, almost machine like tradition of winning silverware.

The team between 1980 to 1985 is a good example in this regard. No Juventus team has won international silverware more frequently than Giovanni Trapattoni’s team of that era. It was a team brimming with world class talent – Gaetano Scirea, Claudio Gentile and Antonio Cabrini in defence with Paolo Rossi & Zbigniew Boniek partnering the majestic Michel Platini in attack. Yet, even this squad had in midfield a player who became irreplaceable thanks to his work ethic, graft and toil. What made his story fascinating was that he came from a country which at that time, didn’t even have a formally recognized football federation! His career was a story of sacrifices – be it for his team mates or for his country. Enter, Massimo Bonini.

Massimo Bonini was born on 13th October, 1959 in San Marino. He started his youth career at local club SS Juvenes in 1973 and went on to spend four seasons with them, picking up rudimentary football skills under coach Don Peppino. After leaving Juvenes he made his first foray into the lower rungs of Italian football by joining Emilia-Romagna based A.C. Bellaria Igea Marina. Just barely out of his teens, the greenhorn gave a decent account of himself in the quagmire of Italian lower division football, playing 33 times and even notching up a goal. In Bellaria, he also encountered a certain Arrigo Sacchi. The “Prophet of Fusignano” was nowhere near the greatness he was destined to reach few years later but a young Bonini was still impressed with some of Sacchi’s ideas about attacking play.

For the 1978/79 season he moved further up the ladders of Italian football and joined Serie C outfit Forlì F.C. But just 23 games later he departed Forli to sign for Cesena in Serie B. It was with the Seahorses that he would get his big break.

Bonini’s first season in Cesena was productive as they finished fourth in Serie B, missing out on promotion by just two points. In Osvaldo Bagnoli, who would later go on the win Serie A with Hellas Verona, Bonini had the first great coach of his career. Bagnoli’s strategic acumen would be vital in Bonini’s second Serie B season in 1980/81. The Totonero scandal of 1980 had suddenly changed the complexion of Italy’s second division thanks to the forceful relegations of AC Milan and Lazio. Milan were swiftly back on their way to Serie A, leaving Cesena to battle for the other two promotion slots with Lazio, Genoa, Sampdoria. Eventually, Cesena would emerge from the scrap, winning third place while possessing the best defensive record in Serie B. In these two seasons, young Massimo had played a vital part in Cesena’s advent, playing 60 matches and scoring five times. His first season in Serie A though, would not be with Cesena. Instead, he would soon be donning a more famous black and white jersey.

Pierluigi Cera, who captained Cagliari to a historic Scudetto in 1970 and started every game when Italy finished runner-up in 1970 World Cup, played an important part in Bonini’s move to Juve. Cera had wound up his career in Cesena and notified Juventus president Giampiero Boniperti about the young, blonde midfielder who was making a name for himself in Serie B. Cera passed on his assessment to Boniperti remarking that this young midfielder had potential “to be better than Furino”. Juventus didn’t wait long before finalising Bonini’s transfer.

In many ways, Juventus were Italy’s most glamorous club during the early 1980s. Giovanni Trapattoni had taken over reins in 1974 and led them to a period of success winning two Serie A titles in the second half of the decade. They had translated their domestic excellence to Europe too, lifting the UEFA Cup in 1977. Juventus also possessed arguably the best squad in Italy, contributing to the spine of  the Gli Azzurri side which finished fourth in the 1978 World Cup. Bonini would need to maintain a high level of performance to break into this squad, especially considering that he was contending with Giuseppe Furino for a place in the starting XI. Furino was an absolute club icon and  had been the leader of Juve’s midfield since the early 70s.

Bonini made his Juventus debut on the 23rd August, 1981 in a Coppa Italia victory against Rimini at Stadio Romeo Neri. His first Serie A match came on 13th September against former employers Cesena. He replaced Marco Tardelli on the 54th minute and was able to take part in a 6-1 victory thanks to a hattrick from Roberto Bettega and a Gaetano Scirea brace. Two weeks later he would get his first Juventus start, playing 90 minutes during a 3-1 victory over Como. Bonini was mostly used to rotation as a player in his first season, often coming on as a substitute to help I Bianconeri close out games. He also scored his first Juventus goal in January 1982 – a rasping long ranger from just outside the box which nestled into bottom right corner of the net against minnows Catanzaro.

In Europe, he was used regularly but could do little to prevent Juventus from crashing out in the second round of the European Cup. Serie A would bring more cheer as Bonini won the first major trophy of his career. Juventus and Fiorentina were locked in an intense title race which would go down the wire and end controversially. On the last matchday both teams were level on points – Fiorentina travelled to Cagliari while Juventus played Catanzaro away. With dubious refereeing decisions in both matches, Fiorentina slumped to a 0-0 draw but Juventus sealed the title with a 1-0 victory as Liam Brady famously converted a spot kick.


Fiorentina vs Juventus: A proud, fierce and enduring rivalry

By the time Bonini started his second season at Juventus a lot had changed. Many of his teammates had won the World Cup over the summer. The squad was further bolstered by two of the stars of the tournament – Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek. With these arrivals, Juventus needed a younger and more dynamic midfielder to find balance so Bonini’s stock quickly rose. Eventually, club legend as well as his mentor Furino was phased out with the Sammarinese establishing himself as a regular starter.

Despite star acquisitions Juventus initially underperformed in Serie A. Platini struggled to find his feet in Italy as Nils Liedholm’s AS Roma raced ahead to eventually lift their first Scudetto since the Second World War. However, Trapattoni’s team shone brightly in the European Cup, reaching their first final since 1973. Remarkably, the Old Lady didn’t lose a single match on their way to the title clash. The highlight of their campaign was undoubtedly knocking out defending champions Aston Villa in the quarter-final, thereby ending English dominance on the continent which had seen English clubs win every European Cup since 1977. Bonini was in the thick of things and played every match in Europe.

In the final against Hamburg SV, Juve would once again come short – something that has since become synonymous with the club’s history in Europe’s premier competition. A few minutes after kick-off, Felix Magath struck a wonder goal and Il Trap’s team failed to find an answer, losing 1-0. A season which promised much ended with just a Coppa Italia title for Massimo Bonini and Juventus. He did have a personal triumph in 1983, winning the Bravo award which is given by Guerin Sportivo to outstanding young talents.

But the season had been a transformative one for Juve. A few months into his maiden season in Italy, Michel Platini had confronted Giovanni Trapattoni and encouraged him to take a less conservative tactical approach. Il Trap conceded to his star player and the rest, as they say, was history. Platini soon hit form, becoming part of a potent attacking triumvirate with Paolo Rossi and Boniek. Marco Tardelli also joined them from midfield – meaning Juventus needed a stable presence in the central areas to keep their shape intact when possession was lost. This is where Massimo Bonini came in with his understated skill set.

The Sammarinese was a tough tackler, even though he wasn’t as abrasive or physically imposing as another midfield colossus of 1970s – Romeo Benetti. He was tactically intelligent which enabled him to anticipate opponent attacks to mop up dangerous moves. But Bonini’s greatest strength was his stamina and energy. He was supremely fit and able to cover a large tract of the pitch between two penalty boxes. Bonini would also drift towards the wings, using his sudden burst of acceleration to either cover opponent wingers or help out Juve’s overlapping full-backs. He wasn’t a flamboyant passer of the ball, instead preferring short sharp passes to linkup with Platini, Tardelli or overlapping full-backs. In a later interview, he would sum up his role in that Juventus side:

I liked playing as mediano because I was not the center of attention, but was central to the game. I had to run a lot and it was easy for me. It was about knowing how to read the game, run to the ball, occupy spaces, retrieve possession and pass to the attackers. But above all, the team had to be put in order, to retain the tactical shape when it was lost”.

A profile about Bonini re-emphasizes this point, stating “His tireless running in midfield – collecting balls and riding rough tackles – often made it easier for his colleagues to manufacture chances and avoid trouble. Bonini’s selfless positional play was absolutely crucial to the team, helping creative players like Platini and Boniek. It would also lead to the most famous anecdote about the unassuming midfielder.

Legendary Juventus president Gianni Agnelli once saw the Frenchman puffing on a cigarette in dressing room. Flabbergasted, Agnelli asked Platini, “Michel, do you smoke? That worries me”. Le Roi stumped his president as he pointed to Bonini, sitting a few feet away and said, “Avvocato, You shouldn’t be worried if I smoke. The important thing is that Bonini doesn’t because he also has to run for me.”

In 1983/84 season, Serie A fans witnessed a much more confident and balanced Juventus side. Platini would end the season with the Capocannoniere award as well as the Ballon D’Or. The rest of the Juventus team, including Bonini, rose to the occasion to provide a platform for the talismanic Frenchman. On their way to winning the Serie A title, pipping defending champions Roma, Juventus would lose just four times and score the most goals in the division.

platini juventus

Michel Platini and his Derby della Mole debut for Juventus

European glory also finally arrived at Turin with Juve lifting their first and only Cup Winners Cup. They began their campaign with authority, dispatching Polish side Lechia Gdansk with a 10-2 aggregate score. The Old Lady didn’t lose a match on their way to final and most notably defeated Manchester United in last four.

The final was a tense affair. Juve took the lead after the Porto’ keeper misjudged a diagonal shot from Beniamino Vignola. Antonio Sousa levelled the scores but Boniek again put Juve ahead four minutes before halftime. Il Trap’s side held on for 45 tense minutes to emerge as winners. Bonini made his contribution in typical fashion, ensuring the Porto midfield never took control of the game and acting as a defensive shield for his back four.

In the following season it was time for Juve to double down on Europe’s ultimate club competition. Focusing on the European cup hampered the club’s Serie A form in 1984/85 and they would eventually finish seventh. But in Europe it was to be a different story. The first piece of silverware arrived in mid-season when Juve defeated defending European Cup winners Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup.

Meanwhile, in the European Cup, Juve had a smooth ride to the semi-final and it seemed like the trend would continue when they picked up a 3-0 victory over Bordeaux in first leg. I Bianconeri’s frontline was working like a well oiled machine with Platini and Rossi combining to score 11 goals. Juve almost got a scare in the second leg when Jean Battiston gave Bordeaux a 2-0 lead with ten minutes left on the clock. However, the French side couldn’t muster a third goal, putting Juve into their third European Cup final.

Their opponent in final was the same team they had defeated in European Super Cup in January. Liverpool were also in terrific form, having dispatched Panathinaikos 5-0 in the semi-final. Ian Rush and John Wark had each notched up 5 goals during that campaign and they were joined by the peerless Kenny Dalglish, who had missed the Super Cup match. However, Juventus would end their long wait for the big eared trophy on 29th May, 1985. Michel Platini converted a second half penalty thus becoming the joint top scorer of that edition. Juve would also become the first club to win all UEFA trophies.

Sadly, the match and result paled into insignificance due to the pre-match horror of 39 Juventus fans losing their lives after chaos in the stands. It was one of football’s darkest days. As The Guardian’s match report summarised: “Liverpool lost the European Cup to Juventus last night, but the game of football has lost far, far more. In short, it died along with the 47 people trampled to death when a group of mainly Italian supporters stampeded to get away from rioting Liverpool fans and were crushed when first barriers, and then a wall, collapsed”. Gazzetta dello Sport called it a “cursed Cup”.

Juve’s much coveted trophy was not handed to them on the field, but instead it was given to them in dressing room in a wooden box. In his book “Calcio”, John Foot quotes goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi, who remarked “it was as if the trophy was in a coffin.”

Winning the European Cup was the apex of I Bianconeri’s successful period in the 1980s. Post European Cup they went into a slow decline. Seven months after winning the European Cup, Juve won the Intercontinental Cup by beating Argentino Juniors via penalty shootout. They ended the 1985/86 season with the Serie A title but would have to wait for four years for their next significant trophy.

Diego Maradona had began to weave his magic wand with Napoli while Silvio Berlusconi had begun his spending spree at Milan. After a series of unsuccessful transfers, the gulf between these teams and Juve had increased significantly. Massimo Bonini stayed until 1988 in Turin before leaving for Bologna. In seven seasons, he was ever present for Juve, playing 296 matches. Remarkably, barring one, he participated in every single match Juve played in Europe in this period. He left the club with three Scudetti and every International club trophy that he could possibly win barring the UEFA Cup. Few would have expected this output when Juventus signed a little known Sammarinese from Serie B in 1981.


Bonini coming up against Milan’s Franco Baresi

His first season in Bologna saw Bonini spend most of the campaign staving off relegation. But things took a turn during the 1989/90 season when, coached by Luigi Manfredi, Bologna played “calcio champagne” to finish eighth and qualify for the UEFA Cup ahead of Lazio and Fiorentina.

In his 30s, Bonini now had a shot at completing his European hall with the UEFA Cup title. Bologna embarked on a surprising run to reach the UEFA Cup quarterfinals. On the way Bonini even notched up his first UEFA competition goal. However, his UEFA Cup dream would be shattered by eventual runners up Sporting CP in the last eight.

A few months before that UEFA Cup quarter-final appearance, Massimo Bonini made his much awaited international debut in Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle, San Marino – a 4-0 loss to Switzerland. It was a curious event given that he was at the dusk of a very successful club career.

He had actually played for Azeglio Vicini’s Italy U21 side in early 1980s. The San Marino Federation was not recognized by UEFA at this time and Sammarinese players were absorbed by Italian youth teams. However, to represent the senior team, Bonini would need to give up his passport and citizenship of San Marino. He refused, knowing full well he was effectively giving up an international career.

Had he taken up Italian citizenship, Bonini would have likely got a chance to play alongside his club mates in Euro 1984 and the 1986 World Cup. He, however, had no regrets about choosing his own country and would later say: “I have the good luck and the bad luck to have been born in San Marino. Bad luck, because I couldn’t play for Italy, but above all good luck because it’s a place where you can live well and in peace. Lots of people would give anything to have been born in San Marino.”

San Marino was and remains, the weakest member in UEFA. It was hardly unsurprising that Massimo Bonini’s very modest international career of 19 matches, which stretched till 1995, also contained a series of poor results with scorelines such as a 10-0 loss to Norway in 1992.

He stayed with Bologna until 1993, dropping with them to Serie B at the end of 1990/91 season and leaving the club when they were relegated from Serie B. With his stint in Bologna, Bonini also ended a 16 year long, decorated career in Italian football. He would go back to his boyhood club Juvenes, winding down his career to retire in 1997. .

Needless to say, Massimo Bonini’s loyalty to San Marino has made him a national hero in the tiny mediterranean country. In 2004, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, UEFA asked each of its member countries to nominate one player to be honoured as “Golden Player”. San Marino Federation’s job was perhaps the easiest in terms of nomination – Massimo Bonini was part of a list of 52 players also containing his former team-mate Dino Zoff, who was nominated by the FIGC.

Meanwhile, in 2011, Juventus ran a public poll to select 50 stars to be commemorated in the opening of the club’s new stadium. Massimo Bonini was one of the players in an initial long list, though he did not make the final cut. Given the role he played in that Juventus side, it is perhaps unsurprising that he isn’t cherished as much as some of his teammates. But the fact that he achieved so much despite coming from a country of just over 30,000 people makes Massimo Bonini a truly special footballer.

Words by Somnath Sengupta: @baggiholic

Image Credit: Storie di Calcio