The season Genoa (nearly) became the European Capital of Football

Boskov, Bagnoli, and the heartbreakers from Holland: When Genoa was almost Europe’s footballing capital

Gianluca “The Wall” Pagliuca lay belly down on the Wembley pitch. His eyes, exhausted and defeated, locked onto the ball that had thundered past him. He had guarded his goal supremely all evening, but as the net rippled apologetically and a sea of orange shirts paraded past him towards the corner flag, it was clear that the game was up.

Ronald Koeman shattered Sampdoria hearts in the 112th minute of the 1992 European Cup Final in London and simultaneously sounded the death knell for two years of remarkable progress for I Blucerchiati. But if you’re going to go out, go out with a bang, or, failing that, go out with a thunderous free kick.

Three weeks earlier in Amsterdam, Simone Braglia bellowed in frustration as his side succumbed to their very own yellow haired Dutch assassin, albeit one with significantly less thunder in his boots. Dennis Bergkamp wheeled away and punched the sky with the air of a man who knew he had just dealt a decisive blow. Genoa still had time to get back into this UEFA Cup semi-final, but it felt like a sucker punch.

Braglia’s disappointment was justified. Going into the sharp end of a season that had proved anticlimactic domestically, both Genoa and their city rivals Sampdoria were within touching distance of bringing two major European titles to the Ligurian coast.

Never in the history of the two competitions had the same city held both crowns (Milan would inevitably become the first to achieve this feat just two years later). The fact that neither of these two underdogs tasted European glory does little to diminish the romance of their story.

Genoa takes centre stage

Genoa is no stranger to presenting Italy to the rest of Europe. It may be the country’s sixth biggest city, but it is her busiest port, and has been giving visitors their first impressions of the peninsular for centuries.

With this particular century ticking into its last decade, Italian football was at its glorious peak. After hosting a hugely successful World Cup, the squad lists of Serie A sides read like a roll call of the best players in the world.

Against this backdrop, Genoa and Sampdoria were solid rather than spectacular members of the elite, with the former spending more time in the second division than they did the first throughout the 1980s.

Sampdoria fared markedly better, and following Vujadin Boskov’s appointment in 1986, Il Doria finished each of the three seasons up to 1989/90 in Serie A’s top five.

Alongside sporting director Paolo Barca, the Serb slowly and shrewdly built a squad that was comfortable trading punches with the heavyweights of the division. With the likes of Pietro Vierchowod, Attilio Lombardo and Brazilian international Toninho Cerezo all expertly recruited, they won back-to-back Coppa Italia’s in 1988 and 1989, as well as lifting the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1990.

However, Sampdoria’s newfound success undoubtedly owed much to the genius of the two jewels in their crown: Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli – ‘The Goal Twins’, who struck up a delectable partnership on and off the pitch to fire Sampdoria to an unprecedented Scudetto in 1991.

With Mancini’s cleverness between the lines and Vialli’s knack for scoring important goals (often followed by his trademark somersault celebration), they swept all before them to secure one of the most unexpected titles in recent memory, qualifying for the European Cup for the first time in the process.

Genoa were less star-studded, but arguably equally as effective at what they did. Czechoslovakian striker Tomas Skuhravy, fresh from finishing second in the 1990 World Cup Golden Boot race, was brought in to play alongside diminutive Uruguayan Carlos Aguilera.

The two immediately struck up a classic little and large partnership, with the 5ft 4in South American equalling his strike partner’s tally of 15 league goals despite being a full foot shorter than him.

With Skuhravy and Aguilera’s goals driving them on, and employing a highly structured 4-4-2 system, Osvaldo Bagnoli’s side recorded their best season since the Second World War, going undefeated at home and deservedly sneaking into the top four. The manager behind Hellas Verona’s miracle title of 1985 had led Italy’s oldest club into European competition for the first time in their history.

Sampdoria’s run to the final

Stadio Luigi Ferraris is a peculiar structure by today’s football stadia standards. With its four looming pillars, one in each corner, it stands as the antithesis of the modern day spherical, arena-like stadiums made popular by Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.

Built in 1911 and originally dubbed ‘Marassi’ after the neighbourhood it stands in, it had to wait a full 80 years before it played host to Europe’s premier competition. Revamped for the previous summer’s World Cup, it finally welcomed elite opponents from the continent in September 1991, in the form of Sampdoria’s first round rivals – Danish champions Rosenborg.

It would take only 11 minutes for the first goal to arrive, Lombardo setting the tone for an eventual 5-0 rout for the home side, before a 2-1 win in Trondheim sealed their progression. The second round draw pitted Sampdoria against Budapest Honved, with Ferenc Puskas’ former side taking a 2-1 lead into the second leg in Genoa. Again, Lombardo settled the nerves with a glancing back-post header to level the tie, before Vialli made Honved’s equaliser on the night redundant with a brace to take Sampdoria through to the group stages with a 4-3 aggregate win.

There they were drawn alongside Greek side Panathinaikos, current holders Red Star Belgrade, and their opponents from the 1990 Cup Winners’ Cup final, Anderlecht.

The teams were evenly matched, but Sampdoria squeezed through with eight points to Red Star and Anderlecht’s six, with Vialli and Mancini’s three goals apiece making the difference for Boskov’s men. The crucial win came on match day five against a displaced Red Star side.

With the Yugoslav Wars rumbling on in their homeland, UEFA decided that the European champions could not play their home games in Belgrade and would instead be forced to make do with Sofia and Budapest as temporary homes. Sampdoria went to Sofia knowing that a win would all but secure their passage to the final and duly dispatched their awkward hosts 3-1, despite falling behind early on.

A draw at home to Panathinaikos ensured they topped the group to reach their first ever European Cup final, just 46 years on from their formation.  

And so to Wembley, and to the cannon-footed killer, Koeman. In truth, it was not Sampdoria’s best game. Pagliuca kept Barcelona’s famed ‘Dream Team’ at bay for much of the match, while the usually merciless Vialli found his ruthless streak in front of goal had deserted him.

The game was trundling towards penalties, where an inspired Pagliuca might have fancied his chances, when Eusebio Sacristan went to ground after a tangle of legs with Sampdoria substitute Giovanni Invernizzi. It was an incredibly harsh decision which would prove costly for the Italians. Three men stood over the ball, each capable of plunging the dagger into the hearts of those in white. But as Hristo Stoichkov rolled it to Jose Mari Bakero, the goal looked inevitable even before it left Koeman’s boot.

Genoa refuse to be outdone

The day after Sampdoria thrashed Rosenborg at the Luigi Ferraris, Genoa travelled to Asturias to face an Oviedo side who were themselves playing in Europe for the first time following their sixth-place finish in La Liga.

After losing that game 1-0, the pressure was on Il Grifone to turn it around in front of an expectant home crowd. In a remarkably bad-tempered game that swung on a second half red card for Oviedo’s Marius Lacatus, they finally got their wish as Skuhravy flicked Gennaro Ruotolo’s right wing cross beyond the keeper in the final minute.  It was the big Czech’s second header of the game after a flying effort in the first half, and it sent Bagnoli’s side through 3-2 on aggregate.

Next up were Dinamo Bucharest, who were comfortably seen off 3-1 in Genoa, with Aguilera scoring a brace, before the Uruguayan sealed progression in the away leg, grabbing the second goal in a 2-2 draw in the Romanian capital.

Drawn against Dinamo’s local adversaries Steaua in the third round – a side with a not insignificant record in continental football, this was a stern test for Genoa, but they came through it with something to spare. Skuhravy snatched the only goal of the game in the away leg after a gift of a defensive error, while Aguilera provided the finish that killed off the game on home soil. Two goals, two clean sheets, and through to the quarter-finals, where one of the giants of the game lay in wait.

It’s fair to say that Liverpool’s team of 1992 weren’t the side they were 10 or even five years before, but they had managed to finish second in England’s First Division the previous season, and with former Sampdoria hard-man Graeme Souness in the manager’s seat, there was added incentive for Genoa to show that they weren’t there just to make up the numbers.

At a raucous Stadio Luigi Ferraris, two fantastic goals saw off the shell-shocked Scousers. First, a dipping edge of the area volley from Valeriano Fiorin gave them the lead before a scorching trademark free-kick from Brazilian left-back Branco just before full time left Liverpool with a mountain to climb back at Anfield.

Despite the comprehensive manner of the result, the feeling from the English media was that Liverpool would turn it around and that Genoa, without the surprise factor from the first leg, would wilt under Anfield’s famous atmosphere.

Instead, they rose to the occasion. Tomas Skuhravy had an unfortunate penchant for thievery (after retiring he was convicted of stealing dozens of luxury cars in the Czech Republic and Germany), but it was his strike partner Aguilera who stole the show at Anfield. His two goals either side of Ian Rush’s consolation gave Genoa a well-deserved 4-1 win over the two legs, and a truly standout result to put the icing on what was becoming a brilliant European debut campaign for the club.

Confidence was so high after that quarter-final win, that the players were openly fielding questions about who they would prefer to face in the final.

It didn’t take long for that confidence to be knocked back, as Ajax took the lead just 40 seconds into the first leg of the semi-final in Italy. Bryan Roy added a second for the Dutch side in the second half before Aguilera dragged Genoa back into the tie with two goals, the second a delightful flicked volley with the outside of his right boot which went in off the bar.

As Genoa looked to be escaping with a draw to take into the second leg, Bergkamp’s perfectly weighted through ball sent Aron Winter one-on-one with Braglia in the 89th minute. His dinked finish outlined the class Ajax had in their ranks and showed how good Genoa would have to be in the Dutch capital to make the final.

So, to Amsterdam and the Olympic Stadium, where I Rossoblu finally fell on their sword. In the 46th minute, with Genoa having levelled the tie 3-3 in the first half through Maurizio Iorio, Bergkamp pounced on a loose ball in the area and slammed it into the roof of the net, obliterating Genoa’s hopes of an all Italian underdog final against Torino. There was to be no way back for the tiring away side, and amidst a carnival atmosphere, with a Mexican wave in full flow in the stands, the referee finally called time on Genoa’s European adventure.

Fall from grace

Neither Sampdoria nor Genoa have matched their achievements, certainly on a European level, since that remarkable 91/92 campaign. Significantly, Vialli and Boskov both left Sampdoria immediately following the loss at Wembley, and the period under the tutelage of the Serbian manager remains the best in the club’s history.

Bagnoli departed Genoa for Inter in the summer of 1992, and the club were relegated just four years later, even falling as low as the third division, before successive promotions saw them reinstated to Serie A in 2007.

But what a run it was, and but for the presence of two blonde Dutchmen, Genoa could very well have been the footballing capital of Europe, for one glorious summer at least.

Words by: James Brooke. @jamesvictorb