Bari have never been considered one of the big clubs in Italian football. Since their foundation in 1908, they have spent only 30 seasons of their 113-year history in Serie A. Known to many as a typical ‘Squadra Ascensore’ or ‘Lift Team’ due to their regular relegations and promotions, the club have never really reflected the status of the city they represent; as well as being Apulia’s capital and a major port on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, Bari is also the country’s ninth-biggest socio-economic centre (the third biggest south of Rome).
The Galetti’s (Little Cockerels) best ever finish of seventh came in the 1940s but the club’s golden age was arguably in the last decade of the 20th century. The 1980s and 1990s saw Italian football at its zenith. Serie A was the richest and best league in the world and, consequently, inundated with some of the finest players from across the globe. These arrivals weren’t restricted to the traditional big sides; the transfers of Maradona to Napoli and Zico to Udinese served as precedents for smaller clubs across the peninsula to legitimately aspire to attract the biggest names in football.
Bari were no different. In 1990 they finished tenth in Serie A, their best finish for over 40 years. They also won the less-remembered European competition called the Mitropa Cup. The city was chosen to host games at the 1990 World Cup, and furnished with the brand new Stadio San Nicola (designed by Renzo Piano of Centre Pompidou and The Shard fame). Their new 60,000 capacity home and relatively impressive on-field success galvanised the club, who were to have their most successful decade ever. They were still relegated twice but recorded two more top ten finishes, and at various times employed some of the most exciting players in Europe.
Below, I have tried to put together their best possible team from that decade based on what they did at Bari and what they achieved in the rest of their careers. It’s a collection of players who, if they had been all been teammates, would have probably earned Bari European qualification and possibly more.
Goalkeeper: Alberto Fontana (1993-1997)
A cult figure of the 1990s and ’00s, Fontana was Bari’s shot-stopper for their two Serie B promotions in 1994 and 1997. Known as ‘Il Nonno Volante’ (The Flying Grandad) Fontana went on to have a successful spell as Inter’s substitute keeper in the early 00s, the highlight of which was a clean sheet in a Milan derby. Fontana retired in 2008 at the age of 41 years and 297 days; he is the fourth oldest player ever to play in Serie A.
Right-back: Gianluca Zambrotta (1997-1999)
Zambrotta was an all-action wide player. He could play on both flanks in defence, midfield or as a wide attacker. Arriving in 1997, it was with Bari that Zambrotta would have his breakout season. He immediately became a regular and contributed significantly to the club securing mid-table finishes in 1998 and 1999, his last season with the Galetti. Zambrotta went on to have a brilliant club career with Juventus, Barcelona and Milan. He won three Scudetti, three Italian Super Cups, a Spanish Super Cup and was nominated for the Ballon d’Or in 2003.
In February 1999, aged just 21, he made his debut for the Italian national side while still a Bari player. Over the next 12 years, he would play 98 times for Italy, including at six major tournaments. He was an integral part of the 2006 World Cup winning side, scoring the opening goal against Ukraine in the quarter-finals.
Centre-back: Lorenzo Amoruso (1991-1995)
Amoruso is the first of three born and bred Baresi in this team. Having come through the Bari youth setup in the late 80s, the uncompromising defender only established himself in the side in 1993 following loan spells with Mantova and Vis Pesaro. He became a fan favourite as Bari were promoted to Serie A and he helped the club finish 12th in the top-flight in 1995.
That summer he would move to Fiorentina, where he would win a Coppa Italia and an Italian Super Cup. In 1997 he would leave Italy to join Glasgow Rangers. Amoruso won three titles and seven domestic cups during his time in Scotland. He was also the first Catholic to captain the side.
Centre-back: Luigi Sala (1995-1998)
Sala was a tall and elegant central defender, and would complement Amoruso perfectly in this team. After beginning his career at Como, he moved to Bari in 1995, only to be relegated with the Galetti in his first season. He was an important component in the team that won promotion the following year and went on to finish 11th in Serie A in 1998.
Considered one of the best young defenders at that time, Sala was snapped up by Milan and featured heavily in their Scudetto victory in 1999, the only trophy of his career. Although he won a league title, Sala arguably failed to fulfil his early promise. He went on to have a solid Serie A career including spells at Atalanta and Sampdoria, but was never capped for Italy. The end of his career was marred by his suspected involvement in the 2011 ‘Calcioscomesse’ betting scandal, for which he received a two-year ban.
Left-back: Robert Jarni (1991-1993)
Jarni was a flying left-back and one of a generation of Croatians who lit up European football following the break-up of Yugoslavia. Having established himself at Hajduk Split, Jarni made a short trip across the Adriatic to join Bari’s very talented but ultimately ill-fated 1991/92 side. He arrived in the same season as David Platt and fellow Croatian Zvonimir Boban, but their presence wasn’t enough to help the side avoid relegation.
Jarni stayed on at Bari for another season in Serie B before joining Torino in 1993. The Croatian full-back would go on to play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, including Juve, where he would won a league and cup double, and Real Madrid, where he lifted the Intercontinental Cup.
Having represented Yugoslavia before the nation’s break-up, Jarni was a fixture in the first incarnation of the Croatian national team. He played in their debut tournament in Euro 96, reaching the quarter-finals before losing to eventual winners Germany. He would have his revenge two years later when, in their first World Cup, Croatia finished 3rd; Jarni scored his only international goal in their quarter-final victory over the Germans.
Central midfield: Zvonimir Boban (1991-1992)
From the very beginning of his career, Boban seemed destined for greatness. Debuting for Dinamo Zagreb at 16, his technical ability and leadership qualities led him to the captaincy just three years later. In his six years with the club, Boban scored 45 goals in 109 appearances but he first found international repute following the events of May 13th 1990.
With the ethnopolitical differences of the Yugoslav people almost at breaking point, Boban’s Dinamo Zagreb were about to play Red Star Belgrade. Politically fuelled violence between the two sets of supporters erupted before the game began, and as the conflict spilt onto the pitch the police intervened. The players also took to the field and, perceiving that the regime’s police were being too violent with the Dinamo fans, Boban got into an altercation with an officer. It ended with him kicking the policeman to the ground and fracturing his jaw. The midfielder’s intervention became a symbol of the Croatian separatism and many commentators maintain that the events of that day contributed to the start of the war in the Balkans less than a year later. At the time a Yugoslavian international, Boban was handed a ban that meant he would miss the World Cup, which was due to start a month later.
Still only 20, Boban’s footballing exploits were also catching the eye of Europe’s elite clubs. In 1991, Milan bought the midfielder and immediately sent him to Bari on loan. He wasn’t able to prevent the Galetti’s relegation, managing only 17 appearances and two goals in his only season with the club. He would go on to become a legend at Milan, winning a European Cup, European Super Cup, four Scudetti and an Italian Super Cup. One of several players to play for Yugoslavia before representing Croatia, Boban would also become one of his young nation’s most important players, having a key role in Euro 96 and their third-place finish in France 98.
Central midfield: Thomas Doll (1996-1998)
Doll is the only foreigner in this list whose first Italian experience wasn’t with Bari, having had three decent seasons with Lazio in the early 90s. The graceful midfielder arrived in the Apulian capital in 1996. Bari had just been relegated to Serie B and the German player made a big contribution to their promotion that season and their 11th place finish in Serie A in 1998. Doll’s Bari teammate, Nicola Ventola, recently said of the midfielder: “from a technical point of view, there are very few players I’ve seen who could do what he could do”.
On the international stage, Doll was part of the German side that lost in the final of Euro ‘92 and perhaps should have been in the team that won the World Cup two years earlier. Born in East Germany, his international career spanned German reunification.
Doll was one of only eight players to play for East Germany and post-unification Germany; there is a chance he would have been part of the World Cup winning squad if the 1990 geo-political landscape had allowed him to be.
Central midfield: David Platt (1991-92)
Platt is arguably the most successful Englishman to have played in Serie A. Already a star in the UK, having been named PFA Player of the Year in 1990, he maintains that the catalyst of his move to Italy was his performances in the World Cup that summer. Having come off the bench to score a spectacular 119th minute winner against Belgium in the round of 16, Platt went on to score two more goals in the tournament, including one against Italy in the third-place playoff at the San Nicola. That wouldn’t be the last time he would score in Bari’s stadium.
The following summer, having scored 19 goals for the second consecutive season with Aston Villa, Bari smashed their transfer record to bring Platt to Serie A. The £5.5 million they spent on him remains their second-highest transfer fee nearly 30 years later. On a personal level, the England midfielder had an excellent season. He scored 11 goals (over 40% of the team’s total of 26), but his most prolific Italian season wasn’t enough to save them from relegation.
His performances with Bari impressed other Italian clubs, and having resisted the personal courtship of Roberto Mancini and a move to Sampdoria, he eventually signed for a star-studded Juventus side. Although he rarely featured in his only season with Juve, he did win the UEFA Cup, before finally submitting to Mancini’s charm and signing for Sampdoria in 1993. He had two very good seasons in Genoa, winning an Italian Cup and scoring 17 goals before returning to England in 1995. He would go on to win a league and cup double with Arsenal three years later.
Attacking midfield: Antonio Cassano (1999-2001)
Having learned to play football in the piazze of ‘Bari Vecchia’ (Bari’s Old Town), Cassano was one of the most talented players ever to come through the club’s youth system. Debuting for the Galetti as a 17-year-old in late 1999, he scored a last-minute solo effort against Inter in just his second match with one of the most poetic sequences of touches in the history of Italian football. He was immediately thrust into the spotlight, with some commentators acclaiming him as the ‘new Baggio’.
Cassano would stay with Bari for two seasons, but was unable to prevent them finishing bottom of Serie A in 2001. That summer, Bari were able to command their largest ever transfer fee, selling him to Roma for 60 billion lire (approximately £27m); he would twice be named Serie A Young Player of the Year whilst with the Giallorossi. Cassano’s career was blighted by ‘Cassanate’: a term his then coach, Fabio Capello, coined to describe his numerous episodes of indiscipline. His behavioural issues undoubtedly blighted his career, and due to his undeniable ability, many view his career as a waste of talent. In spite of this, Cassano won silverware at Milan, Real Madrid and Roma.
Though his differences with then Azzurri manager, Marcello Lippi, meant he missed Italy’s 2006 World Cup win, he played 39 times for Italy and was a big part of their impressive Euro 2012 campaign, where they eventually lost out to Spain in the final. In total, he scored 150 goals in all competitions for club and country.
Striker: Igor Protti (1992-96)
Igor Protti is a cult hero of 90s Italian football. Having spent the first ten years of his career in Serie C and B, Protti arrived at freshly relegated Bari in 1992. He was a fixture in the team and played his part in Bari’s 1994 promotion, before completing his first season in Serie A at the age of 26 the following year.
In 1996 he would win the title of Capocannoniere (sharing it with Lazio’s Giuseppe Signori) but it wouldn’t be enough to stop Bari from going down; Protti is the only player to have finished as top scorer in Serie A and been relegated in the same season. After spells at Lazio and Napoli, he would eventually return to Serie C with Livorno. Whilst at the Tuscan club, Protti finished as top scorer in Serie C and Serie B; one of only 2 players (along with Dario Hubner) to have been crowned Capocannoniere in all three of Italy’s top divisions.
Striker: Nicola Ventola (1995-98)
The third player in this team to come through Bari’s youth system, Ventola made his Serie A debut, aged just 16, in 1994. Following the team’s relegation, and still only 18 years old, Ventola was the Galetti’s top scorer in their promotion-winning side of 1996.
His performances secured a move to Inter where, after a respectable first campaign, he spent a couple of seasons on loan. In the 2001/02, with first choice strikers Christian Vieri and Ronaldo both missing chunks of the campaign through injury, Ventola played a key role in the Nerazzurri’s title challenge. Inter lost out to Juve on the last day of the season, the closest he ever came to a major trophy in his career. Only ever called up once, Ventola never played for the Italian national side, but was a key player in the U21 side that won the European Championship in 2000.
Words by: Francesco Amesbury. @davidfamesbury