Nine years and a day: The story of Sampdoria’s historic Scudetto

In the summer of 1990, Serie A was packed full of brilliant teams, most of which would challenge for the Scudetto. You had Napoli, led by Maradona, reigning European Cup champions Milan, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter, and Juventus, who strengthened the squad with world record signing Roberto Baggio and Thomas Hassler over the summer.  Before the 1990-91 season kicked off, it could be predicted that one of those teams would win the Scudetto. However, on the 19th of May 1991, the champions of Italy were a different team. 

When businessman Paolo Mantovani became the chairman in 1979, it was Sampdoria’s second season in a row in Serie B and it took three more seasons for them to reach to Serie A. 1982 was of course a memorable year for Italian football in particular, but it was also the beginning of forming an epic team who would make their mark till the mid-90s. Sampdoria were back to Serie A after five years that season. Just like the other Italian club chairmen of the 1980s, Paolo Mantovani also signed star players. In 1982, the two prominent transfers were Liam Brady and Trevor Francis, but the player who would make club history was Roberto Mancini.    

Sampdoria started the 1982-83 season with three consecutive wins against Juventus, Inter and Roma. The three wins against such teams was a fantastic start, and Sampdoria topped the league for a week. Although there was still a long way to go to be contenders in Serie A, it was the beginning of a new era in calcio.      

With a glitter of transfers, the rise came rapidly, as Sampdoria finished the league in the upper part of the rankings three seasons in a row and won Coppa Italia in 1985. Managers Enzo Riccomini, Renzo Ulivieri and Eugenio Bersellini all played important roles for the club’s rise from a mid-table Serie B team to Coppa Italia winners in six years.

However, 1985-86 was a season of decline and they finished 12th, only four points away from the relegation zone. There was a need of change in managerial position. To form a good team into a winning one, there must be this kind of a manager on the top of the pyramid. Just like 1979 and 1982, 1986 was also a year of a new beginning for Sampdoria. The manager who would start taking part that year was Vujadin Boskov.

Graeme Souness and Trevor Francis at Sampdoria in the mid 1980s

The Yugoslavian manager had won two Copa del Rey and a La Liga title at Real Madrid and was close to winning the European Cup in 1981. Had he won the European Cup against Liverpool, his career might have gone in a different way. However, when he started his new job in 1986, he would start writing the most memorable story of his career. In four years, Vujadin Boskov’s team won two Coppa Italia titles and a Cup Winners’ Cup. It was obvious that Sampdoria were one of the best teams in Italy, and Europe. Four of Boskov’s players, Roberto Mancini, Gianluca Vialli, Pietro Vierchowod and Gianluca Pagliuca, took part in Azeglio Vicini’s Italy squad at Italia ’90. Only Vialli featured heavily in the World Cup, but in the 1990-91 season they would have something to say.

The simplest rule of winning a league title is: win most of your matches and beat the other contenders in crucial weeks. Despite winning three trophies in the last three years, Sampdoria weren’t title contenders. However in this season, the word Scudetto was on everyone’s mind. Starting from the Cesena victory in September, the main goal was to realise the dream. In the first half of the season, wins against Milan, Napoli and Inter meant more than two points. However, the points dropped after the Inter match, cost Samp first place. By week 17 of the season, Sampdoria were down to fourth, but only two points behind leaders Inter. By week 18, they started doing what great title-winning sides do: they beat Milan and Napoli, and gained a point against Atalanta to return to the top of the table.  

Through the last part of the season, the championship race was between Sampdoria and the two Milanese teams. Sampdoria were on 45 points, Inter on 42 and Milan a point further back before the crucial match at San Siro between the top two on week 30. It was obvious that it would be a title-decider. However, it wasn’t that easy to predict the things happened on that sunny day of May 5th.

It was Inter’s last chance to keep the Scudetto hope alive and Trapattoni’s players did everything to do so. In normal circumstances, Inter could have won the game easily, but sometimes statistics remain as only statistics. Inter had 24 shots/14 on target, got a disallowed goal, missed a penalty and had a man sent off. Gianluca Pagliuca repelled everything Inter threw at him that day, it was impossible to score. “The penalty didn’t cost us the match. We missed so many chances. I’ve never seen a goalkeeper like Gianluca Pagliuca. He played like he had ten hands today,” remarked Lothar Matthaus, whose penalty Pagliuca saved.

On the other hand, Sampdoria had a couple of chances, and sometimes ‘a couple of’ is sufficient to change the score in football. After one of the most memorable matches of Serie A history, the result was Inter 0-2 Sampdoria.

The vital win at San Siro saw Sampdoria needing only three points in the remaining three weeks. The next day, the headline of La Gazzetta dello Sport showed the preciseness of the championship, as they put the Scudetto badge and wrote: ‘Samp e tuo‘ (it’s yours). There is always a possibility for everything in football, but it was certain that Sampdoria were getting closer to biggest day in their history.

The following week Sampdoria draw 1-1 at Torino and Milan moved up into second, as Inter lost to Genoa. On week 33, Sampdoria would be back to Luigi Ferraris Stadium after two away matches. May 19th would be the day that everyone in the club had been waiting for. A win would clinch the title. In other words, the Scudetto was only a match away.

Genoa had won nine titles in calcio history, but on this day, it was the blucerchiati part of the city that was preparing for triumph. Fans were at Luigi Ferraris to witness the most historical day of their team. The opponent was Lecce, who were just above the relegation zone. There were flags, banners, it was all blue and white for the festa.

It could be predicted that Sampdoria would start the match rapidly, and it took only two minutes for the first goal. Cerezo’s long range goal gave the home side to take the lead early in the game. A couple minutes later, the announcement in the stadium boosted the joy of the fans, as Bari were 1-0 up against Milan. Every passing minute meant one more step closer to the promised land, and every goal would mean a bigger step. In the 18th minute, Moreno Mannini scored the best type of goal that a defender could do, and his long range shot making it 2-0. As everything was on Sampdoria’s side, there was no sign of dropping concentration in defence. Vierchowod and Srecko Katanec didn’t let Lecce forwards create any chances. Just before the half-hour mark, Sampdoria made it 3-0 with another superb strike, this time by Gianluca Vialli, a volley from a difficult angle over the goalkeeper. It was Vialli’s 19th goal of the season, and he would finish the campaign as Capocannoniere.   

In the second half, Sampdoria tried to increase the lead. Atillio Lombardo, Vialli and Marco Branca were close to score the fourth, but the remaining 45 minutes were more like a countdown to the championship. As the minutes went by, chants became louder, flags were waving and the celebrations were about to begin.

When the final whistle was blown, history was written. Sampdoria were the champions. Players toured the pitch with holding the sign of tricolori For the following season, the badge was theirs. Most importantly, it was Serie A of the ’90s, a league like no other in the history of the game. Winning the Scudetto ahead of Milan, Inter, Juventus, Napoli was like planting the blue-white flag on the top of the Everest. And Sampdoria did that 30 years ago.

A monumental achievement.

Words by: Onur Bilgic.