Friday October 26 2018
When Italy ruled Europe

With green shoots of revival in Europe, Emmet Gates looks back to when Serie A sides dominated on the continent.

In this Internet-dominated age, one can willfully spend hours reading fans of specific football leagues belittling the merits of others - the tedious back and forth between fans of the Premier League and La Liga deserves a special mention - in a desperate quest to somehow verify the league they spend a lifetime reverently watching is in fact The Greatest™. Everything from message boards, to Twitter, to Facebook is overloaded with insufferable fans berating the other in an argument that no-one could ever win.

Had social media existed in the 1990s, that most glorious of decades, there would no argument. There would be no rolling out of skewed stats, no 20 second videos highlighting player mistakes that somehow acts as a thinly veiled attack on an entire league, no incessant back and forth about which league was superior, because there was only one answer: Serie A. ‘Il campionato piu bello del mondo’ as La Gazzetta dello sport would regularly label it.

The league’s halcyon days have been examined and analysed ad nauseam as we grow further removed from the ‘90s, and won’t be regurgitated here. But this is just a brief snapshot: Fuelled by titans of Italian industry pouring serious capital into a league that had just come off the back of the 1990 World Cup, and with it, shiny (but soon to be outdated) new stadiums dotted around the peninsula, Serie A reached heights a domestic league had never seen before, or since. A potent mix of world-class Italian players, mixed with the finest stranieri from around the world, made Italian football the glamour league of the decade.

It was in Europe, however, that Italian sides really set the standard. No single nation has ever dominated continental competition in the manner Italian sides accomplished in the 1990s. No league was as imposing, as powerful, as terrifying, as calcio in the last decade of the 20th century. It was the footballing equivalent of the Roman Empire.

If you were a team aspiring to win a European trophy, you would most likely encounter an Italian side in the final. The statistics are frightening: 13 trophies collected across nine years by no less than six different clubs, 25 finalists produced across the decade, 3 all-Italian UEFA Cup finals, and one triple crown of European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup in the same season. Those are some staggering statistics.

The 1990s dawned with Serie A completing a clean sweep of European trophies, the one and only time such a feat has been completed in the history of UEFA competition. Milan retained the European Cup with a slender 1 – 0 win over Benfica thanks to a goal from Frank Rijkaard. Fiorentina and Juventus duked it out over the UEFA Cup with the impending transfer of Roberto Baggio hanging in the air like a dark cloud. And Sampdoria, via two goals from Gianluca Vialli, would secure the Cup Winners’ Cup against Anderlecht.

The UEFA Cup especially would almost become another Coppa Italia throughout the decade. 1990-91 would produce another all-Italian UEFA Cup final between Inter and Roma, with the Nerazzurri prevailing. A demonstration of the immense quality of the league can be seen in the fact that all four sides that entered the competition that season - Roma, Inter, Atalanta and Bologna - made it to the quarter-finals.

Further diversity was evidenced in the following years, with the great Torino side under the late Emiliano Mondonico making it all the way to the UEFA Cup final, beating Real Madrid in the process, before losing on away goals to an Ajax side that contained future Serie A players Dennis Bergkamp, Aaron Winter, Bryan Roy and Wim Jonk. Genoa had also made it to the semi-final of the competition in 1991-92, becoming the first Italian side to win at Anfield. Their city neighbours, Sampdoria, lost in the final of the last version of the old European Cup, going down to Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team at Wembley.

Even Cagliari would reach the semi final of the 1993-94 UEFA Cup, knocking Roberto Baggio’s Juve, the holders, out along the way before being eliminated by eventual winners Inter.

Parma, owned by the Tanzi family and funded by dairy giants Parmalat, would compete in three consecutive European finals from 1993 to 1995. They won the Cup Winners’ Cup against Royal Antwerp only three years after gaining promotion to Serie A for the first time. The following year they’d make it to the final in trying to retain their trophy, however this time losing to Arsenal. It spoke volumes of how much Italian sides were feared during this time as Arsenal’s victory was viewed as an upset.

Another all-Italian UEFA Cup final took place in 1995. Parma and Juventus, who had locked horns all season domestically, contested a tight final in which the I Ducali won 2-1 on aggregate to deny Marcello Lippi a treble in his first season on the Turin bench.

Milan, the most devastatingly brilliant team of the early ‘90s, would reach three Champions League finals in a row, implausibly losing the two they would’ve been expected to win. Their 4-0 masterclass over Barcelona remains the most one sided final in the tournament’s history.

Juventus would then assert themselves as the dominant team in the Champions League as the Milan era receded from view. Mirroring Milan, they too reached three consecutive finals and lost two. The 1997 defeat to Borussia Dortmund was particularly painful considering how domineering they’d been throughout the tournament, and the fact it was played in their centenary year.

Vicenza and Fiorentina would enjoy runs to the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup as the decade neared its end. 1999 would see the Cup Winners’ Cup wound up and merged with the UEFA Cup, with the last final won by the Lazio of Alessandro Nesta, Pavel Nedved and Christian Vieri. Nedved scored the competition’s final goal, an exquisite volley from the edge of the box at Villa Park in a 2-1 win over Real Mallorca.

The year before, Lazio and Inter squared off in the third and final all-Italian UEFA Cup final in Paris. Lazio, funded by Sergio Cragnotti’s Cirio food company, were comprehensively beaten 3 - 0 by a peak-Ronaldo, Javier Zanetti and Diego Simeone. Ronaldo, in particular, put on a marvellous display, tormenting the beleaguered Nesta for 90 minutes.

The end of the decade would signal a shift in the fortunes of Serie A clubs. Parma saw out the decade with their third piece of European silverware, brushing Marseille aside in a 3-0 rout in the Luznikhi Stadium in Moscow. Marseille, who had denied Bologna in the semi-final to make it a fourth all-Italian affair, had no answer to the brilliance of Juan Veron, Hernan Crespo and Enrico Chiesa.

Juve’s semi final defeat to Manchester United, when they blew a two-goal lead at the Stadio delle Alpi marked the end of Serie A’s dominance in Europe’s premier competition. For the first time since 1991there would there be a final without the presence of an Italian side. It was the end of a dynasty.

As the millennium dawned, the empire collapsed. The reckless spending continued for a couple of more years, but Italian sides struggled in Europe. The aura that Italian sides fed off throughout the decade had been dismantled. Serie A became complacent, and La Liga emerged as the dominant force in the European game as the ‘00s progressed. It wouldn’t be until 2003 before they graced another Champions League final, and Parma’s UEFA Cup win would be Italy’s last.

Indeed, no team from Serie A has even made it to another final, and for years the competition was treated with disdain. The financial rewards for taking it seriously just didn’t exist, that, and the extra matches introduced to the tournament left Italian sides fielding B teams in the hope of a dignified early exit. However, this approach has changed in recent years, with both Fiorentina and Napoli making the semi final in 2015.

With Italian sides rebuilding their reputation in Europe in the last half decade after the dark years of 2008-14. And while there is work to be done by clubs that aren’t named Juventus, there could be another all Italian final in the near distant future to look forward to.

Have your say...
Also the italians need to learn off the english on how to market their brand. It was trashed when they gave it to Chrysalis who charged a bomb for a 2 minute clip of teams running out the goal and that running off. It was a disgrace. Greed over promotion. I remember people could not get enough of the italian football. An opportunity lost.
on the 3rd November, 2018 at 8:08am
The point lost here is that it is the numerous Italian teams that reached finals. it was not just liverpool and man u or Real and Barca. Italy had teams coming the the bottom 4 reaching finals. Now on improving the league go back to youth get rid off foreign kids and push the talent through the system. Put a cap on youth transfer prices with the option for a percentage later. Put a cap on big clubs buying kids and leaving them to languish. Its all about youth.
on the 3rd November, 2018 at 8:05am
Serie A is definitely rising slowly but surely. Serie A needs Interested who are on the right path and Milan to be strong. Once the Milan teams become as strong as juve and rebuild stadiums to juve standards, serie A will dominate once again. The handwriting is on the wall.
on the 2nd November, 2018 at 5:09am
Agreed that all leagues have similar number of foreign players but I think it is 1st the quality of those players and 2nd that ALL the big clubs of Serie A are almost all fielding teams without a single Italian or 1 or 2 at best. There for similar numbers is not clear enough as numbers don't show that it is all the big important teams fielding the none Italian and the smaller with more Italians.
100% agree that incompetence of teams is a massive factor.
on the 29th October, 2018 at 10:29am
The message is clear really.. Italy needs to host an international tournament, to get the stadiums up to scratch and to inject more excitement around serie a with more fans - less violence and more sponsors!
on the 29th October, 2018 at 8:51am
The 1990s was indeed a great era but unlike the English teams of the 1970s we didn't win enough finals. If we'd won all of them then Milan would have tied with Madrid (albeit for a short time) and Juve's dismal record would have been a more palatable four wins from six finals. At the very least Juve should never have lost to Madrid and Milan should never have gone down to Marseille. Getting to finals is great, but as the English proved in the 70s, winning a bore by one goal is much, much better.
on the 28th October, 2018 at 6:43pm
If there is a issue in serie a it is the sheer and utter incompetence of clubs owners to build a team from the youth team up and keep a hold of key young players more over if they do manage to keep them getting them game time. why has genoa sold perin pellegri salcedo mandragora for such mediocre sums rather than getting rid of the older less talented players. the same applies to atalanta roma milan empoli fiorentina torino the small clubs have a excuse but the large clubs it is shameful.
on the 28th October, 2018 at 2:05pm
@anon if there is a crusade out there it is to blame foreign players for Italian football problems. It is factual to say that la liga the most successful model in European competitions is made up of 42% of foreign players world champions France ligue 1 48% previous world champions Germany 52% of the league is made by foreign players and serie a 58%. You can't escape the fact that the big European leagues are still competing international and in Europe with a similar amount of domestic players.
on the 28th October, 2018 at 1:52pm
I think giving teams more money will just give them more opportunities to go off buying more useless players putting youth further and further back.
Think we need to stop going round the houses and just say things how they are.
You buy from abroad coz its cheap look at Serie A now to the 90s, anyone on a crusade to telling us forgein players are not the problem needs to really open their eyes.
Change is needed. Limit players brought in. Grow from grass roots and 10years from now you cycle
on the 28th October, 2018 at 1:18pm
I agree this myth that buying a stadium will change things is ridiculous.
How about we go back to limiting forgeiners to each team? When italian teams dominated they had Italians in them now there are no italians in them, NO great science needed. Stop wasting money South Americans n Africans as that limits the chances for Italains coming through. Lets see Then; van bastan, Desailly, sheva the creme della creme. Lets see Now; Bakayko, kessie, Çalhanoğlu i can go on all day.
on the 28th October, 2018 at 1:14pm
PL dominance? If spain have been winning how has PL been dominant? The only reason PL is classed as a better league is simply due to money and the fact they play with no techincal play just running left to right at 100mph, exactly why they havn't dominated by actually winning trophies.
Spain have benefitted from the other leagues falling behind thats why they havnt been givem a label of the greatest dominance. When Serie A teams were flying the other big leagues were not far behind
on the 28th October, 2018 at 12:37pm
@Alessandro, new stadiums are not the answer, Italian football's problems are far more nuanced than that. But having & owning new stadiums are clearly advantageous: not just in terms of revenue, but also match day atmosphere - imagine being an opposing player against Napoli when the supporters & pitch are not separated by an athletics track. I would also say that smart management & the new stadium are what has been the cornerstone of Juve's recent dominance.
on the 28th October, 2018 at 9:50am
Why does everyone keep saying new stadiums are the answer? What's this magic thing new stadium that I'm missing? Gate money will turn around an entire league and FIGC?
I must be missing something...
on the 27th October, 2018 at 11:36pm
what ever Paolo has it seems there's no cure. modern medicine can't help him and we can only make him comfortable at this point and watch him slowly deteriorate. wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy
on the 27th October, 2018 at 10:27pm
Despite the fact that 90's serie A is the garden of eden to me. Can't agree with the opening claim "no nation has ever dominated european competition" like serie a did in the 90s... too many lost champions finals in the 90s (sadly). barca and madrid winning 7 out of the last 10 european cups plus sevilla getting a load of europa league (don't know how many or really care) and the english dominance of the late 70s to early brought a greater ratio of winners.
on the 27th October, 2018 at 5:07pm
Look at that picture of Parma players celebrating the 1999 Uefa Cup win and then laugh about the fact that Juve´s last international title won was even longer time ago.

Ha ha ha ha!
on the 27th October, 2018 at 2:17pm
Facts: Last time Juve won a european title was in 1996.
Lira was italian currency back then and Javier Zanetti had just finished his first season in Italy.

Zanetti went on to play 19 years for Inter, win a treble, Uefa Cup and a Club World Cup and have been vice-president for the club for 4 years.

In that time Juve have won 0 international titles.
on the 27th October, 2018 at 2:10pm
...and even Napoli Roma Atalanta were in the mix. we’re talking up to 10 different Italian clubs representing very well across Europe. European Football was definitely better then and at its peak....and didn’t have half of the global audience it has now - tv, cable internet.
PL is rich and polished but Spain has been killing it for last 8 years as Real and Barca rule CL, Seville Atleti rule Europa.
I think Serie A should back to 18 teams. Might help bring back quality and give more rest time.
on the 27th October, 2018 at 1:02pm
Thing is how was FIGC run back in them days, because now it’s a weak infrastructure falling apart. Also too much money corrupts....that’s what happened to Calcio and football in general to all of Europe. Too much $$ is thrown at players coaches and there’s no bonding or spirit at clubs any more like then.too many transfers and foreign players every year. + loved tthe fact that top clubs ACM Juv Int Laz took ALL competitions seriously as Samp Parma Bologna Vicenza did. times never 2 b seen again.
on the 27th October, 2018 at 12:41pm
Serie A need new stadiums. Juve are absolutely a top four team in Europe right now, if not THE best. Napoli and Roma are top 16. The rest is still a bit behind.
IF Napoli and Roma construct a new 50.000 seater arena and one of the Milan clubs buy San Siro, while the other club construct a 60.000 arena (Lazio/Fiorentina build new 40.500 seater stadiums) these clubs will be able to win Champions League and Europa League. Each club will gain 30-50 mill more in stadium and TV revenues.
on the 27th October, 2018 at 12:18pm
@Dan Well spoken!
on the 27th October, 2018 at 11:45am
dark years 2008 to 2014 seriously inter in that time won a champions league tittle milan won a world club cup the season before winning the champions league fiorentina reached a uefa cup final hardly dark times in comparison to today's complete lack of European silverware. We are in living in time where there is no nesta no del piero no totti no pirlo no maldini no buffon and from what i personally see no Italian players on the horizon capable of matching these guys in terms of ability.
on the 27th October, 2018 at 11:44am
There shouldn't be any arguments between the PL and La Liga fans. The Spaniards have been utterly dominant for a long time in both cup competitions. After them, the PL, German, & Italian clubs have scraped the odd triumph here & there. Objectively, the PL has underachieved, big time, when you consider it's numerous advantages: financial, stadia, infrastructure, academies, exposure, attendances.... Imagine where Italian football could be if they sorted themselves out in these areas.
on the 27th October, 2018 at 8:44am

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