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serious capital into a league that had just come off the back of the 1990 World Cup, and with it, shiny (but soon to be outdated) new stadiums dotted around the peninsula, Serie A reached heights a domestic league had never seen before, or since.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.