Do you remember where you were at the time? I was sitting in my mum and dad’s living room waiting in eager anticipation. Then a black and white football struck a big green, white and red number four for the first time. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.
In the beginning, there was Gazza. Except, of course, on that fateful Sunday afternoon in September 1992, Paul Gascoigne was injured. So the Football Italia journey would have to begin without him. Thankfully, Sampdoria and Lazio would serve up a spectacle worthy of his mercurial talents in his absence and, in the process, much of the UK was hooked.
I was in full smug mode at this point, of course. I had been preaching to anyone who would listen - mostly a handful of fanzine subscribers - about the beauty of Serie A for some time. This was just the rest of the country catching up. For those of a certain age, a beautiful era was about to begin.
For we were without wall-to-wall television at that time and so the Italian game had a pretty much open field. It just so happened, of course, that the league had some of the world’s best players too. And, in James Richardson and company, Channel 4 hit the nail on the head with their coverage from the outset. It was stylish, irreverent and spectacular and a whole new audience was being converted to the gospel I had been bashing out on a keyboard from a student bedroom in southern Scotland for some time.
But back to the matter in hand, that opening game. What a belter it was. Marassi was at its raucous best a couple of seasons after seeing Doria take the Scudetto and Lazio were in one of their we’re-gonna-score-one-more-than-you phases. The old, dull as starchy pasta water reputation of Calcio was about to be poured down the kitchen sink for good.
Things could hardly have started worse for Gascoigne’s team-mates when Diego Fuser bounced a Roberto Mancini corner into his own goal after just six minutes. But Dino Zoff’s side were a team with enormous attacking threat of their own and a man with probably the most devastating little boots in the history of Serie A - Beppe Signori. It was game on.
The hitman struck twice in the space of three devastating minutes - first with his right, then with his left - to turn the game on its head and we were barely midway through the first half. In households up and down the British Isles, football fans were sitting agog. And that was just the appetiser.
Vladimir Jugovic would soon channel his inner Sinisa Mihajlovic to deliver a thumping free-kick to level the game and we were back to square one. If the referee had blown the full-time whistle at that point, everyone would have still gone home thoroughly entertained but there was yet more to come in the second half.
When young Samp striker Mauro Bertarelli was upended inside the box, Mancini calmly slotted home the resultant penalty and it looked like Sven Goran Eriksson’s side might have got their season off to a winning start. But that was just an illusion, as the Blucerchiati boss would be the inadvertent architect of his own downfall when he sent Renato Buso on with 20 minutes to play. Five minutes later, he completed the own goal bookending of the fixture with one that bounced off his bonce past a despairing Gianluca Pagliuca. There was time for Pietro Vierchowod to hit the woodwork for the home side but, in the end, a breathless draw seemed a fair result. Anyone watching on the small screen could hardly wait for the next installment.
That game was the delivery room for many a previously unknown passion for Serie A. It spawned a generation of new fans, many of whom would make their own pilgrimages to Italy in later life to see this spectacle for themselves. Over the coming years, my own Fiorentina strip would be rivalled on the Scottish high street by others sporting the colours of Samp, Lazio, Milan, Juve and many more. For Calcio, it was mission accomplished.
Both the teams in action that day would go on to have decent seasons. The Biancocelesti would stay true to the free-scoring spirit they showed on day one and ended up in fifth place with an attack which matched title-winning Milan and a defence significantly worse than relegated Brescia. Doria sat snugly in seventh after a campaign that was a model of inconsistency with 12 wins, 12 draws and 10 defeats. You never knew what you would get from one week to the next.
The Football Italia story would soar over the next few years as it gathered new viewers and teams up and down the peninsula continued to snap up some of the game’s biggest stars. Every week we watched in wonder as Gabriel Batistuta, Roberto Baggio and Franco Baresi strutted their stuff across our screens. It was a magical age we thought would never end.
But sport is cyclical, of course, and a range of factors would ultimately take the edge off our Sunday afternoons. The fixture list started to get spread across the weekend, the Premier League grew in televisual stature and Serie A’s financial clout diminished. We were seduced and ultimately abandoned by our little terrestrial broadcasting treat.
Memories still remain, though, and at times like this it is particularly nice to have them. I’m wary of nostalgia tricking me into thinking everything was great about those days, but it was certainly a special time for the Italian game. It is definitely the age that my mind goes running back to now that we have no matches to enjoy while the nation tussles with genuine matters of life and death.
Flicking through old magazines, watching YouTube compilations or leafing through a dusty almanac is where you will find me for the foreseeable future. There is something glorious in those days of the early 1990s that the passing of the years has failed to dull and seems especially comforting right now. Football, the good days and normality will all return - we hope - as quickly as possible. In the meantime, though, a little distraction is surely a welcome treat for everyone.
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