Words: Livio Caferoglu
The 2001-02 campaign was a memorable time for Italian strikers. Unlike now, where only three have scored more than 10 times in Serie A, back then there were 15. The one that ran out with the most goals – 24 of them in total – wasn’t a Christian Vieri, Filippo Inzaghi or Alessandro Del Piero, but rather a 35-year-old playing for Piacenza. His name was Dario Hubner.
Hubner wasn’t your typical Capocannoniere. He didn’t make his debut in the top flight until 1997, when he was 30 years of age, and what a debut it was. Brescia travelled to Inter on the opening day of the 1997-98 season, and also making his Serie A bow that afternoon was Ronaldo - the world’s most expensive player. Yet it was the man nicknamed ‘The Bison’ who stole the Brazilian’s thunder.
With 17 minutes remaining, a fresh-faced Andrea Pirlo came off the bench to clip a trademark through ball on to the chest of Hubner, who took a touch before volleying into the roof of Gianluca Pagliuca’s net. Although Brescia ended up losing 2-1 to Alvaro Recoba’s late brace, the hitman had announced himself in Serie A and he went on to score 15 more times in 97-98.
While Hubner’s efforts on the pitch were admirable, his status as a cult hero of Calcio is largely thanks to those off it. He was an avid smoker, who even puffed away on substitutes’ benches, and guzzled grappa. Not that any of his coaches tried to dissuade the marksman from his bad habits. If anything, they helped him through what was becoming an increasingly-robotic existence.
“I’d smoke at least 20-25 Marlboro per day and I did it openly,” he admitted earlier this month. “No coach ever tried to stop me, all they cared about was that I delivered on the pitch. I did a lot of sport and that saved me. I did finally stop smoking last May, now I only vape. My father used to sneak cigarettes and homemade grappa into the training retreat for me, when we were based close to my home in Trieste.”
Hubner made way for Luca Toni at the Rigamonti in the summer of 2001, and he was snapped up by newly-promoted Piacenza for just £1.5m. He returned the favour with 24 Serie A goals, firing the Papaveri to safety and running out as joint-top scorer with David Trezeguet, who won the Scudetto with Juventus. To top it all off, he was the only Inter fan celebrating on May 5.
He was the King of the Provincial clubs, the only man alongside Igor Protti to have won the Capocannoniere title in Serie A, B and C. Nothing fancy or pretentious, just put the ball in the net, then go to the pub.
Dario’s exploits for Piacenza had caught the eye of Milan, who had invited him on their end-of-season tour of America, on the same day his beloved Inter lost the Serie A title to Trezeguet’s Juve. The Rossoneri were looking for a backup No 9 and Hubner seemed to fit the bill. However, it quickly became apparent his lifestyle wasn’t compatible with a big club.
“It was May 2002 and Dario Hubner was on trial with Milan for their tour of America,” Carlo Ancelotti once recalled. “I remember something that happened against Ecuador. The first half ended and, upon returning to the dressing room, I went to talk to the lads. I looked for Hubner and I couldn’t find him. I asked the others: ‘What happened to Dario?’ Abbiati tells me: ‘Boss, he’s in the bathroom.’
“I opened the door and saw him smoking a Marlboro cigarette. He also had with him a small can of beer, which he had brought from the hotel. I said to him: ‘Dario, what are you doing? You’re playing in a trial match for Milan and you’ve come to smoke and drink in the changing rooms? How can you play in the second half? He looked at me and said calmly: ‘Boss, honestly I’ve been doing this forever and, if I don’t, I can’t give my best.
“‘As for Milan, I only came here for the publicity so I could extend my career by 2-3 more years. Third thing: do you want a cigarette?’ When he said that, the whole dressing room began to laugh, and then so did I. That was Dario at his best, genuine. He thought only of feeling good about himself.”
Those same habits also allegedly prevented Giovanni Trapattoni from including Hubner in Italy’s 2002 World Cup squad, but ‘The Bison’ wouldn’t have it any other way. And neither would we.