Words: Martin Mork
Image credit: Wikipedia.it
Foggia were up 2-1 at half-time against the invincible Milan, the only side out-scoring them in Serie A, as Giuseppe Signori and Francesco Baiano had turned the game around for the home side at the Pino Zaccheria.
But the Satanelli had no intentions of protecting goalkeeper Francesco Mancini in the second half. It wasn’t in their nature to defend their lead and the shot-stopper, devoted to Bob Marley and likened to Rene Higuita for his antics between the sticks, knew the team would not try to end the championship on a high by sitting back and soaking up the pressure from Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Riijkard.
“You step on to the pitch to play, and we always played from the first minute until the last,” said Mancini, a man who knew he’d be kept busy in every game.
Coach Zdenek Zeman remained true to his own philosophy, one that had helped Foggia stun both pundits and spectators during the 1991-92 season and sent his players out to attack Fabio Capello’s unbeaten Diavoli. Of course, they lost 8-2, but that was pure Zemanlandia.
Il Boemo (The Bohemian) had initially left Foggia after one season to replace Arrigo Sacchi at Parma, but was sacked already by October, having struggled to get his philosophy across to the players.
A spell at Messina followed and the free-flowing attacking style suited the Serie B side, but the Czech tactician returned to Foggia after making Messina the highest-scoring squad in the second tier of Italian football.
In July 1989, he was back in charge of a team who were then newly-promoted to Serie B, ready to give him the project he needed to show Italy that football was about more than simply not losing.
In his second season, Foggia won the League in an extraordinary fashion to help create the foundations Zeman wanted to extend to the top tier. But the inexperienced group, who were unfamiliar names to the average fan, had risen to the top too fast, according to the experts. They were deemed not ready and most expected Foggia to get relegated after only one season in the top-flight.
President Don Pasquale Casillo from Naples had a big hand in everything at the club and all the coaches at Foggia had danced to his tune until the Czech coach arrived. The patron gradually understood that the Zeman had the vision to create something extraordinary at the Pino Zaccheria and knew to be lenient enough to give him the chance.
It was feared that he would intervene after starting with a rough patch, but he gave Zeman time and in the end, was quite proud of the result.
“It’s unrepeatable what we created together,” President Casillo told ESPN.
Zeman was a total transformation from business as usual, as the lack of fear and, if you want, respect towards the Italian giants, shocked the spectators in Serie A.
“Coaches in Italy are afraid that losing a game might mean losing their job,” Zeman told The Blizzard in 2012. “That’s why most teams tend to not let the opponents play. You have to make every effort… in order not to lose. That’s miles away from my mentality.”
And his 4-3-3 formation, unheard of in Italian football at the time, grabbed the bull by the horns and started the season with a 1-1 draw against Inter on September 1. A great start, but celebrations were short-lived.
Juventus came to the Southern Region of Apulia and left with all the spoils, and there were still no doubts – Foggia were going back down. Threatening to equalise against the Bianconeri on the day, wouldn’t necessarily mean picking up the required points against others. But Zeman remained true to his formation and style.
“I spent my whole life playing 4-3-3, but the formation is not important, the most important thing is how you apply it,” Zeman insisted.
And September slowly became the springboard for the shock that was about to erupt in Serie A. The newcomers travelled to Florence and won their first game in Serie A since 1978 with a 2-1 victory away to Fiorentina.
The Rossoneri continued with a 3-1 win against Cagliari and held Zeman’s former employer Parma to a 1-1 draw in their following two home games, when Signori scored his first goal in Serie A and helped quash the media’s doubts. The press started to realise that they were witnessing a miracle and even goalkeeper Mancini took part in the outfield play, sweeping the long balls coming over the defence.
“He was the ideal goalkeeper for me,” Zeman recalls. “He was the commander of the whole 16-yard box.”
But he wasn’t able to keep a clean sheet until October 20. After a setback 3-1 defeat to Torino, Foggia bounced back immediately with a 1-0 triumph at home against Ascoli. And a 1-1 draw against Roma had them sit seven points above local rivals Bari ahead of their first ever meeting in the top-flight.
The Miracle Foggia and the Derby d’Apulia
The famous Derby d’Apulia seldom takes place and Zeman had ended the long absence from the top divisions, finally giving the fans a chance to confront their biggest rivals Bari, led by the famous English forward David Platt.
But the opposition, who also had a 23-year-old Zvonimir Boban on loan from Milan at their disposal, were yet to win in the League that year and posed no threat to the confident home side.
The attacking style of the Czech coach set the perfect frame for the first Derby d’Apulia in Serie A on November 3, 1991.
Ciccio Baiano was the star of the captivating display and his hat-trick, combined with Signori’s fourth, spurred the hosts to a massive triumph, proving the arrival of a new protagonist from the region.
Foggia confidently outplayed their local rivals, despite not managing to keep a clean sheet this time around either, with the match ending in a 4-1 win.
Another 3-1 victory in the return leg made sure that after only four meetings, Foggia still lead Bari 2-1-1 in their head to head record in Serie A.
“The players like to attack; they don’t want to defend. And I gave them the freedom, even if it’s normal that the defensive phase will sort itself out if everyone contributes,” Zeman said.
After the astounding start, Italy was impressed by how the team perfectly translated Zeman’s tactics on to the field and the interest around the newcomers boomed.
A side that travelled by bus, no matter how far the journey, bonding over card games and a new unheeded idea of football. But the fact remains that Foggia was one of the minor clubs among the giants.
Training in parking lots due to maintenance work on the pitch and often forced to carry out their sessions on gravel, the team were not exposed to the same luxury of the established squads.
Foggia endured a tough winter season and fans were getting sick of watching their side concede goals every game. From November 23 until March 22, Foggia won just once, as their only clean sheet was a 1-0 win over Genoa at the Zaccheria in January.
The other teams had somewhat figured out how the 4-3-3 formation at Foggia worked and Zeman didn’t want to even consider a Plan B. Foggia were known for their high-scoring matches ending in entertaining results, like the 3-3 results against Napoli and Fiorentina.
But they managed to ride off the storm and turned it around in late March, when the 3-1 win against Bari helped ease the pressure and initiated an unbeaten run of eight games, culminating in the 2-0 victory against Genoa on the penultimate day of the season.
The attacking trio consisting of Baiano, Signori and Roberto Rambaudi helped Foggia to an early salvation and having scored 56 goals, the last game of the season had Foggia up against the only team in the top tier out-scoring them.
The bitter end
Fabio Capello’s Milan were unbeaten and newly-crowned champions, but Foggia still had a chance to qualify for the UEFA Cup if they ended the Rossoneri’s positive record.
After the first half, Zeman’s side had stunned the guests through goals by Baiano and Signori and were up 2-1 at half-time, but the match against Capello’s invincibles has been labelled as the proof of an imperfect approach.
It was Zeman’s chance to prove that attacking was the best defence and could be useful even against the unbeatable opponents. But Foggia, up against the Milan inspired by the three flying Dutchmen, succumbed under the pressure.
The guests tired them out and the long season took its toll on the home side. They were already safe. Worst case scenario would be to lose out on European football and claim a shocking ninth in Serie A on their return to the top.
Despite losing 8-2 on the final day of the championship, Foggia’s return to Serie A was hailed for their exhilarating displays of attacking football, sticking it to the big clubs and playing without fear against everyone and anyone.
Foggia ended the season on 58 goals scored and 58 goals conceded. Only the Scudetto winners scored more and just bottom side Ascoli conceded more goals than Zeman’s side in the League. That was why it was called Zemanlandia – giving the team a name reserved for a fairground ride, with its dizzying ups and downs, often during the same match. In an era of defensive tactics and safety-first approaches, Foggia were a riot.
For Foggia, it will still go down as their most incredible season, as the Czech tactician had turned his unknown players into stars and the big clubs now eyed possible coups on the transfer market. Zeman never quite managed to recapture that extraordinary explosion on to the Calcio scene.
Serie A 1991-92 Table
Serie A 1991-92 Scorers