Words: Martin Mork
A hot summer’s day in 1983, Piazza Venti Settembre filled to the brink with locals determined to force through a dream scenario in Udine, waving their signs directed at the Federcalcio and the Italian Government, underlining their stance as the residents threatened to move the region out of Italy with the famous slogan: “Zico or Austria.”
The summer of 1983 will be remembered forever in Udine, as President Lamberto Mazza fought the FIGC to allow the completion of a move for Flamengo star Artur Antunes Coimbra, also known as Zico.
The already established name was on the list of Brazilian players stopped at the border, in a similar situation to Toninho Cerezo, who was heading to Roma.
The Friuli President has spent six billion lire to bring the ‘White Pele’ to the Zebrette, despite going through somewhat of a crisis. News about the Italian FA stopping the transfer from materialising had not been met with grace by the locals, who responded through demonstration and protest.
What was only supposed to be a transfer for an international star to Serie A had become a matter of State. Everyone fighting anyone and the FIGC hit out at the Friulani: “No more follies, no more foreigners,” Federcalcio chief Federico Sordillo shouted.
He was trying to shut the borders after three years of traffic between foreign clubs to Italy. Udinese had the allies to help them, with Roma in a similar situation. The two sides fought for their signings to go through and the hype was ramped up by the controversy. Everyone was expecting these phenomenal players to change the landscape in Italian football and especially of Udinese.
“In the end, justice will triumph,” Mazza replied to the FIGC. “The Federation’s diktat is illegal,” added Roma President Dino Viola.
In Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilians were instead crying for the opposite reasons. Reports and broadcasts emerged of a tearful farewell with the Carioca star. The pain was intolerable as the Italian Football Association struggled to fend off the appeals from Udine.
One day, the deal was on, the next, no. Then the FIGC found the twist that could kill the operation. Udinese were stopped by a forged company called Grouping Limited, allegedly signed up to pay three billion lire of the required six in the deal with the Brazilian side. The company, however, didn’t exist.
The Italian FA had the support and the point of no return was reached, until the case came to Italy’s President Sandro Pertini’s table and the man of the Republic responded. “I would like to see Zico and Cerezo play in Serie A.”
The CONI chief Franco Carraro intervened and granted the move the FIGC had rejected. Zico was ready for Udinese and Cerezo went to Rome. The locals from Friuli-Venezia-Giulia went wild and sold out season tickets for the complete 1983-84 season.
The show starts
President Mazza had found his way and Udinese were working to improve on last season’s sixth place in the League. With flamboyant Zico joining his compatriot and the club’s leading goalscorer from 1982-83, Edinho, the expectations were justified.
“I’m here to participate and I expect to feel good at Udinese,” the Brazilian told Rai Sport ahead of his debut. “I don’t know [if Udinese will win the Scudetto], we will try. There are many great sides in Italy.
“The Italian championship is very difficult,” the new star concluded and left the journalist screaming after him, ‘more than the Brazilian?’ But he was ready to participate. The No10 crossed the line and entered the pitch, with reporters following him onto the grass.
Genoa didn’t know what to expect from Udinese, let alone who to stop. The Friuli side was dangerous from every angle. Attacker Pietro Paolo Virdis was one of the stronger names in the line-up, midfielder Massimo Mauro, who grabbed the opener, another.
Captain Franco Causio and Zico’s compatriot Edinho were other protagonists in Udine at the time and more names to keep an eye on in a marvellous staring XI on the first day of the campaign.
As mentioned, Mauro sent Udinese into an early lead, before Zico was in space inside the Grifoni’s area. He stopped the ball and left a shoulder to the right, before quickly moving to the left and finding the bottom corner, 2-0. The ‘White Pele’ introduced himself instantaneously. Virdis made it three and four, before Zico finished it off with a fantastic free-kick from 25 yards.
The elegance in his stride, the control of the ball was out of this world and the arrogance as he calmly walked towards the ball in lunges before perfectly pinning it in the top left corner.
Coach Enzo Ferrari watched his side start the season with a 5-0 win and his Nine of Diamonds had delivered from the off.
“Having Zico in the team means a lot of things, it means that we have something more than we did last year,” he said after the match. “Udine dreams of the Scudetto, but we have to deliver on the pitch and that’s not easy.”
The Ferrari engine in a normal car
Zico continued to produce the goods, scoring another brace against Catania in round two to help the side to a 3-1 win. He found the net in five of the team’s first seven games, even if Udinese went on a winless run of five until Zico’s match-winning goal in Week 8 against Roma put them back into sixth place.
But Zico had been brought in to better that position, as Gazzettino journalist Luigi Maffei recalls. “For us Friuliani, Zico coming to Udinese meant that we had a Ferrari engine in a normal car. We felt like the only ones in the world with a car that great and absurd.”
He had further enhanced his reputation through his performances on the pitch and was constantly linked away from Udine. The giants in Italy were admiring the engine at the Stadio Friuli and the press loved to set him up against Juventus talisman Michel Platini.
The two were fighting to become Capocannoniere in Serie A that year, despite Udinese struggling to pick up the needed points to fight at the top. After 14 rounds and the ninth goal of the season from Zico during a 4-1 win against Napoli, Udinese ended 1983 at ninth in Serie A.
The new star hadn’t been able to turn around their luck and only helped Udinese to four wins before New Year’s, drawing seven and losing three. And continued in 1984 with a 3-3 draw at San Siro, where Zico scored a brace.
“On the road, here in Italy, you don’t play to win, but not to lose,” Zico said about the winless away run since the opening victory against Genoa at the Luigi Ferraris. “I’m not talking only about Udinese, but in general. They all do it, even the best teams, even Juventus and Roma.
“It’s not always the coach that asks this, but the players who take the initiative. It’s a question of mentality.”
Zico had been introduced to a culture of vandalism and fighting in the stadiums, something he admitted was affecting both him and his teammates. But most of all, it didn’t give him a good impression of the Italian game, as the violence translated onto the pitch and the challenges he suffered became harder and harder throughout the season.
“It’s a bad time, these are things that shouldn’t happen, in the stands or on the pitch,” he said at the time. “I don’t like it when sports degenerates into bad behaviour.
“It’s understandable that a player enters the pitch already tense, but one cannot conceive that one goes on the pitch with the idea of damaging another.”
Against Avellino, in a 2-1 win on January 29, Zico scored one of his most memorable goals from a free-kick, but the penalty awarded to win them the game was in focus after the final whistle. Zico was accused of throwing himself to the ground as he had only just crossed the line, but the Brazilian himself claims it was the inevitable outcome as he had been dodging the sliding Avellino players’ challenges all day.
“I don’t agree,” Avellino coach Salvatore Esposito said after the match. “I think we played a great match and the result was distorted due to the penalty decision at the end. I was not happy with a series of refereeing decisions that cost us.”
Zico vs. Platini
Juventus leading goalscorer and talisman Platini was followed to the door by the Brazilian, who claimed he was ‘only trying to help Udinese win’ and didn’t obsess about ‘entering the pitch to score goals’.
But the media were loving the direct clash between two of the finest footballers in the world. The Bianconero was top of the league and Platini had responded to Zico’s brace against Avellino with a goal past Napoli at the San Paolo.
Zico had scored 15 goals after 18 rounds and was leading Platini by two, despite the France international having appeared in all 18 and Zico missing a 2-1 defeat to Sampdoria in November 1983. But the reports claimed the away games overall were the problem, and that he struggled to find the net as a visitor.
“I don’t really want to respond to all the comments, but seven of my 15 goals have come away from home,” he said regarding newspapers in Brazil picking up the stories about him struggling to score on the road in Serie A.
Two more goals in the next two games against Hellas Verona and Fiorentina, one defeat and a win respectively, didn’t help Udinese’s position in the League, but Zico was on 17 goals with 10 rounds remaining in the campaign.
A 2-0 defeat to Inter followed at the Giuseppe Meazza, when Zico injured himself and was missing for the next five matches.
His absence was noted in Udine. The first two ended in one point against Ascoli and a crushing 4-1 defeat in Rome against the Giallorossi. The Friuliani picked up two wins from their next three games, before Zico returned against Juventus for a direct clash with Platini on April 21.
During the rival’s absence, Platini had taken his tally to 19 in 23 rounds, as Zico scored his 18th of the championship at the Stadio Comunale in Turin. But his strike in the 42nd minute during the first half, giving Udinese a 2-1 lead against the top team, was not enough to help them win away from home.
Beniamino Vignola scored his fourth and fifth of the season to hand the Bianconeri a 3-2 win in the second half and Zico, who was close to scoring his 19th in the second period, saw the Friuliani fall to seventh and never recover from the loss.
Zico scored against Lazio in a 2-0 win at home in Week 28, but couldn’t catch Platini, who answered with another against Inter and finished at 20 for the 1983-84 season as Capocannoniere, one better than the Brazilian.
The five games without Zico proved costly both for the player’s aspirations in the top scorer battle with the French star, but also for Udinese’s position in the League. Ending the season with two losses against Napoli and Milan made sure Ferrari’s men finished ninth in the table, one point behind Milan at sixth and trailing champions Juventus by 12.
Forever the greatest
Despite not bettering their position in his first season with Udinese, the signing of Zico in the summer of 1983 is to this date the biggest in the history of the club.
Some might consider him to be more influential than club symbol Antonio Di Natale and the reports claims he sold more shirts than Dino Zoff. The stadium had been sold out, Udine was witnessing something incredible.
The headlines that followed him to Italy worked as the perfect hype and still makes people fondly remember a season finishing ninth in Serie A. If only he would have stayed fit for 30 games…
The flashy star, who could score with both feet and from any angle, had also proven to be a fan-friendly character and a team player instantly embraced by the locals. Luckily, Zico was allowed to embrace the Zebrette with his skills and justify the uproar during the summer.
One could say that a unique career culminated in Udine for the Brazilian and the city has dubbed his period with them as the ‘Golden Age’, when met by sold out stadiums that had even fought for his arrival, threatening to abandon their own citizenship and move the region abroad. Loved before he arrived and forever the greatest to have graced them.
Zico banners still dance in the wind on matchday at the Dacia Arena today, and due to a tax evasion sentence, later revoked, he left his Italian family abruptly after a mere two seasons at the Stadio Friuli, but returned when cleared of the charges to give the fans a proper farewell in 1989. But only for one game…
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