Words: Livio Caferoglu
Maurizio Sarri wasn’t the first coach who tried and failed to bring champagne football to the Old Lady. Juventus may now be the benchmark for Serie A clubs to aspire to, but back in 1990 they had fallen behind Milan and Napoli.
Instead of figuring out their own path, they tried to sample the blueprints of both clubs, signing a superstar a la Diego Maradona in Roberto Baggio and hiring an Arrigo Sacchi-lite of sorts in coach Luigi Maifredi. The Bianconeri thought they were on to a winner going into the 1990-91 campaign, yet it proved anything but and the experiment was cut short after a season devoid of silverware.
Although Juve won the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia double under Dino Zoff the season before, they finished a lowly fourth in Serie A and missed out on the Scudetto for the fourth year running. With an ageing squad and a Michel Platini-shaped void still to be filled, the Old Lady felt an overhaul was needed in the summer of 1990, starting with a change at the top as Luca Cordero di Montezemolo was appointed executive Vice-President, fresh from overseeing Italy’s successful hosting of the 1990 World Cup.
Montezemolo convinced the Agnelli family to fork out no less than 70bn lire (around €35m) on new faces, namely Baggio. Juve paid a then-world record 27bn lire (around €14m) to sign the forward from Fiorentina, whose fans reacted by rioting on the streets of Florence, seeing their most prized possession leave for their arch-rivals. Immediately handed the No 10 jersey, vacant since Platini’s retirement in 1987, the plan was to slot him in behind the promising Pierluigi Casiraghi and unlikely World Cup hero Salvatore Schillaci.
Also arriving in Turin were German world champion Thomas Hassler from Koln and Brazil defender Julio Cesar, plus prospects Eugenio Corini and Paolo Di Canio. They were joined by stoppers Gianluca Luppi and Marco De Marchi, both of whom signed from Bologna at the request of new boss Maifredi. ‘Gigi’ was something of a surprise choice, given he bucked Juve’s trend of hiring coaches known for their defensive discipline or success in the game. Maifredi offered neither, but there was something alluring about him.
Unlike many of his Calcio contemporaries, Maifredi was an advocate of attacking football, utilising a high defensive line and a zonal marking system. His tactics worked wonders at Bologna, where he won promotion to Serie A and earned UEFA Cup qualification in his three seasons. His style was commonly called ‘champagne football’, because his teams played with plenty of fizz and he was a wine sales representative in a past life. For arguably the first time ever, Juve had traded pragmatism for purism.
The Supercoppa with Napoli provided the perfect opportunity for Juve to showcase their new direction, yet a 5-1 defeat only exposed their amateur application of the offside trap. There was one bright spot, however, as Baggio scored his first goal for the club, curling in a free kick. Il Divin Codino – The Divine Ponytail – soon translated that into league form, netting in each of his side’s first three Serie A matches against Parma, Atalanta and Cesena.
“We had problems with Gigi from the start, from when we arrived for pre-season and he didn’t want to give me the captain’s armband,” admitted goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi. “I had to call L’Avvocato [Gianni] Agnelli to get it. Before the Supercoppa against Napoli, some of my teammates asked me to persuade him not to play zonally because no-one had understood his style of play yet. He decided we should mark Maradona zonally and we conceded five!”
Juve struggled for consistency throughout the campaign, but when they were good, they were really good, putting on five-star showings against Roma and Parma without reply. Baggio was particularly instrumental in both big wins and the Bianconeri reached the midway point of the season just one point off league leaders Inter. They were also firing on all cylinders in the Cup Winners’ Cup, scoring 22 goals en route to the semi-finals, and were still in the Coppa Italia by February, setting up a quarter-final with Roma.
However, from February onwards it was a different story. Juve won just three more times in Serie A to tumble out of the title reckoning. They suffered a 2-1 defeat to city rivals Torino in the Derby della Mole – the first of their only two home losses to the Granata since 1990 – and Schillaci’s goals had dried up, ending the season with just five league finishes. The Bianconeri had become overly reliant on Baggio and not even Hassler was able to step up as the team’s playmaker if their talisman was having an off-day.
One of those off-days unfortunately came against Fiorentina. Returning to the Artemio Franchi for the first time since his controversial transfer, Baggio refused to take a penalty and Juve went on to lose 1-0. Viola ultras had booed him all game, yet that didn’t stop Roby from showing them his appreciation, picking up a club scarf one of them threw on to the pitch while he was being substituted. Two days later, hundreds of Old Lady fans barracked the world’s most expensive player during a training session.
Maifredi was a coach who took a laissez-faire approach to management, refraining from drilling tactical instructions into his players and preferring to let their talent shine through. However, there were no real ‘senatori’ on the pitch to guide the younger heads or at least compensate for Gigi’s lack of strong leadership. The Serie A and the Coppa Italia were long gone by the time April dawned and that also seemed to apply to the Cup Winners’ Cup, with Juve 3-1 down from the first leg of their semi-final with Barca.
Despite their disastrous form going into the second leg, Juve came agonisingly close to turning the tie and their season on its head. Baggio’s free kick set the tone for a battling Bianconeri performance, but a second goal couldn’t be found and they exited the tournament. With only European qualification left to play for, they went into their last four Serie A fixtures in fourth, having occupied a top-four place for most of the season, and were therefore expected to at least secure a UEFA Cup spot.
Instead, the worst Milan team of Arrigo Sacchi’s tenure thrashed the Zebrette 3-0 away from home and a 2-0 defeat to Genoa on the final matchday saw them finish seventh. Not only was that their lowest league placing since 1962, when they finished 12th, but their 28-year run in European competition was over. Maifredi was inevitably sacked and Juve took a step back to move forward, with Giampiero Boniperti returning as President and coach Giovanni Trapattoni – who had just won the Scudetto with Inter - replacing Gigi.
“There’s a huge gulf between them,” Tacconi claimed. “Trap’s someone who has played football and knows everything about players. The other coach, his name I won’t even mention because he brings bad luck, arrived as the new prophet of football who won while having fun, and instead he was a disaster. Like many coaches who have never kicked a football, they struggle to understand it and I’d go even further than that: they don’t understand anything.”
Maifredi attempted to bounce back at Bologna the following season, but his reputation never recovered as he was sacked by the Rossoblu and in his next jobs at Genoa, Venezia, Brescia, Pescara, Tunisian side Esperance and Spanish outfit Albacete. The 73-year-old retired from coaching in 2013 and has since dedicated his time to working as a pundit on Italian TV, infamously telling Ciro Ferrara not long before his dismissal in 2010 that he would have taken his Juve side to the top of Serie A.
“I had to and wanted to change the way [Juve] understood football,” he later reflected, looking back on his ill-fated tenure in Turin. “However, don’t forget that we were up against Sacchi’s Milan and Inter’s Germans. I confess that after Juventus, I fell out of love with football and I was wrong to go back to Bologna. I lacked enthusiasm. The truth is that I should’ve taken time off and gone the following year to Samp, who had wanted me for a long time.”
Juve went down the purist path again by dropping Max Allegri for Sarri, a coach considered similar to Maifredi in terms of trajectory and tactics. Although Sarri won the Scudetto, it was a similarly brief tenure on the Bianconeri bench.