Gianluca Pagliuca lay belly down on the Wembley pitch. His eyes, exhausted and defeated, locked on to the ball that had thundered past him. He had guarded his goal supremely all night but, as the net rippled apologetically and a sea of orange shirts paraded past him towards the corner flag, it was clear that the game was up. Ronald Koeman had shattered Sampdoria hearts in the 112th minute of the 1992 European Cup final in London.
Three weeks earlier in Amsterdam, the Genoa goalkeeper Simone Braglia bellowed in frustration as he was beaten by shot from another Dutchman. Dennis Bergkamp punched the sky in jubilation after scoring for Ajax in a Uefa Cup semi-final. Genoa still had time to get back into the tie, but it felt like a sucker punch. Braglia’s disappointment was justified. Ajax would go on to win the trophy.
Having come so far, both Genoese clubs had fallen short. Never had two clubs from the same city won the two top European trophies (Milan and Inter would become the first clubs to achieve this feat just two years later). Even though the two underdogs from Genoa did not secure the trophies, the romance of their story remains undiminished.
As Italy’s busiest port, Genoa has been welcoming visitors to the peninsula for centuries. But the city’s football clubs are no very well travelled. That changed a brief moment in the early 1990s. After appointing Vujadin Boskov in 1986, Sampdoria put together a run of top-five finishes in Serie A in 1988, 1989 and 1990. The Serb slowly and shrewdly built a squad that could trade punches with the heavyweights of the division. With Pietro Vierchowod, Attilio Lombardo and Brazil international Toninho Cerezo all expertly recruited, they won the Coppa Italia in 1988 and 1989, as well as lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1990.
Sampdoria’s newfound success owed much to the two jewels in their crown: Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli. The “goal twins” struck up a delectable partnership to fire Sampdoria to their first, and so far only, league title in 1991. With Mancini finding space between the lines and Vialli finding the net (often followed by his trademark somersault celebration), they swept all before them to secure an unexpected title and qualify for the European Cup for the first time.
Genoa were less star-studded, but just as effective. Czech striker Tomas Skuhravy, fresh from finishing second in the race for the golden boot at Italia 90, was signed to play alongside the diminutive Uruguayan forward Carlos Aguilera. The two struck up a classic little-and-large partnership immediately, with Aguilera equalling his strike partner’s tally of 15 league goals in the 1990-91 season despite being a foot shorter than him.
With Skuhravy and Aguilera’s goals driving them on, Osvaldo Bagnoli’s side recorded their best season since the second world war, going undefeated at home and finishing fourth in Serie A. The manager behind Hellas Verona’s miracle title of 1985 had led Italy’s oldest club into Europe for the first time in their history.
Sampdoria reach the European Cup final at first attempt
The Luigi Ferraris stadium, which the clubs share, is a peculiar structure. With its four looming pillars, one in each corner, it stands as the antithesis of the modern-day stadiums. Built in 1911 and dubbed “Marassi” after the local neighbourhood, it had to wait a long time before it hosted a European Cup match. Danish champions Rosenborg were the first visitors in competition, travelling to Italy in September 1991 for the first round.
It only took 11 minutes for the first goal to arrive, Lombardo setting the tone in a 5-0 rout, before a 2-1 win in Trondheim sealed Sampdoria’s progression. The second-round draw pitted the Italian champions against Budapest Honved, who took a 2-1 lead into the second leg in Genoa. Again, Lombardo settled the nerves with a glancing back-post header to level the tie, before Vialli made Honved’s equaliser on the night redundant with a brace to take Sampdoria through to the group stage with a 4-3 aggregate win.
In the group, Sampdoria were drawn against Panathinaikos, reigning European champions Red Star Belgrade and Anderlecht, who they had beaten in the Cup Winners’ Cup final the year before. The four teams were fairly evenly matched, but Sampdoria squeezed through to the final as winners, with Vialli and Mancini scoring three goals apiece to make the difference.
Their 3-1 win over Red Star in the penultimate game proved crucial. With the Yugoslav Wars rumbling on in their homeland, the champions were not allowed to defend their title in their own stadium and instead had to travel to Sofia and Budapest for their “home” games. After coming from behind to win in Sofia, Sampdoria drew with Panathinaikos in their final game and topped the group. They had reached the European Cup final at the first time of asking just 46 years on from their formation.
And so to Wembley. In truth, it was not Sampdoria’s best performance. Pagliuca kept Barcelona’s famed “dream team” at bay for much of the match, while the usually merciless Vialli found his ruthless streak in front of goal had deserted him.
The game was goalless and trundling towards penalties, where an inspired Pagliuca would have fancied his chances, when Eusebio Sacristán went to ground after a tangle of legs with Sampdoria substitute Giovanni Invernizzi. The referee blew for a free-kick, giving Barcelona a big chance. It was an harsh decision and one that would prove costly for the Italians.
Three men stood over the ball, each capable of plunging the dagger into the hearts of those in white. Hristo Stoichkov rolled it to José Mari Bakero and the goal looked inevitable even before it left Koeman’s boot. Barcelona were European champions for the first time and Sampdoria are still waiting for another chance to play in the Champions League.
Genoa make their debut in Europe
The day after Sampdoria thrashed Rosenborg in the first round of the European Cup, Genoa travelled to Spain to face an Oviedo side who were also playing in Europe for the first time. After losing the first leg 1-0, they turned it around in front of an expectant home crowd back in Italy. In a remarkably bad-tempered game that swung on a red card for Oviedo forward Marius Lacatus, they finally got their wish as Skuhravy flicked Gennaro Ruotolo’s cross beyond the keeper in the final minute. It was the big Czech’s second headed goal of the game after a flying effort in the first half, and it sent Genoa through 3-2 on aggregate.
Next up were Dinamo Bucharest, who were comfortably beaten 3-1 in Genoa, with Aguilera scoring a brace, before the Uruguayan sealed progression in the away leg, grabbing the second goal in a 2-2 draw. Genoa were back in Romania in the next round to overcome Dinamo’s local adversaries, Steaua Bucharest, and set up a quarter-final against one of the giants of the game.
Liverpool were not the side they had been a few years earlier, but they had plenty of European experience. The presence of the former Sampdoria hardman Graeme Souness in the dugout gave the Genoa players an added incentive. They won the first leg 2-0 at a raucous Stadio Luigi Ferraris thanks to two fantastic goals. A dipping volley from Valeriano Fiorin gave them the lead before a scorching free-kick from Brazilian left-back Branco left Liverpool with a mountain to climb back at Anfield.
Despite the result, the feeling among the English media was that Liverpool would turn it around and that Genoa would wilt under Anfield’s famous atmosphere. Instead, they rose to the occasion, with Aguilera stealing the show at Anfield. His two goals either side of Ian Rush’s consolation gave Genoa a well-deserved 4-1 win over the two legs. This was becoming a brilliant debut European campaign for the club.
Confidence was so high after the quarter-finals that the players were openly fielding questions about who they would prefer to face in the final. It didn’t take long for that confidence to be knocked back, as Ajax took the lead just 40 seconds into the first leg of the semi-final in Italy. Bryan Roy added a second for the Dutch side in the second half before Aguilera dragged Genoa back into the tie with two goals, the second a delightful flicked volley with the outside of his right boot that went in off the bar.
As Genoa looked to be escaping with a draw to take into the second leg, Bergkamp’s perfectly weighted through ball sent Aron Winter one-on-one with Braglia in the 89th minute. His dinked finish outlined the class Ajax had in their ranks and showed how good Genoa would have to be in Amsterdam to make the final.
Genoa started well in the second leg, Maurizio Iorio scoring to level the tie at 3-3 on aggregate, but their hopes of making it an all-Italian final against Torino evaporated when Bergkamp pounced on a loose ball in the area and slammed it into the roof of the net. There was to be no way back for the tiring away side. Like their city neighbours, they had fallen short.
Neither Sampdoria nor Genoa have hit the heights they enjoyed in that 1991-92 campaign. Both managers left the city that summer, Boskov joining Roma and Bagnoli swapping Genoa for Inter, and the clubs faded into the background of Italian football. Genoa were relegated just four years later, falling as low as the third division in the mid-2000s before successive promotions took them back to Serie A in 2007.
The clubs have rarely played in Europe since that glorious season, but what a run it was. Had it not been for two two Dutchmen, Genoa could have become the footballing capital of Europe – for one glorious summer at least.