BY ROB CONLON
“A jockey doesn’t have to have been born a horse.”
Not only did Arrigo Sacchi manage AC Milan to back-to-back European Cup triumphs, as well as guide Italy to the 1994 World Cup final, but he also holds the honour of producing one of the most bizarrely profound football quotes in history.
Sacchi’s philosophical rebuttal was provoked by questions over his ability to manage at the highest level of the game having never been a player of any repute himself. Even to this day, little of Il Professore’s pre-Milan days are known outside of Italy. This is especially surprising as it was during his two-year tenure at Parma that he planted the seeds of his footballing revolution.
While Sacchi may not have been a horse, he was in fact a salesman for his father’s shoe factory. Undeterred by his ability, or lack thereof, to play football, he decided instead to coach the game. Inspired by the innovation and attacking brilliance of Holland’s total football, he made it his quest to rid Italy of its stereotypical defensive style of play, catenaccio. “Italy has a defensive culture, not just in football. For centuries, everybody invaded us,” he quipped.
He arrived at Parma in 1985 after spells as youth coach of Fiorentina and Cesena, as well as manager of Rimini, who he almost guided to the Serie C1 title. At that point in time, the Gialloblu were far from their 90s pomp, and were languishing in the third tier of the Italian leagues.
At the halfway stage of Sacchi’s first season in charge, Parma led the league by four points. The second half proved to be much more difficult, with a defeat to AC Pavia and three goalless home draws at home to Trento, S.P.A.L and Piacenza threatening to derail their campaign. However, the team held its nerve to produce a late-season flourish, earning promotion to Serie B with a 2-0 victory over Sanremese on the final day of the season.
Amongst the scorers that day was a 17-year-old Allessandro Melli, who struck his first goal for the club. Melli would go on to play a major role in Parma’s subsequent success, winning the Coppa Italia and scoring in the 3-1 victory over Royal Antwerp in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final as part of the early 90s side which contained the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Faustino Asprilla and Tomas Brolin.
Although Sacchi’s teams became known for their positive approach to the game, his Parma hardly neglected their defensive duties. He did not yet have the likes of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, who he would go on to coach at AC Milan, at his disposal. With Marco Rossi finishing the campaign as the club’s top scorer with a modest haul of 10 goals, il mister instead relied on a stringent defence which conceded only 14 times in 34 matches. However, whereas past Italian sides had always revolved around a sweeper and man marking, the Prophet of Fusignano opted to get rid of the libero and instead deployed a system of zonal marking.
The following season would prove to be Sacchi’s last as manager of Parma. Having seemingly made the step up in leagues with relative ease, the club was rocked by the death of their former player Bruno Mora. Mora, who was widely regarded as one of the best wingers to play for Italy, was a youth coach at the club, but passed away aged only 49 due to a stomach tumour.
At the time of his passing, the team were performing above all expectations and looked to be heading for back-to-back promotions. Eventually, Parma would finish a respectable seventh, four points off automatic promotion and three points outside of the play-off places. Once more the defence had been the bedrock of the side, although the attractive football Sacchi preached was beginning to come to fruition. Despite the enterprising style of play, yet again finishing proved costly, with summer signing Mario Bortolazzi leading the club’s scoring charts with a paltry seven goals to his name.
That season’s Coppa Italia proved to be the opportunity Sacchi required to showcase his credentials. Drawn in Group 6 alongside a certain AC Milan, a 1-0 win at the San Siro – courtesy of Davide Fontolan’s ninth-minute strike – ensured Parma qualified for the next round, finishing above the Rossoneri in the process. This result caught the eye of new Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, who may have been drawn to the manager’s eccentric spirit. As John Foot notes in his book Calcio, Sacchi stood out as “a young, balding manager with huge glasses and even bigger sunglasses (which he ‘also wore at night’) – his professorial style seemed out of place in the hysterical, macho world of Italian football.”
If that result grabbed Berlusconi’s attention, he was left in no doubt who he wanted as his next head coach when the two clubs were again paired in the round of 16. A Milan squad which contained the likes of Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Donadoni, as well as English duo Ray Wilkins and Mark Hateley, had already been warned of the threat Parma posed, but were again defeated 1-0 at the San Siro, with Bortolazzi netting a late winner against his former club. Milan had the chance to atone for the two previous upsets when they travelled to Il Tardini for the second leg, but for the third consecutive match they could not find a way past Parma’s young goalkeeper Marco Ferrari. Berlusconi’s mind had been made up for him, and before long it was reported Sacchi was on his way to the capital the following season.
Sacchi’s stay at Parma may have been relatively brief, but his influence on the club was telling. While he went on to form one of the greatest teams ever in Milan, it did not take long for his successors at Parma to guide the side to Serie A, and enjoy a trophy-laden decade during the 90s. This success has been somewhat tarnished by their subsequent demise this century, which culminated in their demotion to Serie D earlier this year. It would be the understatement of the decade to suggest they could do with another Sacchi. Frankly, they should just be grateful he was never born a horse.
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