BY GLENN BILLINGHAM
Football fans of a certain age and/or taste will be lovingly familiar with Football Italia. Throughout the early nineties, Serie A was at its most captivating, and a magnet for the world’s best footballers. With England’s Premier League in its infancy, Channel Four, and producer-turned-presenter James Richardson, made Serie A wonderfully accessible to UK viewers. Richardson, with his charming ability to wear the hats of both an in-the-know and fluent local, and a completely captivated fan, was one of us. Despite failed attempts for an Italian football highlights show on Welsh TV, and an early incarnation of BSkyB, Football Italia was propelled to prominence and success by signing with Channel Four prior to the 1992/93 season. For the first time ever, Serie A would be shown live on British TV. Sunday September 6th 1992 saw the start of a brave new world, and Sampdoria v Lazio didn’t disappoint.
Sampdoria entered the fixture with a weight of expectancy. The Genoa-based club won their one and only scudetto in 1991, and narrowly lost the European Cup final to Barcelona just months prior. Despite losing star striker Gianluca Vialli to Juventus in a summer of change, Roberto Mancini remained, as did an attacking midfield. Contrastingly, Lazio, who had narrowly avoided a humbling relegation to Serie C in 1986, were steadying themselves in the upper echelons of mid-table Serie A. Sergio Cragnotti had assumed power in the summer of 1992 and started his lavish project of transfer fee record breaking. The first notable signing of the ‘Cragnotti era’ was, of course, Paul Gascoigne. Gazza, though, was still nursing his knee injury and didn’t play till week three of the season, which was another live fixture on Channel Four against Genoa. Making debuts on 6th September 1992, along with boss Sven-Goran Eriksson were English defender Des Walker and Vladimir Jugovic for the home side. Playing for the first time in Lazio colours were Aaron Winter, Diego Fuser and Giuseppe Signori.
With viewers in England enthusiastic for the unknown, primed for excitement, and tantilisingly briefed by James Richardson, the first round of the season kicked-off in front of a capacity crowd at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. If some viewers were pessimistically expecting a show of the defensive arts of catenaccio, they were to be disappointed.
Three goals inside the first twenty-two minutes, all from debutants, set the tone for an open, enthralling, and often tense opening to the campaign. Sampdoria struck first. Lazio’s Uruguayan winger, Diego Fuser, broke the deadlock with an unfortunate own goal from a corner. Signori, making his first appearance of what would become a fairytale five years with Lazio, then struck twice in three minutes. Restoring parity with a poachers finish from a narrow angle and giving Lazio the lead with a neat left-footed drive from the edge of the area. Seven minutes before half-time, parity was restored once more. Another debutant, Vladimir Jugovic who was signed on the insistence of out-going manager Vujadin Boskov, equalised for Sampdoria. Shortly after the break, Roberto Mancini put the home side 3-2 up with a powerful penalty. Another own goal decided the match with fifteen minutes remaining. Renato Buso was the unfortunate man this time, deflecting in a Lazio corner to make the score 3-3.
Lazio had finished the previous campaign in mid-table, yet with a summer of eyebrow-raising transfers, the hype of Cragnotti’s investment was starting to build. Gascoigne would go on to enthral and infuriate in equal measure, yet only endear himself to the majority of Lazio fans in the process. Beginning with their fifth place finish in 1992/93, the Rome club would finish in the top five of Serie A across six consecutive seasons, initially under the continued stewardship of Dino Zoff, and then Zdenek Zeman. In continuing a theme of players and managers appearing for both teams across their careers, Sven Goran Eriksson became the Lazio manager in 1998, and led them to their remarkable 2000 scudetto.
Sampdoria ended the 1992/93 season in seventh place, and under Eriksson, would finish the season by confirming their own marquee signings in David Platt and Ruud Gullit. The 1993/94 campaign would see Sampdoria claim a top-three position in Serie A, and the 1994 Coppa Italia, yet ultimately never recapture the form of their 1991 success.
James Richardson labeled italian football at the time, ‘technically sophisticated, tactically complex, and almost geometrically precise’, and on the showing of its first live match, Serie A served up a wonderfully curious balance of entertainment. Enough to equally please the aficionados who understood Richardson’s comments, and the ‘philistines’ who interpreted Richardson’s descriptions as ‘boring’. The mid to late nineties would see Football Italia go from strength to strength, and earn a fabled place amongst the heart and memory of countless football fans in Britain.
However, from such rich beginnings, came, maybe inevitably, such a humble end. As England’s Premier League slowly replaced Serie A in terms of finance, pulling power, and ultimately entertainment, fewer of world football’s big names would grace Serie A, and viewing figures dipped. Football Italia stopped broadcasting on Channel Four at the end of the 2001/02 season. Following a few months hiatus, the show returned on British Eurosport, again fronted by James Richardson, where it remained until 2005. By this time Lazio’s scudetto was something of a fading memory and Paul Gascoigne had just called time on a spell at Boston United. By the 2005/06 season, Bravo was the only UK channel willing or able to host the show, and despite offering the intriguing punditry partnership of Lee Sharpe and Ron Atkinson, Italy’s 2006 calciopoli scandal represented the final nail in the coffin in terms of viewing figures. Channel Five tried to rescue the show’s legacy for the 2007/08 season, but their Football Italiano show, hosted by Mark Chapman and Laura Esposto, lasted just a season.