There was a certain kind of serendipity about Channel 4 securing the rights to broadcast Serie A in the summer of 1992. It was a transformational year for football, one that included the rebranding of the top division in England, an unlikely international tournament winner in Denmark and the lifting of restrictions around foreign players. Coupled with the rebranding of the European Cup to the UEFA Champions League, ‘92 was a monumental shift that would see money flood into the game.
Transfers have always been a key part of the football landscape and as the restrictions around travel and player movement relaxed the pool of available players increased. One nation that had already set the bar for record transfers was Italy. The spending power of Italian clubs was unrivalled and it gave their clubs success on the continent as well as a strong national side.
A marker for their spending power was the dominance of Italian sides in the transfer market. The clubs consistently out did each other in the spending stakes, which manifested itself in total dominance of transfer spending.
In the forty years before the summer of ‘92, there had been fourteen world record transfers. On twelve occasions the buying club was Italian. For the record, one of the non-Italian transfers was Johan Cruyff from Ajax to Barcelona and the other Diego Maradona to Barcelona. Incidentally, Maradona would break his own record two years later when, yes, he moved to Italy.
Before the transfer merry-go-round of that summer began, the man who held the transfer record was an Italian who left Fiorentina for Juventus; Roberto Baggio. His move, in the region of approximately £8m, came off the back of his fantastic form that led Fiorentina to the UEFA Cup Final and his starring role on home soil at Italia ‘90. The move was also an attempt by Juventus to challenge the dominance of the Milan side that had dominated at home and abroad.
One of the main reasons behind the Italian club’s dominance in the transfer market was the wealth of club owners. Silvio Berlusconi at Milan and the Agnelli family at Juventus had the ability to write blank cheques when it came to signing new players. The summer of ‘92 also heralded the arrival of Sergio Cragnotti and his deep pockets at Lazio, ready to spend to tackle the dominance of Juventus and the Milan clubs.
Financially, other nations could not compete. In the newly formed Premier League, the marquee transfer was the sale of Alan Shearer from Southampton to Blackburn for the British record sum of £3.6m. Barely a drop in the ocean considering that was only slightly more than Barcelona had paid Boca Juniors for Diego Maradona a decade prior. The notable transfer development in England was an increase in the amount of £1m signings made by Premier League clubs. Largely down to the influx of money from the new BSkyB TV deal, it was merely a fraction of what Italian teams were about to spend.
The spending in Serie A reached record levels that summer, but there was no yellow ticker tape on a 24 hour news channel because it was still the back pages that contained transfer rumours. Daily reporters filled gossip columns with news from club sources to hint at a club’s transfer plans.
At the time, there was no summer and winter transfer window to squeeze deals in so clubs spent much more time negotiating to get their plans. It also appeared that clubs had more of a coherent plan as normally players had to leave before new ones arrived. It was rare that clubs would make huge signings during the season as this did not help with team harmony. Squads were much smaller in the early ‘90s, but with the influx of new European competitions they were starting to grow.
Transfers themselves work like dominos. One player moves and it sets in motion a chain of events that creates transfer after transfer. Alternatively, and often the case in Serie A, club owners pumped in additional funds every summer for their managers to spend as they wish.
Before taking a look at the eye-watering sums shelled out by Serie A’s two most dominant clubs, there were two other eye-catching transfers. Both players were mercurial talents with very different skill sets, backgrounds and potential; George Weah and Paul Gascoigne.
Weah was a star in France. An excellent striker with fantastic dribbling ability and a calmness in front of goal, he became prolific for Monaco under Arsene Wenger after being signed for a mere £12,000. His goal ratio stood at almost one in every two games and garnered the Liberian plenty of attention from other clubs.
Paris Saint-Germain were the team that came calling and spent £5m on bringing Weah to the capital. He would have a fantastic first season in Paris, reaching the UEFA Cup semi-finals, but falling short against Juventus. It wouldn’t be long before he impressed in the Champions League and once the riches and prestige of Serie A came calling he moved to Milan in 1995.
The complete opposite to Weah was Gascoigne, a cheeky practical joker for whom football seemed like something that was more a hobby than a career. His precocious nature and showmanship on the pitch wowed his peers and took him to the hearts of football fans across the world.
The emergence of Gascoigne at Italia ‘90 caught the eye of Lazio’s wealthy owner Cragnotti. The mega-rich owner wanted to splash the cash on a superstar to challenge the monopoly on the Scudetto.
After deciding to stay at Tottenham after the World Cup, Gazza agreed to join Lazio for what would have been a world record £8.5m in the summer of 1991. The only problem was the horrific, and self-inflicted, injury he suffered in the 1991 FA Cup final. This delayed the transfer by a year and severely impeded Gazza’s progress to become one of the best players in the world.
After a year of rehabilitation, Gazza finally got his move to Rome and was welcomed by an adoring public. The fee this time was £5.5m as he had become an almost unknown quantity after a year of intense and heavily scrutinised rehabilitation. Lazio and Cragnotti hoped they would be getting the same player that startled everyone two years earlier with his mesmeric dribbling and football intelligence.
Gazza, for a short while, became the face of Football Italia, further enhancing the popularity of the person, but alluding to the way he had changed as a footballer. There will always be the ‘What if?’ scenario with a player like Gascoigne, especially if he had been able to make the move to Lazio a year earlier as planned, before his injury. Maybe then, he would have been a truly transformational talent. As it turned out, his best years were behind him, but the Lazio fans were treated to some memorable moments with him in the side.
While Lazio greeted their new hero, Milan and Juventus were busy battling it out at the top of the transfer tree to reign supreme. Three signings made by the two rivals cost over £30m and broke the transfer record three times.
Both of these teams had enjoyed periods of dominance of the preceding twenty years. At first, it was Juventus under Giovanni Trapattoni with players like Michel Platini and Paolo Rossi, until that gave way to the Sacchi revolution at Milan and his successor Fabio Capello. The Dutch triumvirate of Ruud Gullit (himself a world record transfer), Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard fit perfectly into the aggressive, pressing game pioneered by Sacchi.
Juventus on the other hand, were left behind under various managers and poor finishes in the league. Cup successes were not enough to keep a manager in a job at the Stadio delle Alpi and so that’s why the architect of their previous domination, Trapattoni, returned. Juve were out to take Milan’s domestic and European crown and one way to do it was to compete in the transfer market.
Milan made the first move when they broke Baggio’s transfer record by signing French forward Jean-Pierre Papin for £10m from Marseille. Berlusconi was desperate to quash any challenge from Juventus and continue his club’s domination after an unbeaten Serie A season. Adding Papin was part of a wider transfer strategy to bring in an unprecedented amount of foreign players and ultimately replace the Dutch trio of Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten. It also played into Capello’s desire to have a larger squad and pioneer a rotation strategy to his team selection.
Papin had been prolific in an exciting Marseille team that, despite being rife with corruption off the pitch, played some startling football on it. He had broken the 30-goal barrier for the last four seasons and had been singled out by Van Basten as someone that would compliment him up front. The deal was done and Milan had broken Juve’s transfer record.
Not to be outdone, Juve secured their long standing target Gianluca Vialli of Sampdoria. The plan was to pair the hard-working number nine with Baggio as the creator and goal scorer behind him. His fee would have to surpass that of Papin, not only because that transfer had set the market, but Juventus wanted their record breaking transfer crown back.
Juve then paid £12m to sign Vialli and add to a forward line that included Baggio, the burgeoning talent of Paolo Di Canio and Pierluigi Casiraghi and a young Fabrizio Ravanelli. It would not be the end of Juve or Milan’s spending as both sides continued to outdo each other in the transfer market.
When Gianluigi Lentini was sold to Milan for £13m, Vialli’s record transfer had lasted for a matter of weeks. The furore this transfer created hit Lentini’s former employers Torino hard. It could have been much worse for Turin’s second side if the transfer had gone to plan and he had signed for Juve. It was a real surprise when the winger joined Milan, no less than for Agnelli and the Juve board.
The signing of Lentini sent shockwaves around football. Despite the large sums shelled out for Papin and Vialli, the winger was unproven at the highest level after a couple of good seasons with Torino. It was unusual to pay such a high fee for a player of Lentini’s age and experience.
The transfer itself would end up being a disaster for a number of reasons, but at the time it looked like Milan had got one over on their rivals for a young player ready to breakout.
Not content with two record breaking signings, Milan’s spending continued. Capello was determined to rotate his squad so further enhanced it by spending close to £12m on Dejan Savicevic, Stefano Eranio and Fernando Di Napoli. Juve had a huge task on their hands when their strongest rivals had strengthened in such a dramatic way. The strongest team in Italy had just got much stronger.
Juve themselves bolstered the rest of the squad with some further additions to go along with the marquee signing of Vialli.
The first added to the bunch was another the most expensive Englishman at the time David Platt. Juve splashed out £7m on the midfielder from recently relegated Bari. Even though he had been part of a team demoted to Serie B, Platt had impressed, along with his showings for England at Italia ‘90. It is interesting to note here that the fee for Platt was higher than that of Gazza. A small footnote, but one that is not always remembered.
Fighting for a position in the side alongside Platt would be Andreas Moller who signed for £2.6m. Another German to make the move from the Bundesliga from Serie A, Moller would become a star under the tutelage of Trapattoni, who was in his second spell with the club after a brief, but successful, spell at Inter.
Both squads were at full strength and the prediction was that no one else would be able to come close to them on the pitch thanks to their spending off it. In truth, this was not the case and Juventus could not get their team selection right in order to maintain a long term challenge to Milan at the top. It was the other Milan side, Inter, that almost punished Milan for their poor late season form, finishing in second place.
After a poor season, by their standards, Inter rebooted their squad by selling the German trio of Jurgen Klinsmann, Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthäus. Now Inter had space for some new international stars and were not shy in splashing the cash.
Igor Shalimov who moved from Foggia to Inter for £8m. A huge fee that matched that paid by Juventus for Baggio. Now, Shalimov was not in the same league as Baggio, but he was a very talented wide midfielder who had proved himself in a Foggia team that finished only two points behind Inter in the 1991/92 season.
In came Matthias Sammer to replace Matthaus, while Darko Pancev, Ruben Sosa and Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillachi arrived to bolster their forward line. Schillachi and Sosa had already proven themselves in Serie A with Juventus and Lazio respectively, but Sammer and Pancev were both risks. Serie A was a difficult league with elite defenders on every team and these unproven recruits would not settle with Sammer sold to Dortmund only six months later.
Ruben Sosa was the real star of the season for Inter, scoring 20 goals and finishing as the fourth highest scoring in the league. He would repeat the feat the following season alongside another new signing, Dennis Bergkamp, as Inter tried to muscle in at the top of Serie A.
Inter pushed Milan close but in truth, Milan never really looked like losing their crown due to their incredible run in the early part of the season. Capello’s rotation system worked wonders and Milan reached the Champions League final. Ironically, his side would lose to Marseille who had spent the money they made on the Papin deal and signed Alen Boksic from AS Cannes and Rudi Voller from Roma. The domino effect in full force.
Of all the signings made that summer, it was probably those at the lower end of the market that proved to be the most successful like Sosa, Moller and Brian Laudrup at Fiorentina. Papin and Vialli certainly found form at certain points, but never consistently enough to justify their huge price tags. Lentini’s season and career was blighted by a terribly unfortunate injury record and the weight of a record-breaking transfer fee.
Italian teams continued to spend in the rest of the ‘90s went on, but the growing wealth in Spain and England meant that the talent pool in Serie A was diluted. The Galactico revolution in Madrid certainly changed the makeup of the transfer records. Since the £13m Milan paid for Lentini in ‘92, an Italian team has held the transfer record only three of the last thirteen occasions. An almost direct contrast to the record for the previous 40 years.
In the current financial climate, and in the midst of a pandemic, the scale of the spending seen in Serie A may not be seen again for a while. Certainly when the spending from 1992/93 is compared to other leagues. Effectively, two clubs outspent the whole of another league, which will never happen again. That will not stop journalists and social media accounts consistently posting rumour after rumour about where players will stop off next. And really, that’s part of the fun of football. The gossip, the rumour and the transfers.