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They Are They, We Are We: The Forgotten Genius of Vujadin Boskov

Paul Grech Sunday, August 25, 2013 ,
"Rigore e' quando arbitro da"

If during the eighties you followed Italian football with any degree of interest, then those words (that, incidentally, mean "penalty is when referee gives it") should sound familiar.  As should "se vinciamo siamo vincitori se perdiamo siamo perditori" (if we win we are winners, if we lose we are losers) and "loro sono loro, noi siamo noi" (they are they, we are we).

Those were the words of Vujadin Boskov and those were the kind of soundbites that made him popular with the waiting journalists after games.  It was through such aphorisms that Vujadin Boskov entered Italian society's public consciousness and it is for them that he remains most widely known.

Given the number of coaches that pass through the Serie A in a typical season, and how many come and go without leaving a trace, in itself it is somewhat remarkable that Boskov has remained remembered even if it is for something so superficial.  Yet it is also slightly sad that the memory of the achievements of one the finest mangers ever to grace Italian football doesn't burn as bright as some passing remarks he made.

In a way, however, this provides a fitting parallel for a career where most of his considerable successes came at smaller clubs meaning that those achievements haven't echoed as strongly in the passing of time.

His playing career, spent largely controlling the midfield at unfashionable Vojvodina, certainly typified that.  Winning anything was impossible given the official and unofficial aid provided the two Belgrade sides - Red Star and Partizan - along with Hadjuk Split but Boskov was still good enough to play 57 times for his country.

Unwilling to move to the big clubs, he eventually moved abroad even though it was only when he was 30 that he was allowed by the regime to do so, joining Sampdoria for a season before moving on to Switzerland's Young Boys.

There he received his first managerial appointment after which return home where he managed Vojvodina for seven seasons and led them (albeit as technical director) to a historic first title in 1966.  The following year, Vojvodina would reach the quarter final of the European Cup, going out to eventual winners Celtic having previously beaten favourites Atlético Madrid.  Vojvodina would have probably progressed even further if the need for a new set of floodlights hadn't forced them to sell star striker Silvester Takač to Rennes during the winter break.

For fifteen years, that would be Boskov's most lengthy stint at one club as he embarked in a career that took him to ADO Den Haag, Feyenoord, Real Saragoza, Real Madrid, Sporting Gijon and Ascoli.

That a manager of Boskov's calibre, who in Madrid had won a league title and led the side to the final of the European Cup (where they lost to Liverpool), effectively had to enter Italian football through the back door was indicative of the strength of the Serie A at the time.  Ascoli were a small provincial side struggling at the foot of the table when Boskov was hired and by the end of the season they would be relegated.  Most of the damage had already been done by the time that he was appointed but, even so, it was slightly surprising given Italian standards that he remained the following season.  But it would eventually prove to be a wise choice as Boskov took them straight back up as champions of the Serie B.

In the late eighties, no league in Europe came close to matching the Serie A.  In it played the richest teams who attracted the best players.  Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan had revolutionised the way that the game was played with their high pressing, high intensity game and would go on to dominate in Europe.  At home, however, they had to overcome the challenge of AC Napoli and Diego Maradona.  Then there was Juventus, still strong even though the Platini led era of glory was coming to a close, and Inter then as now willing to throw money around in a bid to win.

Then there was Sampdoria.  A club formed just after the war through a merger between Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria, Sampdoria quickly established themselves as a mid-table Serie A side with just one season in the Serie B in their first three decades of existence.  It wasn't that easy, however, when they got relegated again in 1977, a blow from which they struggled to recover.  For five years they toiled until, in 1982, they managed to win back their place in the Serie A.

Once back, however, they had big plans.  Three years earlier the club had been bought by Paolo Mantovani, a Lazio supporting Roman who moved to Genoa in 1955 and had stayed there, building a multi-million pound business in the process.

Mantovani was a passionate man - once suffering a heart attack during an away game at Cagliari - but he was also a very intelligent one.  Having initially tried to deliver success by spending big to bring in players like Graeme Souness, Liam Brady and Trevor Francis he eventually decided to go down a slightly different route.

Slowly, Mantovani began putting together a team of promising youngsters alongside players that others considered superfluous.  An eighteen year old by the name of Roberto Mancini was signed from Bologna whilst Gianluca Vialli joined as a 20 year old from Cremonese.  There was also Gianluca Pagliuca, a goalkeeper who had come through the ranks whilst Pietro Vierchowood had been brought in from Roma.  Quality and strength in midfield was provided by the arrival of Brazilian Toninho Cerezo, also via Roma.

All those pieces were in place in 1986 when Mantovani decided that he needed a change from the strict disciplinarian that was Eugenio Bersellini.

His choice fell on Vujadin Boskov.

The two couldn't have been better matched.  Both gave the impression of being affable gentlemen and they were, but behind their kindly exterior lay a steely determination to win.  And win they did.

In Boskov's first season, Sampdoria won the Coppa Italia which opened a path to Europe via the Cup Winners' Cup.  They reached the final in that competition but lost to Barcelona.  Having retained the Coppa Italia, they reached the final of the Cup Winners' Cup again the following season and this time beat Anderlecht 2-0.  Suddenly, this small club was making its mark on Europe.

The ambition was there to do even more.  The team had been strengthened by the signing of Srecko Katanec from Stuttgart, a significant coup for Sampdoria.  Yet two relatively minor deals were to have as much of an impact: Attilio Lombardo had been spotted in the lower leagues playing for Cremonese whilst they took a chance on Beppe Dossena, a World Cup winner in 1982 but by then considered a declining force who had spent the previous season in the Serie B (Udinese).

In 1990, Italy had just hosted probably the most extravagant World Cup ever, building huge stadia (at an exorbitant cost) most of which would eventually become white elephants.  At the time, however, this was seen as just another sign of the financial affluence of the Serie A.  It was there that most of the heroes of that World Cup played their league football and those who didn't would eventually be lured there.

Significantly (and sensibly) Genoa's British style Stadio Marassi experienced minimal changes, which seemingly mirrored one of the local tenants' (apart from Sampdoria, Genoa also played there) trend of only retouching the team from season to season.  Whilst the rest of the league began the season hungover from the summer of football, Sampdoria were as hungry as ever.

Despite Vialli's injury forced absence, they opened the season well.   Early season pace-setters Milan were beaten 1-0 whilst Napoli were trashed 4-1 at the San Paolo.

Then came the derby.

Perhaps because local superiority is what they often had to play for, the Genoa derby is possibly the most ferocious in Italy.  Especially in this particular season when there was more than local rivalry at stake.  Not only were Sampdoria top of the league but Genoa, led by the resourceful Osvaldo Bagnoli, were doing almost just as well thanks to the little and large strike force of Tomas Skuhravy and Nelson Aguilera.

They were also determined to win, a determination that was expressed in the ferocity of their tackling and the exhaustive nature of their pressing.  They dominated the first forty five minutes, with Alberigo Eranio putting them ahead after an Aguilera back-flick had put him clean through. A soft penalty in the second half allowed Vialli to level but Genoa wouldn't settle and Branco eventually decided the game with one of this trademark thunderous free-kicks.

Boskov, who in the run up to the derby had stressed that this was just a normal game for them, would reply with a joke when afterwards he was asked whether he was still of the same opinion. "No, it wasn't a game like the others. This time we lost, in the others we didn't."

Although Boskov tried to downplay its significance, that defeat left a mark.  Doubts started to emerge and they would soon suffer two consecutive defeats, at home to Inter and away at Lecce.  Having been top of the league before the derby, Sampdoria ended the first round of games in second place, two points behind Inter.

However, the tide soon turned back in Sampdoria's favour.  As Inter faltered, Sampdoria managed to catch them and the two kept mirroring each other up for two months until a draw against Parma allowed Sampdoria to move ahead.  They wouldn't be caught again.

The key game proved to the one at the San Siro on the 5th of May.  Inter needed to win to get within one point and, with games running out, they knew that this was their last chance.  So too did Sampdoria who set out with one aim: that of not conceding any goals.

It was a situation that fitted in well with Boskov's players and they gladly allowed Inter to have as much possession as they wanted as long as they didn't find a way through a tightly packed defence that at times was made up of eight players.  Sampdoria weren't completely submissive, however.  They knew that with Lombardo's speed along with the creativity of Vialli and Mancini they could create problems.

One of those - Mancini - left the pitch at the end of the first half after an argument with Inter captain Beppe Bergomi saw both players being sent off.  This seemed to galvanise Inter even further but this wasn't going to be their day, however, especially with Gianluca Pagliuca in inspired form in the Sampdoria goal.  The keeper was quite simply amazing, saving everything that came his way including a Lothar Matthaus penalty.

At that stage Sampdoria were already 1-0 up thanks to Dossena's first goal of the season and Vialli would add a second late on, with both goals coming off a counter attack.  When the referee blew the final whistle the Sampdoria players celebrated as if they'd won the title.  In a way, they had.

Inter were now five points behind them whilst Milan were second, four points off the top.  It was simply a case of keeping calm and managing the results.  They almost made a mess of it when they drew against Torino in the following game, allowing Milan to edge closer but the tension lasted only one further week as Milan lost to Bari allowing Sampdoria to celebrate the league win at home with a 3-0 victory over Lecce.  Despite the small squad and the ageing players, Boskov had managed what others had claimed to be impossible.

And achieving the impossible was what he was asked to do the following season.  Retaining the league was always going to be difficult and, in any case, it didn't seem to be a top priority.  The Champions Cup, however, was a different matter.

Such was the strength of the Italian league at the time that even Sampdoria, a side that didn't have a significant history behind it, could enter Europe's elite competition as one of the competition's favourites.

True to form, they breezed through the opening two rounds, overcoming Rosenborg (7-1) and Honved (4-3), which gave them the possibility to enter the group stages where the winner of each of the two groups would go on to play in the final.  Today the format seems alien but at the time UEFA was still experimenting with different systems; looking for a way to extend the competition to include more teams, something that they would do the following season with the creation of the Champions League.

For Sampdoria, it added a level of complexity, more so because they were drawn together with Red Star Belgrade and Anderlecht.  At the time, both those side were considered to be European heavy-weights in particular the Yugoslavs, then the current holders of the competition who could field a side that included the talents of Mirko Belodedic, Vladimir Jugovic, Darko Pancev, Dejan Savicevic and Sinisa Mihajlovic.

For Boskov, it was a return to the past and a meeting with the team that so often had stood between him and success.  This time round, however, he wasn't to be denied.  Sampdoria came out victors at home in the first game of the group stages but by the time they met again they were second, one point behind Red Star.

All of which made the game between the two - played in Sofia because of the growing unrest in Yugoslavia - a decisive one.  The beginning was disastrous.  Without Cerezo, Sampdoria struggled to find their rhythm and when Mihajlovic struck a ferocious shot to put Red Star ahead the task seemed insurmountable.

But Boskov had prepared his team well.  Tactically he had set them up so that they didn't allow Pancev any space in the penalty box but his masterstroke, and indeed his biggest attribute, was how he prepared them mentally.  Indeed, so high was the belief in their abilities that the goal only served to spur them on.  By half time they were ahead and a third goal scored in the second half ensured that they returned home with the two points.

When Red Star lost in Belgium a couple of weeks later, Sampdoria knew they were going to Wembley to play in the final of the Champions Cup.

There they would face Johann Cruyff's Barcelona who, at the time, had yet to win the main European prize.  Nor were they the collection of world stars that they are today.  Even so, they could boast the talents of Michael Laudrup, Andoni Zubizarreta, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichov and a young midfielder by the name of Pep Guardiola.

On the pitch, the two sides were quite finely matched.  Vialli had two glorious opportunities that he uncharacteristically missed whilst Stoichkov hit the post.  Both sides had done their best to win it but neither one managed to do it so the game went into extra time.

There, matters became tighter and the game seemed destined to go to penalties.  This would have suited Boskov fine because he knew that in Pagliuca he had a keeper with an instinctive ability at saving penalties.

But then fate intervened.  Eight minutes from the end Giovanni Invernizzi fell on the ball, touching it with his hand on the way down, when seemingly pushed by a Spanish player.  The referee, however, didn't see it that way and instead gave an indirect free kick to Barcelona.  With the ball placed just outside the penalty area and with Koeman readying to hit it, the Sampdoria players knew what was coming their way and as soon as the referee blew his whistle they rushed to close him down.  Yet the shot was too straight; too strong that it blew through the wall and past Pagliuca's flailing dive.

Sampdoria's and Boskov's dream was over.

That Wembley defeat would also signal the breaking up of the Sampdoria side.  Whilst Mancini agreed to stay on, Vialli left in search of further glories at Juventus and Pagliuca eventually followed suit with a move to Inter. With a number of ageing players and without the finances to replace them, Sampdoria opted to start afresh by investing in young players in the hope that they would eventually recreate the success of those who had preceded them.

Perhaps fearful that his reputation at the club would be tainted should he fail or else mindful that he didn't have the energy to undertake such a rebuilding job, Boskov too decided to leave.  His destination was AS Roma, a club with big ambitions but a fractured dressing room which Boskov couldn't heal.  A seventh place finish meant that his stay in the capital city wasn't extended beyond one season and Boskov moved on to enjoy two fairly satisfying years at Napoli followed a year in Switzerland with Servette.

Boskov eventually returned to Genoa in 1997 at a point with Sampdoria in crisis after Cesare Menotti had endured a horrendous start to the season. Perhaps Boskov had dreams of picking up where he had left off but it wasn't to be. By that point Sampdoria were a completely different club who had never really recovered from the death of Paolo Mantovani.  His son had taken over the running of the club but the ambition of old was no longer there.

So, after that season came to an end Boskov left.  His passion for coaching saw him spend some time with Perugia and then as manager of the Yugoslav national team before calling it a day.  Ten years had passed from his Serie A title win and he hadn't gotten close to replicating that success.

Then again, he didn't need to.

"In my life I've won but the scudetto won with Sampdoria was the most beautiful; the sweetest.  Because I won it in the most difficult and most balanced league in the world and because it was the first for a club that had yet to celebrate half a century of existence.  It is a bit like when your first child is born.  The joy is greater."

This article originally appeared on In Bed With Maradona.


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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer