Back in the rookie days of his coaching career, as a promising young manager taking his first foray into the dugouts of Serie A, the 1990-91 season was a voyage of considerable discovery for Claudio Ranieri. The then 38-year-old, just a handful of years into the job after starting out as a coach in amateur football, had made an impression guiding Cagliari to successive promotions from Serie C1 and into the top tier of the Italian game. Under those circumstances surviving, merely avoiding relegation, was a mission in itself. But that 1990-91 season in Serie A taught Ranieri an unforgettable lesson about football’s eternal sense of possibility.
Not only did Cagliari stay up, something else happened in Italy that season that shook up everybody’s idea of calcio’s status quo. This was an era dominated by the excellence of Arrigo Sacchi’s European champions Milan, the scudetto winners from Napoli inspired by Diego Maradona, with muscles flexed by an Internazionale squad that boasted three of the best of the West German world champions in Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme, as well as a Juventus newly boosted with the expensive purchase of Roberto Baggio.
Ranieri took his Cagliari team into the world’s most alluring footballing show, where the establishment had feathers more beautiful than anyone else, only to see the winners that season would not be one of the biggest peacocks. Sampdoria usurped all and sundry to win the title for the first time in their history. Something magical occurred.
Verona had done it a few years previously – another extraordinary anomaly – and this time a Sampdoria side propelled by the blend of Gianluca Vialli’s insatiable attacking play with Roberto Mancini pulling clever strings behind, backed by a solid defence, overcame the rest. Samp lost only three Serie A matches all season. Their coach, the much-travelled Vujadin Boskov, was known for his quirky humour, but within the camp was admired by the players for his smart coaching, sharp psychology and father-figure inspiration.
The president of Sampdoria, Paolo Mantovani, had a plan to take on the big guns based on investing in some of the best young Italian talent. He was popular with the players and would invite them to dinner and ensure they felt valued. Mantovani was also willing to at least match the highest salaries of the day to buy prized young players. Mancini came as a teenager with the golden boy nickname of bambino d’oro. Vialli turned 20 the summer he joined. The technical winger Attilio Lombardo and renowned defender Pietro Vierchowod arrived in their early 20s. They all blossomed into great players in Sampdoria’s classic kit of blue with a flash of white, black and red horizontal stripes.
The Serie A success they engineered, remember, was a quarter of a century ago. Since then in Italy nobody without a title already on their honour roll has finished top. First-time winners, clubs without historical pedigree, are an outright rarity to triumph in modern football. A glance around Europe’s top five leagues indicates how unusual it is to have a new champion, a name not previously inscribed on the domestic trophy. Over the past 20 years across England, Italy, Spain, Germany and France, the title has been won by a previous winner 95 times out of 100.
The exceptions have mostly come in Ligue 1, which has had the greatest variety of champions in that time. Auxerre in 1996, Lens in 1998 and, most recently, Montpellier in 2012 relished their moment in the sun. La Liga last hailed a new winner in 1999-2000 as Deportivo La Coruña stunned the Spanish game despite being an unpretentious enough set-up that they trained in a local park in Galicia.
Ranieri, incidentally, was managing in La Liga at the time so also got to observe once again how a major league can be conquered with an air of the unexpected. The qualities of that Deportivo team were summed up by their long-standing servant, the Brazilian Mauro Silva. “We are a club that still has its limitations. But we have a playing philosophy. As soon as we enter the stadium we are great players who have an appetite for major occasions,” he said.
It felt like a freakish season considering Deportivo won the league with just 69 points. Barcelona, defending champions, lost a remarkable 12 times that season. Real Madrid did not even finish in the top four. For any unusual champion it certainly helps if the usual suspects underperform.
More recently, Wolfsburg took the opportunity to claim the Bundesliga in 2008-09. That was so unexpected that midway through the campaign their coach Felix Magath agreed to take over a rival, Schalke, at the end of the season. At that time he gave little consideration to a grandstand finish. “I didn’t think we could win the title here,” he said. As it turned out a remarkable run over the second half of the campaign delivered the greatest prize for a team renowned for its tough training regime and feisty attacking football, with Edin Dzeko and the Brazilian Grafite breaking goalscoring records (this was the first time a Bundesliga club boasted two players scoring more than 20 goals in a season). They pipped Bayern Munich by two points.
A crest-of-a-wave atmosphere, and a sense that taking on the establishment is something to be relished without fear, are common themes for first time winners. Montpellier’s feat was all the more surprising because they were taking on the nouveau riche Paris Saint-Germain, who had spent heavily in their first season backed by the Qataris who have launched them to the last four Ligue 1 titles.
Olivier Giroud was Montpellier’s top scorer, and put their success down to an ability to “build a team through training, through recruiting players who can become something. You have to fight with other values. The collective, the group spirit. Compared to PSG we had a fraction of their budget. We had less money but a lot of quality. To keep going for the whole season was something extraordinary. We had a young group of guys and we told ourselves we achieved something really huge.”
Montpellier had to hold their nerve to win the title on the final day, and the tension in their last match at relegated Auxerre jangled as the match was stopped three times for crowd disturbances. The Auxerre fans expressed their discontent by lobbing tennis balls, eggs, toilet paper and flares on to the pitch. The Montpellier coach René Girard described it as “the longest night of my life” as the final whistle on the season eventually blew 41 minutes later than scheduled.
If Leicester are to preserve the Premier League lead they have held so boldly for such a long period of this unconventional season, they will join an impressively select group of first-time champions in the modern game. In England it has not happened for 38 years, when Brian Clough cast his spell over Nottingham Forest.
For Leicester, and Ranieri, their shot at history goes on. As the Italian says: “You just need to keep an open mind, an open heart, a full battery, and run free.”