Atalanta vs Napoli Throwback: The Infamous Coin Thrown at Alemao

Can the course of a Serie A season be altered by a little coin worth less than five-euro cents? Think about it: the outcome of the most powerful, rich, and competitive league in the world – such was the Serie A between the 1980s and the late 1990s – is decided by an insignificant penny.

It sounds peculiar to say the least, but the regular Serie A fans will know that everything can happen in Italy as long as football is concerned. And so, in the long story of the Italian top-flight, one can also find the occurrence when a coin thrown at Napoli player Alemao from the stands of the then Stadio Comunale resulted in Atalanta losing a match by forfeit and in the Partenopei gaining two points that would turn decisive in view of assigning the 1989/90 Scudetto.

It is an episode that, even more than 30 years later, continues to be partially shrouded in mystery and the source of mutual accusations between the fans of title contenders Napoli and Milan.

But if the conclusion of the 1989/90 Serie A season was, so to say, controversial, the battle that led to its contested climax was an absolute thriller. Ahead of the 1990 World Cup, which Italy was ready to host, the Serie A was overflowing with talents. It was the home of four quarters of the football nobility of those days.

There was the Milan degli Olandesi (“Milan of the Dutchies”, featuring Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, and Franklin Rijkaard), the Inter dei Tedeschi (“Inter of the Germans” – Jurgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthaus, Andreas Brehme), and of course, Diego Maradona’s Napoli. There was Sampdoria and their Gemelli del Gol (“Goalscoring Twins” Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini), while Roberto Baggio was still playing for a mid-table club like Fiorentina.   

So strong was the grip of calcio on the world of football that all the three European Cups that season were won by representatives from the Belpaese. Milan captured the European Cup, Sampdoria triumphed in the Cup Winners Cup, and Juventus prevailed in an all-Italian UEFA Cup Final against Fiorentina.

Winning the Scudetto was even more difficult that winning a European trophy. And so, while running riot in Europe, Milan and Napoli also gave life to an exciting head-to-head domestically. The Azzurri inflicted the Rossoneri a sounding 3-0 defeat at the San Paolo, but Milan repaid the courtesy in the reverse fixture by the same score. Both clubs lost points in the most unexpected places since there were no pushovers in the Serie A back then and even relegation-battling sides like Ascoli or Cremonese could come up with the upset of the day.

Ahead of matchday 30 on April 8, 1990, Milan topped the table with a one-point lead over Napoli. The Partenopei were to face Atalanta in Bergamo while the Devils received Bologna at the San Siro.

We just said that: there were no easy matches in Serie A back in the day. And so, with 75 minutes on the clock, both games were still goalless as the two Scudetto hopefuls struggled to find the net. It looked like only a cliché “random episode” could change the course of either game.

That is exactly what happened in Bergamo, even though the episode in question cannot entirely be defined “random”.

From the stands of the Stadio Comunale, a coin was thrown (it was never found out by who…) and hit Napoli’s Brazilian player Alemao to the head. Alemao collapsed to the ground. He was wounded and was indeed bleeding a bit from his head. However, to most external observers the wound appeared superficial, and it looked like the mustached Napoli midfielder was ready to restart play.

Then, a new character entered the story, one whose name would have probably been forgotten, had not been for his timely intervention. Napoli physiotherapist Salvatore Carmando came to check for the player. He theatrically messed around Alemao like he was bleeding to death, pushing against his wound a cotton ball that stubbornly remained white. Then he took a decision, likely backed, or even pushed by his management. Alemao was rushed to a hospital.

The game at the Comunale ended 0-0, and so did the battle at the San Siro.

Now, in retrospect, what was the need for such a scene? The answer lies in the Serie A regulations back in the day. According to the rules, a team could be forfeited a game if an opposition player were forced to leave the pitch because of their supporters’ action. The coin that hit Alemao was undoubtedly thrown from the Atalanta fan stands so there was room for awarding Napoli a 2-0 win and the two points that came with it. It was an overly punitive rule that was indeed abolished right after that season.

But, for the time being, Napoli did get the W and, of course, Milan did not like it one bit. The Rossoneri appealed the decision and even hired a speechreading professional, who rewatched the game footage and concluded that Carmando had whispered to Alemao “just stay down” as the player was ready to rise. Stories became legends, and some even went so far as to claim that the bloodthirsty masseur had voluntarily enlarged Alemao’s cut on the spot to make it more credible. (This one part we feel is just a little exaggerated…)

But what did really happen to Alemao? According to the histrionic Napoli chairman Corrado Ferlaino, the played had suffered some sort of a concussion. “He did not recognize me”, he announced to an astonished crew of press operators as he left the hospital after visiting him. A few years later, an unnamed Atalanta player who happened to be at the same hospital for some checks offered a different recollection: “He was going completely nuts. He kept begging to be discharged, he said that he was perfectly fine.”

Be that as it may (or it may not), the initial ruling from the Italian Football Court was not overturned and Napoli retained their win by forfeit, reaching the Rossoneri at the top of the table.

But the final part of this story, perhaps the missing link that helps paint the full picture of this tragicomic calcio tale, happened behind the scenes, in the control room of the Serie A. It was rumored that the Court’s decision was given as a sort of “compensation” to the Partenopei for a colossal referee mistake in the Milan vs Bologna game. Bologna were denied a clear goal as a Lorenzo Marronaro shot ended past the goal line by at least half a meter. But referee Tullio Lanese had his vision blocked by Franco Baresi and thus missed it.  

By serving Napoli an “extra point” from their forfeit win vs Atalanta, they were aiming at balancing the “extra point” that Milan had gotten by avoiding losing to Bologna due to Marronaro’s valid goal. Simple, right?

With four league games to go, there was still time for more controversy and the Serie A promptly obliged, offering a thrilling final where Milan basically committed suicide in Verona and handed the Scudetto to Napoli on a silver plate. This is yet another story, that we extensively covered here.

But there is no doubt that the fate of the 1989/90 season was somehow affected by the Bergamo shambles, an episode that has since then come to be remembered as the Monetina di Alemao (“Alemao’s Little Coin”). It was neither the first, nor the last case of those alleged simulazioni that are so frequent on any football ground. Only that in this case, for the first and probably last time, there was an actual league title at stake!  

More Fun Facts from the Atalanta vs Napoli Game

  • To convey the idea of the Serie A level back in the day, think that two players of mid-table Atalanta (Glenn Peter Stromberg of Sweden and Claudio Caniggia of Argentina) were regular starters for their national sides and would eventually feature at the 1990 World Cup. Indeed, Caniggia would go so far as to play in the Final, and only after scoring the only goal that Italy conceded in the tournament!

  • When Alemao left the pitch due to “injury”, he was replaced by a still quasi-unknown Gianfranco Zola in his maiden season in Serie A

  • On 89 minutes, future Italy coach Cesare Prandelli made a short appearance for Atalanta: at 33 years of age, he was living his last campaign as a player  



April 8, 1990 – Serie A 1989-90 Round 30
ATALANTA – NAPOLI 0-0 (Match forfeited 0-2 to Napoli)

ATALANTA: Ferron, Pasciullo, Contratto, Bonacina, Porrini, Progna, Stromberg, Madonna (89′ Prandelli), Evair (52′ Bresciani), Nicolini, Caniggia (Piotti, Bordin, Vertova) Coach: Mondonico

NAPOLI: Giuliani, Ferrara, Francini, Crippa, Alemao (79′ Zola), Baroni, Corradini, De Napoli,
Mauro, Maradona, Carnevale (Di Fusco, Bigliardi, Fusi, Sanseverino)
 Coach: Bigon

REFEREE: Mr. Agnolin from Bassano del Grappa