Carlo Cudicini is one of the very few examples of Italian players who spent most of his career away from the Serie A shores. That was back in the days when the Italian top-flight was still the nonplus ultra of the football domestic leagues.
Despite a career spanning almost 20 years, the long-time Chelsea goalkeeper collected only one single cap in the Serie A, earning the respect of his Lazio supporters for defending a hard-earned 2-1 lead against Cagliari in an early season match-up from the 1996/97 campaign.
In a game that became part of the Biancocelesti’s epic, Cudicini stoically remained on the pitch in the final stages of the match despite tearing his cruciate ligament. Coach Zdenek Zeman had already made three substitutions, so losing Cudicini would have meant for Lazio to play without a goalkeeper.
That was enough to make him a fan favorite among the Lazio supporters, even if that ended up being his only appearance as a Biancoceleste. Cudicini’s injury kept him at bay for the rest of the season, after which he humbly decided to revamp his career at Castel di Sangro in Serie B and even Serie C1.
Then, one day, Gianluca Vialli called him to be the backup keeper of his Chelsea side in Italian flavor. That was the beginning of a successful story that most Premier League followers know.
Cudicini became one of the most appreciated goalkeepers beyond the English Channel but had to work hard before becoming a starter for the Blues. Perhaps the resilience he displayed on the day of his one-time show with Lazio was only explanatory of his willpower.
Indeed, life must not be easy as a goalkeeper when you are the son of Fabio Cudicini, a legendary Milan shot-stopper from the 1960s nicknamed Ragno Nero (“Black Spider”). Billed as yet another figlio d’arte, the young Carlo made his way in the Rossoneri youth academy. However, despite earning a couple of caps as a substitute in the last minutes of some minor Champions League games, he never got a chance to play for Milan in Serie A.
And so, after a spell at Prato in the fourth division, it was Lazio to offer him a chance in the top-flight, signing him to be the veteran Luca Marchegiani’s backup ahead of the 1996/97 season. When the day of his debut unexpectedly came, Cudicini was already 23 – not necessarily the most tender age for a football player.
Lazio received Cagliari at the Stadio Olimpico on October 20, 1996, from a precarious position. Despite being coached by the pyrotechnic Bohemian coach Zdenek Zeman and boasting the joint top scorers from the previous season upfront – Giuseppe Signori and Igor Protti – the Eagles had collected one win, two ties and two losses out of their previous league games.
Cagliari were doing even worse though. After beating Atalanta in the season opener, they had amassed only one more point. But, on that day, they seemed to receive some unexpected help from Marchegiani, who was sent off after five minutes for punching the ball away out of his area in a clumsy attempt to anticipate Rossoblu striker Dario Silva.
It was time for Cudicini to put his gloves on.
Carlo’s initial minutes were not the best if truth be told. The young goalie made his supporters quiver with a couple of untimely exits that could have costed Lazio a lot. But then, his double answer to a point-blank range shot from Pierpaolo Bisoli was phenomenal and helped the Biancocelesti close the first half on a one-goal cushion.
Lazio had taken the lead when Euro 1996 Czech sensation Pavel Nedved introduced himself to Italian audiences with a spectacular strike from 30 meters that left no chance to Cagliari’s Swiss-born goalie Marco Pascolo.
The Rossoblu should have had their equalizer when Ramon Vega’s header was cleared by Diego Fuser well beyond the goal line but the VAR was yet to come and so their effort was incredibly disallowed. It was just not a good day for the Isolani and their poor coach Gregorio Perez, whose position was getting more and more precarious by the minute.
A few minutes into the second half, Signori doubled Lazio’s lead with a clinical strike. But the home side failed to add a third as Protti and Signori’s back-to-back shots were pushed back by the posts and so, when they started to run out of breath (they had been playing with one man less for most of the game, after all…) Cagliari found a way to reopen the game.
Giacomo Banchelli’s goal on 77 minutes prompted coach Perez to finally abandon his conservative 5-4-1 module to switch to an ultra-offensive setup with four strikers.
Lazio had to hold to their lead and, when Cudicini fell on his knee after an aerial clash with Bisoli, it seemed that disaster was set to strike. The goalie was limping and there were still three minutes to play. Zeman had already made three changes, and, in any case, he didn’t have a third goalkeeper available.
Either Protti or midfielder Guerino Gottardi were ready to put the goalkeeper gloves on and defend the posts for the last three minutes, but then Cudicini said: “I’ll keep playing”.
And so he did.
The last three minutes were an absolute ordeal for the Biancocelesti but their wall ultimately held and Zeman could wrap an overly important win. In the aftermath of the match, the response on Cudicini’s injury came: his right knee cruciate ligament was broken! He had played with a ruptured ligament.
When interviewed after the match, Cudicini calmly noted: “I decided to stay on the pitch. This is my nature. I never step back in difficult moments. I decided to suffer but I could not abandon Lazio.”
Hard work, determination, resilience, and many turning points – some for the better and some for the worse. That game against Cagliari, the only one Carlo Cudicini ended up playing in Serie A, perfectly symbolized his career to come.
It took him a few years to become a legend for Chelsea. He needed only three minutes to become one for Lazio.
October 20, 1996 – Serie A 1996-97 Round 6
LAZIO – CAGLIARI 2-1
SCORERS: 22′ Nedved (L), 49′ Signori (L), 77′ Banchelli (C)
|LAZIO (4-3-3): Marchegiani; Gottardi, Negro, Fish, Favalli; Fuser, Marcolin, Nedved (86′ Baronio); Signori (88′ Franceschini), Casiraghi (4′ Cudicini), Protti (Piovanelli, Bellè, Rambaudi) Coach: Zeman
|CAGLIARI (5-4-1): Pascolo; Pancaro, Grassadonia, Vega, Villa, Bettarini (46′ Banchelli); Sanna (46′ Cozza), Lonstrup, O’Neill, Bisoli; Dario Silva (68′ Muzzi) (Abate, Tinkler, Scugugia, Bressan) Coach: Perez
REFEREE: Mr. Bolognino from Milan
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Marcolin, Cudicini (L), Vega, Grassadonia, Villa (C); Red Card: Marchegiani (L)