Now and then, they just lose their grip. Emotions run high, voices are raised, or even hands laid bare. All of a sudden, the fight is on. The various actors in the football circus – whether they are players, coaches or presidents – are human after all.
This is even truer in a physical country such as Italy, where calcio is considered every bit as important as GDP and where touching your counterpart is normal practice in any peaceful and relaxed setting. Just imagine how things start to look when conversations get more heated.
Naturally we would never endorse the notion of violence. And we can happily report that none of the episodes documented below ended with anybody getting physically hurt. However since homemade brawls, exchanges of insults and the like are such an intrinsic feature of the calcio experience, from Serie A to the lowest leagues, we thought it would be interesting to take a trip across the Top 5 “losing grip” moments in the recent history of Italian football.
So get a gum shield, put your boxing gloves on, and follow us as we show you another side of football in Italy. One where some of its most flamboyant characters gave their worst. Or their best, depending on your point of view.
Our trip starts from the benches, those of Catania and Parma, in the 2007-08 season:
5) Baldini’s Sucker Kick on Di Carlo
Few gestures can be more derisive, mocking or symbolic all at the same time, than a well-delivered kick in the butt. Think about it. It is a pretty harmless act in its own right, yet carries a symbolic power that ranges from “I own you” to what must be the clearest way of saying “get out of my way”. When coach Silvio Baldini resorted to the good old butt-kicking strategy during this altercation with colleague Domenico Di Carlo, we think he meant the latter.
Baldini, who was coach of the Etnei, was a typical sanguigno (full-blooded) Tuscan with 30 years of coaching experience, mostly for provinciali clubs.
Di Carlo was managing from a top division club bench for the first time, having just been chosen to lead Parma. August 26, 2007 saw the Crociati hosting Catania at their Ennio Tardini Stadium. It ended with Di Carlo quarrelling with his opposite number – before taking a sucker-kick to the backside for his trouble. That’s hardly what you would call a perfect start.
The funny thing is that the match was notable for its on-field entertainment, with both sides scoring twice in the first half. But in the 87th minute, Baldini was sent to the stands by referee Nicola Stefanini for protesting too much. He took his time to leave, continuing to shout orders at his players. At that point, from the neighboring bench, Di Carlo gently invited him to move – in the traditional Italian “shoving away” gesture – which means, more or less, go f**k yourself.
Di Carlo did this once, twice, and a third time, before fatally turning his back. That’s when Baldini “lost it”, and suddenly struck in retaliation – quickly and abruptly – aiming for Di Carlo’s bottom with his foot before the two were separated to prevent the situation from worsening. It was the very first match of the season. Welcome back, Serie A.
Baldini’s calcione connected with Parma’s coach without great force but nevertheless the indiscretion earned him a one-month ban on the grounds of unprofessional behavior. Both contenders presided over poor results that season, eventually losing their jobs before it ended; Di Carlo was sacked, and Baldini resigned. That’s karma, baby.
4) Ibrahimovic-Onyewu, the (Boxing) Match of the Century
As it happened during a closed training session, there is no video evidence for this particular incident unfortunately. Therefore, as with all tall tales that everyone has heard (but few have seen in person) we rely on oral tradition to entrust to memory what happened between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Oguchi Onyewu during their Milan days.
Zlatan is, well, Zlatan. There is little not known about the gigantic Swedish striker. Reaching 195 cms and weighing 95 kgs, he also had a black belt in Taekwondo – something he never missed an opportunity to display. Ibrahimovic had a two-year stint at Milan between 2010 and 2012, where he helped the Rossoneri to win their last league title.
The name of Oguchi Onyewu, on the other hand, will sound unfamiliar to all but the most hardcore football fans. A Nigerian-American center back, he put together a decent career that earned him 69 caps for the US national team, and participation at two World Cups. Onyewu landed in Milan in 2009, however his experience in black and red wasn’t what you would call memorable. Limited by a terrible knee injury, he ended up tallying only one (ONE) appearance for Milan in two years.
Still, the American became known in Milanello (the Rossoneri training center) for being – as if it were possible – even bigger than the Swede, at 193 cms and 100 kgs. And for being involved in a brutal fight that shook the earth around Milanello for about, as the legend goes, 25 minutes!
The pair didn’t like each other from the very beginning. But when Zlatan slide-tackled Onyewu during a practice session in November 2010, all hell broke loose. Witnesses report with surprise that Ibrahimovic’s tackle wasn’t even an overly vicious one. Still, Onyewu didn’t like it one bit. The American stood up, grabbed Zlatan by the neck, and the rest is (fighting) history.
Oral tradition goes that it took 10 men (!) to separate the two, and that coach Massimiliano Allegri was forced to interrupt the training session to cool things down. The following day, CEO Adriano Galliani dismissed the significance of the event when talking to the press, playing the “They are just boys” card, and explaining that the players had already made up – like two scoundrels involved in a classroom fight.
But others on the pitch seem to have had a different recollection. Milan’s current coach Gennaro Gattuso (not exactly a weakling…) recalled, “I got this great idea of trying to separate them, and I scored a slap from each of them. They spent 25 minutes fighting on the ground, with nobody going (to separate them).”
Just like all mythical stories where accuracy is lost to time, accounts regarding the duration of the brawl vary. Substitute goalkeeper Flavio Roma reported: “Thank God it ended fast. It took the whole group to separate them, and we all risked getting hurt ourselves.”
Midfielder Massimo Ambrosini simply put it as “one of the scariest moments in my life. It’s not nice to see two 100 kg men fighting.”
…and Zlatan? The Swedish star extensively covered the episode in his autobiography, and claimed that he and Onyewu almost killed each other. Yes, Zlatan, but who won? “Nobody won, because he is a monster. He is as big as me, he is very strong, and I don’t see a clear winner.”
Ibrahimovic later discovered he had suffered a broken rib during the fight. In perfect Zlatan badass-style, he kept it secret in order to avoid missing the next game, and ended up playing with a broken rib.
Onyewu left one year later, without turning out for Milan again. He was surely little missed by the Rossoneri fans, but at least he went down in history as the only one who held his own in a fight with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
3) Gaucci, Matarrese, and “Those of Serie A”
This is a story of presidents – a clash of titans dating back to the golden days of Serie A when club chairmen used to be picturesque, quirky figures who made the news as often than their clubs.
Nowadays, Sampdoria’s Massimo Ferrero seems to be the only representative left of this lot – the blucerchiati president perpetually looking like an Italian tourist who’s been enjoying a weekend tour of Amsterdam’s coffeeshops. However, back in the glorious ‘80s and ‘90s, the underworld of Italian football swarmed with these extravagant figures whose passion for the bel gioco was equaled only by their ignorance of grammar and lack of good manners.
Perugia’s Luciano Gaucci was a worthy representative of the category. Imagine if Jabba The Hutt decided to buy a football club, and you get the picture. The whimsical, almighty president of the Grifoni had the merit of raising them to the heights of Serie A for the first time in their history. He made the journey an even more remarkable one by occasionally spicing it up with such bizarre resolutions as to sign a female player or Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saadi – the latter he ended up doing for real.
On a gloomy, rainy afternoon in November 1999, Perugia lost 1-2 to Bari. Grifoni’s midfielder Renato Olive had to leave the pitch after just nine minutes, knocked down by Duccio Innocenti with an elbow that fractured his cheekbone. Gaucci was not happy at all. After the game, and supported by his staff, he decided to confront referee Emilio Pellegrino – guilty in Gaucci’s eyes of not having taken any action against Bari’s player.
“Well done, referee,” Big Luciano said sarcastically as he addressed Pellegrino in the parking lot of the Renato Curi Stadium, “our player is at the hospital. He has a fracture, and you…you didn’t do anything!” Pellegrino did not reply, and tried to leave, when some fatal words echoed in the air:
“Gaucci! We are of Serie A, Gaucci!”
Enter the second character in the story.
Bari’s president at the time was the eternal Vincenzo Matarrese, padre-padrone of the Apulian club for nearly 20 years, from 1983 to 2001. The Matarrese are an influential dynasty in calcio, his younger brother Antonio having led the domestic Football Federation for almost 10 years. When Vincenzo arrogantly leant out of Bari’s bus to remind Gaucci that his side is “of Serie A” (implying that certain others are not…) Perugia’s chairman decided to involve the whole family, and boomed:
“Go f**k yourselves, both your brother and you!”
…at which point the parking lot suddenly turned into a boxing ring, with the two entourages struggling to separate the contenders. Some words got lost in the ensuing confusion but in the video below, one can hear, among other things, a “moron”, a “criminal”, Gaucci cursing the memory of his opponent’s deceased relatives (a classic Italian insult) and shouting “Let me go! I gotta tell him a few things!” as his staff vainly try to hold him back.
But probably the most entertaining thing is the muffled voice of a TV reporter casually noting that “Gaucci is trying to board Bari’s bus to put words into action.” Which didn’t happen in the end, as the visitors’ bus left the Renato Curi intact, and the match ended in a dead heat.
At the end of the season, both Perugia and Bari managed to maintain their spots in the top flight, so all’s well that ends well.
Big Luciano led the Umbrian club until 2005, when he was accused of bankruptcy fraud and strategically fled to Santo Domingo to avoid prosecution. He made it back to the Belpaese four years later after receiving a pardon but has been off the football radar ever since.
Matarrese passed away in 2016, going down in history as his club’s longest-running and most successful president. Long-gone are the days when both Perugia and Bari were regularly stationed in Serie A.
Below, the full video of the epic confrontation:
2) Salvatore Soviero Against the World
Salvatore Soviero. Oh man, Salvatore Soviero.
Soviero was a goalkeeper, born in 1973 close to Naples. He had a decent career in minor leagues, finally making it to Serie A in the 2004-05 season at the tender age of 31, when he minded the goal of Calabrian side Reggina. And, you know what, he didn’t even do that bad. The Calabresi snatched an all-time best 10th spot in the table, embellished by a 2-1 win over future league champions Juventus.
The problem with good old Salvatore was his – so to say – “turbulent” personality, which in the past had already made him protagonist in an episode that makes you wonder how the hell the guy could have been allowed to set foot on a football pitch again.
To get an idea of his character, have a look at the clip below – a cult classic among calcio fans – where he can be seen addressing an assistant referee with a 30-second flurry of insults in strict Neapolitan dialect, that would pose serious comprehension problems to even native Italian speakers. (Hint: Most of them are Soviero speculating on the poor linesman’s mother’s occupation).
But the true gem in Soviero’s quarrelsome career took place only a few months prior to his debut in the top division. On April 18, 2004, the short-tempered goalkeeper was still playing for Venezia, and the Lagunari were visitors to Messina for a Serie B match. The game took a bad turn for Soviero’s side despite an early lead, as referee Luca Palanca sent off Gastòn Liendo in the first half.
With 12 minutes to go and the score at 1-1, Palanca awarded a penalty to Messina, and waved a red card at Rubén Maldonado who was protesting too vehemently. The situation risked degenerating, as Venezia players, and especially Maldonado, didn’t want to hear about it. The dismissed player came threateningly close to the ref, but guess who came to the rescue?
Soviero left his posts and pushed his teammate away: Referee’s decisions must be respected!
Too bad that five minutes later, Palanca waved a third red card at coach Angelo Gregucci, and then a fourth at the goalkeeper himself for protesting. Baaad idea. It all happened in the blink of an eye. Soviero approached the ref, apparently willing to talk to him, then suddenly gazed at the opponents’ bench, and ran towards it like a hound in a fox hunt.
What ensued can best be described as the definition of a man completely losing it. Soviero removed one of his gloves, and started punching and kicking at literally everything that came his way: Messina’s coach Bortolo Mutti, his staff, the bench, the stewards, and his own teammates. Everything. It took no fewer than 10 men to take him down, before a robust Venezia staff held him tight to prevent him from killing anybody. As the whole stadium cooperated to placate the crazed goalie’s fury, Palanca was heard blowing the final whistle three minutes before full time – probably his most reasonable decision in that infamous afternoon.
For the record – Soviero’s explanation for his incredible outburst came a few years later, remarking that the game had been extremely tense, as Venezia were struggling to avoid relegation, whereas the Sicilians were close to catching an unexpected promotion. According to his version, the opposition bench had been taunting him for the duration of the second half.
Nonetheless, such a show earned the Neapolitan goalie a five-month ban, which didn’t prevent him from joining Reggina the following season. When the Calabresi snatched a surprise win over Juventus in November of the same year, good old Salvatore still found a way to distinguish himself by mocking Alessandro Del Piero with a homophobic gesture.
Sasà, as his friends call him, ended his playing career in 2010 to become a football coach. He has mostly been training amateur clubs from his local region since then. Can you picture him preaching about fair play, respect for opponents, or for the match officials?
Well, one thing is for sure, we wouldn’t want to be in the locker room when his team lose.
1) Run, Carletto, Run! When Mazzone’s Prophecy was Fulfilled
A legendary game with a legendary ending unquestionably grabs the top spot in this run-down. There is not a single person south of the Alps who won’t remember this episode, which made it into the collective imagination of Italian football aficionados as “Mazzone’s Run.”
Technically, this was not a fight nor a brawl, only the genuine outburst of a spontaneous man who just couldn’t take it anymore, and let himself go on a wild celebration right in front of opposition supporters. All good and normal (isn’t this one of the biggest pleasures in football, after all?) if it wasn’t for the fact that the man was a football coach.
What made the performance even more remarkable is the fact that it was carried out by somebody who means a great deal to Italian football: Carlo Mazzone, aka Sor Carletto, a living legend in the world of calcio. Now aged 81, born and raised in Rome, Mazzone spent a 38-year coaching career, teaching his football verbo on virtually every campo di provincia on the Italian peninsula. He is an old-school coach. Pane al pane e vino al vino, we say in Italy to define somebody who’s straight, direct, and adorably genuine.
Carletto didn’t win any major title, but between 1993 and 1996 he fulfilled his dream of managing his beloved Roma. While doing so, he once noticed a 16 year-old blonde kid from the youth team who had debuted in Serie A a few months earlier. Mazzone made him part of Roma’s roster regularly. The kid’s name was Francesco Totti, and the old coach became a kind of second father to him.
Due to some obscure whim from the gods of football, in the 2001-02 season the Roman coach found himself in charge of Brescia, at a moment in time when their roster featured players like Roberto Baggio and Josep Guardiola. Yes, you read it right. Roberto Baggio AND Josep Guardiola once played together…for Brescia!
On September 20, 2001, the Rondinelle played host to Atalanta at the Mario Rigamonti Stadium. There is a long-lasting feud between the clubs, which come from two neighboring cities in the Lombardy Region – Bergamo and Brescia. Baggio was 34 years old at the time, and nature was inevitably taking a toll on his athleticism and performance. But Il Divin Codino, albeit graying, still had the touch, and in the 24th minute he caught a cross by Fabio Petruzzi to put Mazzone’s side ahead and turn the Rigamonti into a pressure cooker.
But there was still so much more to happen on that crazy September afternoon. Far from being demotivated by Baggio’s feat, the visitors managed to score not once, not twice, but three times before the end of the first half. With a two-goal lead and a strong claim over the hotly-contested derby, Atalanta supporters went into raptures and started targeting coach Mazzone – booing at him and insulting him from the stands.
Now, if there is one thing you must never question of an Italian, it is his Mamma. Thus moms, of all ages and walks of life, inevitably end up becoming the favored target of football fans, when it comes to denegrating their opponents. But this time was different. The Bergamaschi supporters probably didn’t know that Mazzone lost his mother when he was very young. Carletto – an emotional and proud man – couldn’t accept that.
So when Baggio decided to take the match into his hands and scored the second for Brescia, his coach made a sinister promise to the noisy black-and-blue section of the crowd. He viciously looked at them from afar, and warned in his adorable Romanesco slang: “Se famo er terzo, vengo sotto ‘a curva!” (“If we make it three, I’ll come under the stands”), showing the sign of a three with his hand.
Needless to say, Carletto’s prophecy was promptly fulfilled, not least because he had Baggio in his side. With the clock striking minute 92, Il Divin Codino completed his hat-trick by way of a free kick, delivering a lob shot that deceived Atalanta’s defense and mockingly bounced into their goal.
What happened after that is easy to imagine. Assistant coach Leonardo Menichini and press officer Edoardo Piovani tried to hold him back, but Mazzone was stronger and he ran towards the stands like nobody could stop him. He halted in front of a fence separating the pitch from the bleachers, vomiting his rage upon the Bergamaschi. Thank God there was a fence preventing him from going further.
He must have told his rival supporters the worst things. He must have offended the collective memory of their dead relatives, just like they had done with him. But for one moment on that afternoon, everybody felt close to that 60 year-old man running like a kid to confront an army of football thugs and defend his family’s honor alone.
Talking to the press after the game, the coach took full responsibility for his outburst. But also joked about the whole thing, explaining that he had an evil twin who sometimes took control of him.
We wish it was true. Today’s fake football world could surely use two Carlo Mazzones.