European Football Stories: The Serie A Unprecedented Three-Peat

By leading Roma to the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League (UECL) title last year, Jose Mourinho became the first manager to win all the three UEFA club competitions being played at present. However, the result wasn’t only special to the self-anointed Special One. It was also special in a couple of other ways.

For starters, it was for the first time that the Giallorossi had won a title in Europe—they won the 1960–61 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, but that competition was not recognized by UEFA. It was also the first instance in a dozen years that an Italian club had managed to win a European trophy. It is sheer coincidence that when Inter won the Champions League in 2010 they were also managed by the meticulous Portuguese.

More importantly, it also marked a rare success for an Italian club in major European competitions (excluding one-offs) since the turn of the millennium. Besides the twin triumphs masterminded by Mourinho, only Carlo Ancelotti managed European glory with a Serie A side, leading Milan to two Champions League titles (2003 and 2007) in that period.

While the decline in Serie A’s overall quality, and its recent struggles in European competition is evident, it wasn’t always the case. Clubs from the Italian league not only dominated the European scene but also achieved unprecedented feats, one of which has not been replicated since.

A Gradual Rise in the European Echelons

It is a known fact that Real Madrid won the first five editions of the European Cup. However, few are aware that when the Meringues defended their first title on their home ground, they faced an Italian opposition. Fiorentina, fresh from winning their maiden Serie A title, made it all the way to the decider at the Santiago Bernabéu. A year later, Milan took the tie to extra time, before Francisco Gento helped Real achieve a hat-trick of wins.

When the European Cup Winners’ Cup (ECWC) was introduced in 1960-61 it was Fiorentina that emerged as the champions of the inaugural edition. Milan followed with their first European Cup title in 1963, while the two subsequent editions of the same competition witnessed Inter emerging triumphant.

The presence of Serie A clubs in the business end of the European tournaments increased gradually in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Milan’s maiden European Cup Winner’s Cup title (1968) was followed up by a second European Cup win in the following year. With the introduction of a third competition, the UEFA Cup (in 1972), Serie A clubs had multiple fronts to further their continental success story.

Heading into the 1980s, Milan, Juve and Inter had established their credentials as continental behemoths. The likes of Napoli, Sampdoria and Parma also joined the party in the subsequent period. Fans had witnessed clubs from Germany (1975) and England (1981) winning separate European competitions in the same season before.

The Unleashing of a Blockbuster

An Italian first in this regard happened in 1989, with Milan winning their third European Cup title and a Diego Maradona-inspired Napoli taking home the UEFA Cup. There was the possibility of a clean sweep, but Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona were, frankly, too good for Sampdoria in the ECWC final in Bern. However, the European performance of the Serie A clubs in 1989 was only a teaser.

The blockbuster was awaiting a release in the following year. In fact, 1990 marked the annus mirabilis for Serie A and Italian club football. Sampdoria ensured a grand opening. The Genoa club put the disappointment of the previous year behind them, an extra-time brace by Gianluca Vialli ensuring two-time winners Anderlecht were brushed aside in the final at Ullevi, Gothenburg.

Juventus helped consolidate further, a 0-0 draw in the second leg ensuring a 3-1 aggregate win over Fiorentina in the UEFA Cup final in what was the first all-Italian final in any European competition. Milan confirmed the blockbuster verdict by defending their European Cup title, a Frank Rijkaard goal enough to hold off Benfica in Vienna.

It was an unprecedented feat. Three Serie A clubs had ensured an Italian three-peat in European competition. The hitherto impossible had been achieved, clubs from the same country had made a clean sweep. The hat-trick marked the zenith of Italian club football, the absolute peak achieved by the Serie A as a league.

There were hopes of an encore in 1993. With Parma winning the European Cup Winner’s Cup, Juventus securing their third UEFA Cup title and Milan making it to the Champions League final, the possibility of another three-peat by Serie A clubs seemed likely. But Olympique Marseille denied the inevitable, holding of Fabio Capello’s side in Munich to secure a maiden—and so far, only title for France and Ligue 1.

In 1994, it happened the other way round. Parma conceded their European Cup Winner’s Cup title to Arsenal, losing by a sole goal at the Parken Stadium (Copenhagen). Inter won the UEFA Cup with a 2-0 aggregate win over Austria Salzburg before Capello’s Milan thrashed Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League final in Athens.

Again in 1999, Lazio won the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup while Parma emerged triumphant at the UEFA Cup. However, hopes of another hat-trick had already dissipated as eventual Champions League winners Manchester United had accounted for both the Serie A clubs, Inter (last eight) and Juventus (last four), en route to the final at the Camp Nou.

In the Aftermath

The turn of the century heralded a gradual decline in Italian football. Serie A, eternally mired by corruption scandals, ceased to be the topmost league in Europe. It could no longer attract the top talents on a regular basis. The Premier League, La Liga and even the Bundesliga moved well ahead.

This change of events was aptly reflected in the league’s overall performance in Europe. Traditional behemoths like Milan and Juve held on for a bit longer, but were no longer as consistent. Inter’s 2010 Champions League triumph was more of an aberration than the norm. In fact, it put a stop to the proceedings altogether. In the next decade, the Serie A clubs failed to win any trophy in Europe, a sharp contrast to their dominance in the 1980s and the 1990s.

There were changes made by the governing body as well. It was felt that the expansion of the Champions League had diluted the quality of the Cup Winner’s Cup considerably. As such, the UEFA decided against continuing with it after 1998-99, scrapping the idea of a third competition altogether and instead merging it with the UEFA Cup (in an expanded version). In the 22 years that followed teams from La Liga (2006, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018) and the Premier League (2019) have achieved the Champions League—UEFA Cup/Europa League double, but the absence of a third competition had nullified the prospects of another three-peat.

With the addition of the UECL last season, clubs in the various leagues across Europe once again have three continental competitions to look forward to. The possibility of three clubs from the same league/country making a clean sweep has once again arisen. With the 2021-22 season witnessing clubs from three different leagues winning the three competitions, it remains to be seen if Serie A’ s unique three-peat of 1990 will witness a repeat in the coming years.