The Sampdoria Golden Generation Behind Mancini’s Euro 2020 Triumph

Wembley took something important away from them, and Wembley gave it back. Behind Roberto Mancini’s Euro 2020 triumph at the helm of Italy, there is the story of a Golden Generation of Sampdoria players who could have made history in European football. If only.

On May 20, 1992, Serie A mid-table Sampdoria found themselves facing Barcelona in the English temple of football in the Final of the first edition of the “modern” Champions League. It was an incredible side, that one. The gemelli del goal, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, spearheaded the attack, while future Azzurri goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca protected the back, all under the guidance of the unforgettable Yugoslavian prophet Vujadin Boskov.

Sampdoria shocked the world of calcio by claiming the Serie A title in 1991 – the last real upset in the history of the Italian top-flight to date – and then made their way through the top European competition until the Final. But the dream crashed during extra time against a Ronald Koeman free-kick – one conceded for a foul that was arguably non-existent.

It was the biggest career disappointment for the components of the Sampdoria Golden Generation, many of whom would never be able to reach such heights again. Until today.

From left to right: Gianluca Pagliuca, Gianluca Vialli, coach Vujadin Boskov, and Roberto Mancini. Maybe Sampdoria’s Scudetto win in 1991 was not that much of an upset, after all…

Fast forward to today and, as Giorgio Chiellini lifts the Henri Delaunay trophy high in the sky and the Azzurri parade in the streets of Rome to celebrate the Italian football Renaissance, it’s time to pay tribute to the staff that aided Roberto Mancini in his job of giving new dignity to the depressed Italian Nazionale. They had a secret. They were teammates, and friends, since the glory days of Boskov’s Sampdoria.

When accepting the job, Mancio brought his own staff with him, people who had been following him during his coaching stints at Lazio, Inter (twice!) and Manchester City. But he carefully added a few more figures along the way, choosing them among former Serie A players. He needed people who knew what it means to play football.

When the missed 2018 World Cup disaster hit, the Nazionale and its surrounding environment had grown abulic, bureaucratic, convoluted. Italy was detached from its people and players were detached from themselves. Mancini had to restart from the Group. And he set the example himself, turning his staff into a Group, one whose friendship was cemented in the days when Sampdoria could take on the European powerhouses.

The last addition to the lot, the most sounding, was Gianluca Vialli in October 2019. Vialli was Mancini’s striking partner with the Blucerchiati. I gemelli del goal, they called them (“The Twins of Goals”). He is one whose career – in Italy and in England – speaks for itself. One who fought – and won – the toughest battle of all as he overcame a pancreatic cancer in 2018.

A sharp TV commentator and entrepreneur with the right amount of life experience, Vialli was asked to fill the vacant role of Chief of Staff, filling in the gigantic shoes of Rombo di Tuono (“Roar of Thunder”) Gigi Riva. The charismatic Luca was the missing link to reconnect the Azzurri, whose results on the pitch were starting to slowly come back, with Italy’s average Joe – the Signor Rossi, to put it the Italian way.

Of course, he also was a trusted advisor to Mancini. Seeing the two hugging each other and crying after the most dramatic Euro 2020 games literally melted the whole Country’s hearts. It was like they had finally got the job done, that job interrupted by an infamous Koeman free kick almost 30 years earlier.

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But while Mancini and Vialli talked strategy and public relations, much work was being done in the background by Mancio’s trusted assistants. Many of whom, as we said, have been knowing the Italian coach since the glory days of the blue-and-circled side of Genoa.

Attilio Lombardo, a versatile right winger known as Popeye in Italy and Bald Eagle during his Premier League stint with Crystal Palace, worked with Mancini at Manchester City and Galatasaray. He had eventually parted ways with him to seek different experiences but when his old friend called, well…

Fausto Salsano, on the other hand, always followed Mancini since he started coaching in 2004. During his Sampdoria days, he was a solid midfielder. He spent most of his playing time with the Blucerchiati but, oddly enough, missed the two dream seasons of the Scudetto and the Champions League Final as he had temporarily moved to Roma in the meantime.

Giulio Nuciari, who still holds the Serie A record for the most appearances on the bench (!) at 333, was Gianluca Pagliuca’s reliable backup. He collected only seven caps in six seasons at Sampdoria but was one you could always count on. Just like today, as Mancini must have though when he asked him to join him in his Azzurri adventure.

Most calcio fans remember Alberico Evani as a key piece in both Arrigo Sacchi’s and Fabio Capello’s invincible Milan from the early 1990s. But after 13 seasons at Milanello, the Rossoneri stalwart moved to Sampdoria in 1993, missing out on the best days for the Blucerchiati but still in time to forge a friendship with Mancini that turned useful when the two meet again in the Azzurri ranks.

Evani had been coaching multiple Italy youth selections since 2010. In a brand-new staff, he was a point of continuity with the old tenure.

So was Daniele Lele Oriali, the Azzurri’s Technical Director since 2014. Aged 69, Oriali, who currently holds the same position at Inter, comes from an older generation: He was part of the legendary 1982 squad that won the World Cup in Spain, making a name for himself as a no-nonsense, hard-working midfielder – to the point of being cited in a famous Italian pop song.

Like Vialli, Oriali is a balancing figure, whose role is to mediate between the coach, the players, and the match officials.

Last but not least to join was Daniele De Rossi. Daniele was there, three years and a half ago, when Italy hit rock bottom. Not literally on the pitch as he notoriously refused to come in in the latest stages of the playoff with Sweden as he insisted that a more offensive player was needed. But he was part of the group, he shared tears with the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini as Italy missed the World Cup ticket.

He must have helped the younger Azzurri keep their feet on the ground as well as transfusing them some of his legendary grit and passion. He might be on his way to become a head coach himself but, for now, his first experience as an assistant was arguably a success.

The strength of a solid Group: Gianluca Vialli, Alberico Evani, Lele Oriali, and coach Roberto Mancini

Roberto Mancini’s triumph was a victory of the collettivo – the Group. Italy had no Cristiano Ronaldo or Kylian Mbappé among their ranks. But they had a bunch of players who learned to become friends before being teammates. Perhaps looking at the bond within their experienced Staff, their comradeship and their capacity to bounce back from setback and challenges – some being much more important than a football game.

But it all started in an early ‘90s cold night at Wembley, with Mancini, Vialli, Lombardo and the others in despair, conscious that they had just likely missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Little did they know that, after 30 years of different life experiences and adventures, destiny would pay them back. With interest.