Udinese vs Milan Throwback: Zebrette One Step Away from the Title

Those who like Serie A mid-table clubs like Udinese may fondly remember the Zebrette’s exploits in the early 2000s, when the Friuli-based club made it to the top four of the Italian top-flight twice. Udinese ended 4th in the 2004/05 season under Luciano Spalletti’s guidance and did even better in the 2011/12 campaign as Francesco Guidolin led them to a sensational third place.

And still, those were not best Serie A finishes in the more than centennial history of the Bianconeri of Friuli. More than 60 years ago, Udinese gave Milan and their international stars like Nordahl and Schiaffino a real run for their money on the way to the 1954/55 Scudetto.

They ended second behind the Rossoneri despite having narrowly escaped relegation in the previous season, and the game that best summed up their phenomenal run was a 3-2 triumph in a six-pointer against the future Scudetto winners. When the referee blew for full time on May 1, 1955, Udinese had reduced their gap from Milan to two points with five league games to play. Everything seemed possible.

Since not all fairy tales have a happy ending, Milan eventually managed to keep their cool and won four matches in a row, capturing their fifth Scudetto and frustrating Udinese’s efforts.

But that doesn’t take anything away from the Bianconeri’s heroic performance from that day at their legendary Stadio Polisportivo Moretti, when they defeated the soon-to-be Italian champions despite playing with one man less and no proper goalkeeper for some 55 minutes!

So how did Udinese magically turn into a title contender only a few months after surviving a brutal relegation playout round at Palermo’s expenses? The short answer is, nobody knows. There is no logical explanation for how the Bianconeri transformed themselves in the middle of the 1954/55 campionato, especially since their transfer market campaign did not seem to leave much room to dream.

After salvaging their spot in the Serie A, Udinese found themselves in a troubled managerial situation to say the least. They were forced to sell most of their starters and to assemble a new squad by bringing in what would be considered backups and second choices at best by most other clubs. Perhaps the only exception to that was their new straniero – Swedish winger Arne Selmosson, who came from a non-professional club and also worked as a plumber…

The early stages of the league only seemed to prove the point that Udinese’s fate was doomed. The Bianconeri lost their first three games, scoring only once and conceding ten goals. But then, and much to their manager Giuseppe Bigogno’s credit, the Zebrette miraculously bounced back. Bigogno managed to get the best out of each of his players as things started to click in his roster.

After succumbing 2-0 to Sampdoria in Round 11, Udinese opened a non-losing streak that would last until the end of the campionato. Halfway through the league, they were still sitting 8th in the table and were ten points adrift of Milan. However, when the time came to welcome the Rossoneri at home on May 1, they had reduced their gap to four points only.

The iconic Stadio Polisportivo Moretti was a rudimentary playing ground surrounded by a dusty speedway track (!) and was packed with Bianconeri fans hoping for the Zebrette to make history.

Milan’s lineup was simply terrifying. Lorenzo Buffon, a distant kin of Gigi, minded the Rossoneri’s posts, while the first of the Maldinis – Cesare, Paolo’s father – led the defense. Upfront, Milan could boast four-time Serie A top-scorer Gunnar Nordahl and his fellow countryman from Sweden Niels Liedholm, on top of Juan Alberto Schiaffino of Uruguay, one of the heroes of the Maracanazo at the 1950 World Cup.

Six minutes into the game, disaster struck for Udinese. Their mediano Augusto Magli lost the ball in his defensive third, causing Nordahl to go one-on-one with goalkeeper Gianni Romano. The Udinese custodian bravely rushed into Nordahl and somehow managed to defuse the threat but was knocked unconscious in the process.

That was a big problem in an age when substitutions were not allowed. Udinese suddenly found themselves forced to play with only ten men. Oh, and with no goalkeeper. The match had just started but the Bianconeri’s chances of winning it were now basically reduced to zero.

But Augusto Magli rolled up his sleeves, donned his teammate Romano’s jersey and took his place between the sticks. Perhaps he wanted to redeem himself after causing his goalkeeper’s injury with his early blunder. And redemption he found, as he kept his side afloat in the first half punching away a free kick taken by Milan’s defender Arturo Silvestri.

On 40 minutes, Magli also received some unexpected help from Nordahl. The capocannoniere could fire the ball past him from close range but incredibly missed his chance, coming up with a somewhat weak shot that the impromptu goalkeeper managed to kick away. At half time, the score was still nil-nil despite Milan’s expected domination.

Then, as the Rossoneri paused to breathe at the start of the second half, Udinese found a breach in their defense. From a corner kick action, their captain Enzo Menegotti pounced on a ball that was ineffectively cleared by the Milan back line and whipped it past Buffon with a clinical right-foot conclusion, making it 1-0 for the home side.

Only two minutes later, striker Lorenzo Bettini headed the ball from a Domenico La Forgia cross. Buffon deflected it to the crossbar, but Bettini was ready to tap it in for Udinese’s second. In three minutes, the Zebrette had built a shocking double lead!

Milan’s reaction was relentless and resulted in Alberto Vicariotto almost immediately halving the gap for the Rossoneri.

At that point, the match rose to Serie A cult status as, with an umpteenth coup de theatre, the injured goalkeeper Romano made his way back to the pitch and between the sticks, greeted by the wild cheers of the Moretti stadium home crowd. Apparently, the Udinese staff had spotted a young boy with a bike among the audience and promptly dispatched him to a pharmacy to fetch some painkillers to ease the goalie’s pain.

The keeper’s comeback boosted Udinese’s morale as Magli could take his spot back at midfield and help stem Milan’s next assaults. Pushed by the roaring crowd, the Bianconeri found the back of the net once again only a few minutes later as La Forgia pounced on the rebound from Buffon’s save to reestablish the two-goal cushion.

Schiaffino eventually netted the last goal of the day, setting the score at 2-3 as Udinese managed to weather the storm in the final minutes and pull off what is rightly considered one their most exciting wins ever. At full time, there was a joyful pitch invasion as coach Bigogno and his boys were hailed as heroes. The Scudetto was now only two points away!

It was perhaps the zenith of Udinese’s history, but the Zebrette’s joy didn’t last long. Despite the shocking defeat, Milan did not miss any more beats and steamrolled past their next three opponents, scoring 15 goals in the process. Udinese, on the other hand, were held to ties by low-table Pro Patria and Novara and their dreams of glory soon vanished.

Then, in an even eviler plot twist, they found themselves deprived of their achievement on the pitch. The Italian Football Association Court of Justice found them guilty in a match-fixing case related to a game with Pro Patria played two years before. No direct involvement from any Udinese staff was ever proved, but the ruling still resulted in the club being immediately relegated to Serie B in what was deemed a highly controversial decision.

And so, the poor Udinese fans and folks went from almost touching the Scudetto with their hands to experiencing the shame of a demotion in the space of a few weeks.

The Zebrette never reached such heights in Serie A again. However, not many of the so-called, mid-table Provinciali in the Italian football landscape can boast of having seriously battled for the title until the final weeks of the league action. Even if only for one, unforgettable season.



May 1, 1955 – Serie A 1954-55 Round 29

SCORERS: 47′ Menegotti (U), 50′ Bettini (U), 52′ Vicariotto (M), 62′ La Forgia (U), 80′ Schiaffino (M)

UDINESE: Romano, Zorzi, Dell’Innocenti, Snidero, Pinardi, Magli, Castaldo, Menegotti, Bettini, Selmosson, La Forgia Coach: Bigogno
MILAN: Buffon, Silvestri, Zagatti, Beraldo, Maldini, Fontana, Vicariotto, Schiaffino, Nordahl, Liedholm, Frignani Coach: Puricelli

REFEREE: Mr. Jonni from Macerata