Venezia vs Empoli Throwback: The Recoba and Maniero Days in Venice

In the summer of 1998, Venezia triumphantly regained top-flight status in Italian football for the first time in 30 years, catching the second spot in a thrilling Serie B season.  

Seeing the Lagunari in Serie A was quite unusual for the calcio followers and indeed the Venetian side was billed as having very few chances to survive their first season back in the elite division. But despite appearing doomed from the get-go, Venezia managed to maintain their Serie A status with a formidable run in the second half of the season.

Their comeback started by winning a key battle against relegation contender Empoli. They did so in a dramatic fashion, thanks to Alvaro Recoba’s exploits and a spectacular back-heel goal scored by Filippo Maniero.

Indeed, if one looks back at them today, Venezia seemed to have everything they needed to perform in Serie A: a volcanic president like Maurizio Zamparini, a charismatic coach like Walter Novellino, and an up-and-coming director of sports named Giuseppe Marotta (yes, that Giuseppe Marotta).

The Venezia roster was more than respectable too, featuring big names like goalkeeper Massimo Taibi and forward Filippo Maniero, who were both looking at revamping their careers after a disappointing stint at Milan the previous season.

But things had quickly gone downward for the Arancioneroverdi, who collected only one win out of their initial 12 games in the 1998/99 campaign. Maniero, in particular, was overly disappointing. When the winter break came, the seasoned striker had still not found the back of the net once.

Times were tense in Venice. With the team bottom-placed in the Serie A table, the Lagunari had just bid farewell to their talismanic striker Stefan Schwoch, the man who led them back to the top-flight by scoring 17 goals in the previous Serie B campaign.

In his place, along had come – on loan from Inter – this young forward with a brilliant left foot but an apathetic attitude that had shown glimpses of immense talent in his rare appearances with the Nerazzurri. His name was Alvaro Recoba. There were no doubts about his flair for goalscoring. But Venezia seemed to be needing something else. Blood, sweat, and tears. It was a risky bet.

But it started to pay off soon.

The game with Empoli was scheduled on January 6, 1999, the Befana day in Italy. However, a thick fog had prompted the referee to call it off when the score was still nil-nil after one hour of play. The relegation six-pointer was thus rescheduled to January 20 and restarted from scratch.

Venezia surely didn’t start the rematch on the right foot as Empoli built a two-goal cushion in a little more than 30 minutes.

That was mostly due to “King Arthur” Arturo Di Napoli’s effectiveness from the penalty spot. The prolific striker scored his first spot-kick on 18 minutes, after Venezia’s goalie Taibi found no other way that pushing in down in the box to stop him.

Then, on 37 minutes, Taibi failed to catch the ball from a corner kick. He was “substituted”, so to say, by his teammate Fabio Bilica, who cleared the ball away from the goal line with his hand. Too bad that Bilica was a defender. And so, his exploit could only result in a red card and a second penalty chance for the Toscani, which Di Napoli promptly converted.

The second half told a different story, however. Perhaps Empoli thought the game was over and, with a two-goal lead and one-man advantage, many would have probably agreed with them.

But El Chino Recoba’s magic left foot soon started to warm up. Nine minutes after the restart, the Uruguay international crossed the ball in the middle of the box and his teammate Fabian Valtolina was quick to head it home.

Just one minute later, Di Napoli could close the game but his tap in from point-blank range hit the post.

Venezia gained courage little by little and deservedly got their second. Recoba’s second assist of the game came from the left-hand side this time. His lob travelled all the way across Empoli’s box to reach Filippo Maniero on the other flank. Maniero clinically headed the ball into the top corner of the net, out of Matteo Sereni’s reach, to make it 2-2.

The charrua star was literally on fire and, after a solo effort again from the left flank, saw his shot denied by the post. He was not meant to make it to the scoresheet on that day.

And that’s ok, because the gods of calcio had given him a different role in Venezia’s incredible comeback. With just four minutes to go, Recoba whipped the ball in the box from a free kick and Maniero, emulating a feat performed by Roberto Mancini at Lazio a few weeks earlier, flipped it into the back of the net with a spectacular flying back-heel kick, making the Pier Luigi Penzo Stadium literally explode.

That was the beginning of a short-lived fairy tale. The story of an international star who surprisingly found his dimension in Venice – albeit for a short time – and of a struggling striker who won the hearts of the Venetians with that brilliant back-heel volley and would never lose their love.

Filippo Maniero played in Venice for four seasons, remaining loyal to the Arancioneroverdi even when they fell back to Serie B the following year. Recoba, as expected, came back to Inter at the end of the season, leaving the people in the Lagoon with some sweet memories and the bragging rights of having had in their team what would become the most paid player in the world for a few seasons.    

On a closing note, the battle at the Pier Luigi Penzo was a true “sliding doors” game. While Venezia got the courage that they needed to step up their performances and ultimately avoid demotion, poor Empoli remained mixed up in the relegation dogfight and lost their top-flight status at the end of the season.


January 20, 1999 – Serie A 1998-99 Round 15

18′ Di Napoli (E, pen.), 38′ Di Napoli (E, pen.), 54′ Valtolina (V), 76′ Maniero (V), 86′ Maniero (V)

VENEZIA (4-4-2): Taibi; Pavan (35’ Marangon), Bilica, Luppi, Dal Canto; Pedone, Miceli (42’ Brioschi), Volpi, Valtolina (71’ Ahinful); Recoba, Maniero (Bandieri, Iachini, Zironelli, Bresciani) Coach: Novellino
EMPOLI (4-4-2): Sereni; Fusco, Baldini, Bianconi, Cribari (80′ Lucenti); Pane, Morrone, Tonetto, Martusciello, (56’ Chiappara); Di Napoli, Carparelli (71’ Bisoli) (Mazzi, Cupi, Bonomi, Zalayeta) Coach: Sandreani

REFEREE: Mr. Racalbuto from Gallarate
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Pavan, Luppi, Valtolina, Volpi, Maniero (V), Fusco, Pane, Martusciello, Chiappara (E); Red Card: Bilica (V)