Italian Serie ‘A’ 98/99 Season
by Jack Coles
“To be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of thousands of people.” – Cesar Luis Menotti
The 1998/1999 Italian Serie ‘A’ league campaign was the best season in any country, of any time, in any sport, ever. To me, at least.
Shortly after the 1998 World Cup I signed a loan deal with the sport of football, with an option to buy if it did well. As an impressionable 11-year old, I was a late-comer to the sport and the World Cup had drawn me in. I decided to watch my second ever 90-minute match of football in the summer of 98′ (the ’98 World Cup final being my first, after being granted a work permit by mother to stay up past bedtime). It was LSK Lodz of Poland vs. Manchester United. These two teams had the task of impressing me to earn a lifelong fan and gladly, given the potential costs and personal sacrifices involved with following LKS Lodz, it was Manchester United who impressed me. I became a United fan that night, though I still didn’t get why Owen was playing left-back for United (I later found out it was Denis IRWIN – big difference).
“How does this relate to your fascination with the 1998/1999 season of the Serie ‘A’?” I hear you ask. We’re getting to that. I cannot commend your patience in the slightest.
Despite all this early attacking intent towards the sport, not having Sky TV made following an English team very hard. As an innocent 11 year-old, the complex Ceefax system and late scheduling of Match of the Day did not help. It wasn’t until years later that I found out it was repeated on the Sunday morning, much to my annoyance. What’s a young man to do? Simple, I handed in my transfer request and followed Football Italia on Channel 4 for a live football fix.
It was quite obvious to me that in 1998, the footballers in Italy were better than the footballers in England. I wrote down the team sheets of the Italian teams and kept them in draws around the house, I recorded the matches on the afore-blogged VHS and later recreated them with my Subbuteo set.
One year on, football had convinced me. So I had my sport, now I needed my game for a recently acquired PSOne. I bought Premier Manager 99. It had Kevin Keegan on the front, but I decided to buy it any way. As with most management simulation games, it was a glorified database that was infuriatingly addictive. This game held the squads, formations and ratings of all the Italian friends I had made by watching Channel 4 the previous year, and it galvanised my love of the previous season.
What’s that you ask?
“If you’re talking about the Serie ‘A’ 1998-1999 season as being great, then why have you skipped right past the whole year, thus avoiding it in your telling of why you love it so much?”
Well, you’ve interrupted me twice now and it’s starting to get a little annoying, but if you must know, it’s because only on reflection is this league campaign so brilliant. Far beyond the considerations of a young boy, only as a 25-year-old man does it all seem so wonderful. So nostalgic. During the actual year in which the season was played I failed to take it in.
There were any of 7 teams that felt they would win the Scudetto (Italian league title) at the beginning of the 1998/99 season. AC Milan, Inter Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, Parma, Roma and the then-best team in the world and current scudetto holders, Juventus.
Inter Milan had finished second in the 1997/1998 season, and felt they could win the title because Juventus’ had decided not to buy any more notable players that summer. Fiorentina had a young, powerful side and felt they had a good team and a good manager. They wanted to be, and were, the wild card choice. The title challenge was more inclusive because of the nouveau riche of Lazio, whose owner Sergio Cragnotti made his fortune selling tomatoes (who knew!?), and Parma, whose sponsors were Parmalat and traded in dairy products. Roma had their current, under pressure manager Zdenek Zeman in charge and felt that their excellent squad and attacking style of football could hold in them in good stead. AC Milan were really seen as outsiders. They had little money to spend and had finished 10th the year before.
All this of course, made for an incredible season. The league was made doubly interesting because of the strong emotions running through each of the teams. Milan and Inter are huge derby rivals, as are Lazio and Roma. Inter and Juventus hated each other because of huge controversy in a title-deciding fixture the year before, whilst Roma and Juventus hated each other because the Roma boss, Zeman, accused the entire Juventus squad of participating in doping during their domestic stranglehold on Italy that decade. With little proof it must be said!
Below are roughly the most frequently occurring sides in each of the title challengers, along with managers. You’re forgiven for crying with joy at the calibre of players in each side, even for spurting out loud “I remember him! I loved him!”
You are not forgiven for being indifferent.
But there’s no time to calm down, here are some players yet to be mentioned:
Jens Lehmann, Bruno N’Gotty and Roberto Donadoni at Milan;
Youri Djorkaeff, Nicola Ventola, Taribo West, Andrea Pirlo, Sebastien Frey, Nwanko Kanu and Paulo Sousa at Inter;
Thierry Henry at Juventus;
Guillermo Amor at Fiorentina;
Alen Boksic, Ivan de la Pena and Fernando Couto at Lazio.
Some of the players not at big clubs included Gattuso, di Vaio and di Michele at Salernitana and Gainluca Zambrotta at Bari. Udinese ended up being the team that upset most others that year, with their striker Amoroso becoming top scorer. Honourable mentions should go to Hidetoshi Nakata, Alvaro Recoba, ‘Beppe’ Signori and Roberto Muzzi too.
The quality of the games were, of course, excellent. During the season, many of the big games involved plenty of goals. So much so, it needs a table.
I’m not going to lie, my excitement and joy has made me lose my confidence in my own ability to create narrative, so I’ll leave it with you. Needless to say Milan, the least likely team, won the league that year. For me, this period of football creates the essence of nostalgia. Something that only appears wonderful in reflection. The players from that season seem faster and more powerful with oodles of stamina. They seem to be able to shoot, tackle, cross and pass with more accuracy and effect than any current player alive (apart from Messi). The Serie ‘A’ is more like a failed state now (see USSR), but you can still catch it on ESPN. Why not stop by and check out the current crop? If only to see the shirts and stadiums that mean so much because of the 1998/1999 season. I’ll share a link to the entire AS Roma 4-5 Inter Milan match. I suggest you get the kettle on, open the hobnobs and watch just a few minutes. You never know, you may end up watching the whole thing. You’re welcome.
“The coach proposes and the player disposes, but the limits that the tactics impose on us are every day obfuscating more the expression of new talents. A pity.” – Jorge Valdano