Azeglio Vicini: The unsung hero

Azeglio Vicini died this week. Few will know him, certainly none from this generation. He was not famous. Nor even very interesting.

This isn’t a story about him, but about those years, for me, and for football.

Football was run differently in those days. Celebrity wasn’t so in vogue, money was good but not obscene, and obscure technocrat coaches abounded in the Federations around the world.

Vicini was one of these, in a kind of Howard Wilkinson, Dave Sexton, Andy Roxburgh geography teacher anti charisma. Jose Mourinho was still a translator, Antonio Conte was already going bald, and I shudder to think what Jurgen Klopp was getting up to at that age. A gentler time.

Even though Vicini had done a fairly high profile job with the Italy U21 team, he was an unknown. Certainly to me. Very strange then that this grey man’s passing this week caused a serious moment of reflection. Not faux social media nostalgia. Just a memory.

Gran Gala del Calcio Aic 2011 - Awards Ceremony

Mexico '86 was, when all was said and done, a very disappointing World Cup. Unless you were Argentinian, or English, it’s unlikely to be remembered.

Big tournaments, the big games, are marker poles for most guys, like the classic albums. The soundtrack of our lives.

So, inevitable that, in 1986 it was The Smiths.

Scotland had for the fourth time in a row taken an exceptionally strong squad to Mexico 86. Gough, Narey, Miller, McLeish, Nicol, Malpas (and Hansen) were once what this country had available for selection in the back line, to whomever was lucky enough to be manager. Can you imagine? A time when being coach of Scotland was a big thing, where being knocked back by the manager of Northern Ireland was truly unthinkable.

Classically, despite being drawn in the infamous Group of Death, the squad led by a young Alex Ferguson had all of us full of hope. Again.

Yet, even the to-be-knighted Aberdeen manager could make errors. If ever there was a carpe diem strike partnership, it should have been, in that sticky summer, a delicious overdose of Glasgow gallus represented by Charlie Nicholas and Frank McAvennie. Both hotter than July that season. Goodness knows why Sturrock was preferred to Frankie-boy, albeit the very fine player that he was. Sir Alex probably regrets that error in his pension years.

Charlie Nicholas

So we lose to Denmark, to West Germany (after leading), and can’t beat a Uruguay team with 10 men for 85 minutes. Once again, for a fourth time , a Scotland squad realistically capable of getting to a semi-final massively massively underachieves.

Painful, but realistically, we were by then getting used to it, with a few of us already withdrawing some of the emotional capital invested in the SFA. That process would turn into The Big Short in later years.

Italy, the World Champions, went through the motions of defending the trophy. The team was done. It had given, magnificently, what it had to give four years earlier when it thrilled so many. The 3-2 defeat of Brazil still represents for me the greatest game I’ve ever seen. Mexico was always going to be reheated porridge, but it was, nonetheless, a huge downer for my June 1986. Morrissey abides, in true Lebowski fashion.

And it was clearly also enough for the Italian FA, who rushed to appoint a new manager to replace the sainted Enzo Bearzot.

Here open the Vicini years. He was appointed in Autumn 1986, and his journey accompanied, on a parallel track, my own adventure which began that same year. A period that would shape my life in every way possible.


This is how I remember it.

Glasgow and Scotland had been very good to me, affording a splendid and happy childhood. There is something very memorable about playing street football with good mates in broad daylight at 10:30pm in Paisley. But, simply, at 21 it was time to leave. I just knew, and I intended to follow my business career in PWC Italy. New country, new culture, new language to learn.

As fate would have it, on October 8, only my second day in Italy, Bologna was the venue for a friendly, where Italy played Greece in Vicini’s first game. For someone used to a fixed national stadium, the idea of the team visiting different cities, my own new city, I found electric.

Bologna is a wonderfully colourful and warm city, famous for the friendliness of its people, more than willing to indulge the mistakes of a quirky foreigner from Highlander (a Scottish tourist board film of that year). Luckily I found learning the language comfortably approachable, undoubtedly turbocharged by a thirst to understand what they were saying in the sports papers, and at the watercooler.

Vicini already had a jury fully out. Who really were these kids, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and Roberto Donadoni? I joined the frantic study to keep up, to have conversational small talk, dictionary in hand in Piazza Maggiore, to work out how Vicini would practically blood his successful U21 team to prepare for the World Cup four years later in Italy. How Paolo Maldini and Guiseppe Giannini would be introduced. To this day, I specifically remember reading an article speculating on how Dario Bonetti would be eventually replaced by Riccardo Ferri, and how that Bologna would be his last game.

West Germany v Italy - UEFA Euro '88 Group 1

I had had some experience of Italy as a boy, spending many school holidays in the hills above Lucca at my Italian grandparents’ home. I’d never seen Barga in the winter, so with Christmas ‘86 greetings to impart, it seemed a good idea to take the train across the Apennines that first weekend in December from Bologna. I’d see Vicini’s next game in Malta there on the TV, I said to myself. I won’t be bored.

The trains were four, not one, in a solitary Henry James type experience of rail tracks through fog-bound hamlets. No matter; the true fan loves what today they call the shoulder content and storytelling in the build up, and on the train i could read.

In hindsight, it was a truly memorable journey, accompanied by my Gazzetta, and dictionary, studying the tactical role Giannini would play that day, and through the years climaxing in Italia ‘90, beautifully inked in the way only that pink paper can. By the way, Ferri did replace my future Dundonian in Valletta, and Dario never played again.

In those days the sports journalists were truly in the know. Not today.

My spoken Italian was by now more than acceptable, albeit coloured by what I was told was a ridiculous Bolognese accent and assorted colloquialisms from that generous city.

Try making a surprise visit to emigrant grandparents, where you can for the first time speak to them in their own language, in their birth town, and see what happens. That reaction remains one of the most vivid memories from the Vicini years, certainly more so than the dull 2-0 victory for his team that day.

Giannini was however clearly a player.

Dossena and Giannini of Italy

In the following 18 months, Vicini shaped his team, as much as Italy and Bologna shaped my life. For him players, for me lifelong friends like Davide.

He (Davide) and I decided to spend that summer in Germany to follow Vicini’s team. Cologne, Stuggart, Munich over 10 days at the Euros. We had sufficient chutzpah to infiltrate team hotels, and hangout with the press and Gigi Riva. A fine time was had, and an excellent tournament enjoyed, with a team clearly being trained to peak 2 years later.

You know, that boy Maldini clearly had a future.

Excellent but ultimately defeated by a Russia team that, on the night, exposed us to something now considered normal. A high pressing game. Truly jaw dropping at the time, executed with Soviet discipline. It was perplexing.

In the traditional Italian school of football, the prevailing culture had always been around individual matchups. Two man markers, a sweeper, an attacking fullback (usually left side), a sitting midfield, a playmaker, a box-to-box midfielder, a winger with defensive duties, a centre forward, and a no. 10. Specific individual responsibilities. No zonal, no counter press, no goals. Just whether you were more effective than your direct opponent. And whether the coach’s tactics using those pieces and their interconnected sacrifices were grandmaster quality.

Paolo Maldini of Italy

That folks was Italian football. And for many like me, sadly missed it is. It was football with specialist skills. Such that, when they asked you where you played, for a bounce game, and you answered “midfield”, they looked frustrated. That’s not enough info, Roger.

Russia in Stuttgart changed the course of the Italian school. Arrigo Sacchi would see it, with his little notepad, and would develop a conviction that would shape European football in the 90s to this day.

But not quite yet. Vicini had still to finish his novel. And I had to finish my diary.

I returned for a life as an investment banker in london in 1989. Like everyone, I missed Bologna, I missed italy. Luckily, Scotland qualified for Italia ‘90, but the music had changed. The decades of decline had started, as any cursory glance at that squad would gently but harshly reveal.

Still, it was the World Cup, it was Genova, it was a summer of sun and great food, where for me, football really was coming home.

By now, I had started covering Italian football as a part time journalist for Sky, BBC, and the London papers. I was a hack. I knew stuff. Looking back at those old photographs now is like a yearbook of people who would become important in the sports media industry about to explode with the invention of the Premiership.

Channel 4 would ask to see “my tapes” which I dismissed as trivia about my hobby. Years later, a senior C4 executive and BBC broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove would tell me that they were serious. James Richardson was chosen, and rightly so.

A great summer, where the soundtrack back home was Nessun Dorma. In Italy, the Vicini years are remembered as the Notte Magiche (Magic Evenings) from Bennato/Nannini. Never has a song so described a summer. Like for me, its smells of that summer, that astonishing summer.

Scotland of course in classic tradition teased with a good win against Sweden in the second game, to compensate a wretched loss to Costa Rica in the first. But obviously then lost in the last minutes to Brazil in a miserable night in Turin. A fairly dismal effort from a team that, for the first time since 1974, clearly were just “alsorans”.

Tomas Brolin of Sweden and Gordon Durie of Scotland

We went home.

Before I did, I went to see old mates in Bologna, and took in Yugoslavia v Colombia in my old stadium. Davide and I travelled by motorino to the game where on the bike he casually told me he was getting married, and hurriedly for obvious reasons. And I was to attend.

Meanwhile, in the Italian islands, where England had been banished for fear of violence, a separate story was developing around a crazy Geordie and a splendid gentleman coach in an iconic grey suit. This was a fine England team with talent like Chris Waddle, named always by Maldini as one of his hardest ever opponents. But, for England, football will alway be a game played for 120 minutes where the Germans always win. Waddle missed. Still, fourth place was the best since 1966, not equalled to this day. Paul Gascoigne would soon come back to the amazing country that is Italy, tears and all. Another story.

Vicini’s local team were instead there to win. Destined to win. They had been constructed perfectly in the four years previously. They even had the outrageous fortune to have a young Roberto Baggio explode a few months earlier.


One of those sporting setups that could write its headlines months in advance. They were easily the best team. Brazil were weak, as was apparent versus Scotland. Holland eliminated by Ireland, Argentina had Diego Maradona and precious little else, Germany were still Germany but unthreatening.

And yet, there was a final variable to upset the inevitable.

Anyone who ever has visited Naples, even today, will know this. The city may reside on the Italian peninsula, but its sovereignty belongs to Maradona. It is his city.

Fate dictated that the only time Italy didn’t play their game in Rome that tournament was in the semi, of course, in Naples, against Argentina. How does sport do that?

A city torn in two. Unimaginable tension around the game. All to the disadvantage of Vincini’s clearly superior team.

Diego Maradona

Italy exited on penalties, conceding their only goal of the tournament to a shocking goalkeeping error by Walter Zegna; a mistake regularly used to taunt the goalkeeper to this day. “You lost us a World Cup Walter....”. Utterly brutal.

It just wasn’t to be. Yes, perhaps selecting Baggio would have made a difference. I doubt it. Vicini was destined to lose finals and semi-finals. He didn’t have winner eyes. Remember that geography teacher?

The pain was immense. I myself watching back in london felt a physical sense of vacuum that night, and frankly couldn’t tell you at all what had happened in the final. I knew in some subconscious way that the curtain call of that World Cup was the closing of that period in my life. And I was scared of the next chapter. I was 25.

The Vicini Years of course had an epilogue. The diary’s final entry.

I did of course go to that wedding, in Ferrara in late Summer. I met Davide’s sister. We have been married for nearly 20 years.

Ciao Azeglio, buon viaggio. Per me sei stato memorabile.

Bye Azeglio, safe travels, for me you were memorabile.

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