Were you to look back at Serie A history to find a comparably outlandish Italian title success to rival Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League win, your journey would take you to Sardinia – home to Cagliari Calcio, the club that famously upset the Italian game by winning the 1970 championship.
To place that success in a broader context: this was only the fourth time since the war the Scudetto had gone to a club outside the northern cities of Turin or Milan; Cagliari had the smallest pool of professional players in Serie A, the least-expensively acquired squad and the smallest stadium.
Indeed the Sardinians had only reached Serie A for the first time in 1964, then spent four seasons in mid-table before rising in 1969 to finish as runners-up to champions Fiorentina. No-one expected them to advance that one position further.
A first sign that this folkloric fantasy might just become reality came in October 1969 when visiting champions Fiorentina came to town and lost 1-0. This put Cagliari top of the table and it was a position they never once relinquished over the remainder of the season.
There were a number of parallels between the Cagliari and the Leicester City successes. Coach Manlio Scopigno was considered unusual in Italian coaching circles because he eschewed – like Ranieri – the autocratic approach of his peers. Players were treated more like equals and not subject to the hated policy in which players were taken away into retreat for days at a time to prepare for games; the de facto way of things elsewhere.
And like Leicester City, Cagliari benefitted from the expected title contenders all seeming to lose focus in unison. Milan’s attention was on winning the Intercontinental Cup and they never recovered from the violent fall-out from those ties; Fiorentina couldn’t balance the demands of league and European Cup games and Inter’s form away from home was too patchy. Only Juventus challenged strongly later in the season, but the Turin club had too much ground to make up after a bad start that yielded just six points from the opening eight games.
Cagliari also had European football to contend with, but by resting the star names from their Fairs Cup ties they suggested they were happy to exit the competition as early as possible – which they successfully did. Like Leicester there was an element of good fortune with injuries too. The tall, stylish libero Giuseppe Tomasini missed a chunk of the season with a knee injury, but mostly Scopigno was able to maintain continuity by selecting the same line up week after week.
Unlike star-free Leicester City, Cagliari possessed one of the greatest strikers in the world game at the time. Luigi Riva was a fulminating centre-forward with a ferocious left-foot which found the target frequently. Cagliari was able to afford to pay his astronomical wages only by selling other players to raise money. A world-record deal that took Roberto Boninsegna to Inter the previous season also brought Angelo Domenghini to Cagliari and the newcomer, also a full Italian international, proved the perfect foil for Riva with his clever movement and willingness to drift into wide positions.
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Outstanding attacking options notwithstanding, this was a team built around resolute defence as reflected by the then Serie A record of just 11 goals conceded in 30 games. Enrico Albertosi was a brave and spectacular keeper while in front of him Comunardo Niccolai represented a powerful and aggressive stopper. The man who made the team tick was Pierluigi Cera who patrolled and prompted the midfield with ruthless effectiveness.
This Cagliari squad was assembled in its entirety via inexpensive purchases from minor clubs (Riva was bought for £20,000 from Legnano) or from next-to-nothing cast-offs from other Serie A sides (Cera, Gori, Poli, Albertosi and the Brazilian Nene). It was a staggeringly effective example of wonderful resource management and one of those all-too-rare opportunities where we have had the pleasure of seeing the giants of Serie A dumped on their very expensive behinds by the most deserving of underdogs.