One of the very many joys to be found in early 1990s Serie A was the manner in which certain clubs could become identifiable with a single nationality of foreign player.
Milan started the trend with Dutchmen – firstly Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten, joined a season later by Frank Rijkaard. Inter followed suit with their German trio of Brehme, Matthaus and Klinsmann, while Roma initially went Brazilian before changing their mind and also pursuing a German option.
This policy made sense on every conceivable level as having a clique of players of the same nationality should, in theory, ease the assimilation process on both a personal and a footballing level. The trend was not just the preserve of Italy’s giants either. Cagliari adopted an all-Uruguayan policy while up in the north of the country little Brescia became Little Bucharest when they brought in no fewer than four Romanian internationals during the summer of 1992.
The impetus for this whole-hearted policy came from, unsurprisingly, a Romanian in situ at the club. Mircea Lucescu was one of his country’s most visionary coaches and he moved to Italy in 1990 to challenge himself in Europe’s best League.
He spent a season at Pisa before finding a longer-term home at Brescia between 1991 and 1996. A successful debut season at the Mario Rigamonti saw the club promoted to Serie A and now become entitled to sign foreign players for the 1992/93 season.
Lucescu went with what he knew – Romanians – and who he knew – players who had chiefly worked under him at Dinamo Bucharest. First to arrive was midfielder Dorin Mateut who had been part of the mass exodus from the Romanian army club in 1990 alongside his manager. Mateut then spent a couple of underwhelming seasons in Spain with Real Zaragoza.
Deeper-lying midfielder Ioan Sabau arrived from Feyenoord while Florin Raducioiu brought some Serie A experience from having played a season at both Bari and Verona. The final acquisition was the one that really caught the imagination as Romania’s best player Gheorghe Hagi signed on to complete the quartet.
Hagi’s reputation was already so strong that when he left Steaua Bucharest in 1990 it was for no lesser a club than Real Madrid. His time in Spain was mixed and while he performed with some distinction, on a personal level he was unhappy with the perennial politics and machinations that swirl around a major club like Real. Brescia did not look like an obvious step forward for his career, but now with a trio of his compatriots in the squad and another leading the team, Hagi felt that Brescia might be a place he could rediscover his appetite for the game.
How you judge that debut season for Brescia’s Romanians depends on whether you are a glass half full or glass half empty person. The club was relegated for a start which in itself was a grave disappointment, but a case could be made that this relegation would have happened much, much earlier were it not for the efforts of their foreign stars.
Goals were hard to come by and only Florin Raduciou scored regularly, a respectable 13 in 29 games, with Hagi and Sabau next on the list with just five and four strikes respectively. No player played as many minutes over the season as Sabau. Indeed, the problem was more the lack of quality from the Italian contingent of a squad that had lost its two best players in Paolo Ziliani and Mauricio Ganz at the same time they were acquiring their Romanian stars.
Individually, the Romanian experiment could be deemed more success than failure. Despite relegation, Hagi stayed on for a second season and helped the club back to Serie A and win the Anglo-Italian Cup. His sublime performances at the 1994 World Cup meant his future was always going to be at a more rarefied level, so he moved on that summer to Barcelona.
Ioan Sabau proved to be the longest serving of the quartet, spending four years with the club before following his coach for a season to Reggiana. So strong were his links to Brescia that he came back a year later for one final season.
Florin Raducioiu’s strong scoring performances over the 1992-93 season took him to Milan where he endured an unhappy 12 months as little more than a deluxe reserve. What followed was a peripatetic career that ultimately saw him become the only player to score top-flight goals in each of Europe’s five major Leagues.
The one undoubted failure of the four was Mateut who made just four appearances during his solitary season with Brescia. He moved on to spend a similarly disappointing season with Reggiana before returning home in 1995.
The strength of a league should be judged not by how good the teams at the top of the table are, rather how good the ones near the bottom are. This was the wonder of Serie A during these years: an apparently hum-drum match up between Cagliari and Brescia was instead a fixture in which world-class superstars like Enzo Francescoli and Gheorghe Hagi could go head-to-head.