Milan, Turin and Rome are Italy’s traditional two-club football cities so it was a very welcome development in Serie A history when, for a brief spell during the early 1990s, the port city of Genoa became the country’s capital of calcio.
The exploits of Sampdoria in this era are well known. This previously fringe club had come to prominence for the first time during the 1980s through canny management and clever recruitment. A wonderful team featuring Vialli, Mancini, Lombardo, Mannini, Pagliuca, Vierchwod and others was assembled and it brought Coppa Italia and European Cup Winners Cup success to the city.
The sudden emergence of the city’s other major club as the 1990s began was harder to predict, despite its storied history. Genoa Cricket and Football Club is the oldest active professional football club in the country and had been one of the most prominent teams in the early days of the Italian game, winning nine titles between 1898 and 1924.
The intervening years had not been nearly as kind and Genoa’s modern history was dominated by truculent owners, perpetual financial crises and an existence mostly mired in Serie B – with even the occasional dip down into the footballing graveyard of Serie C.
The catalyst for change came with yet another new owner in Aldo Spinelli who arrived in 1985 and brought some much-needed stability. The pay-off followed in 1989 as his club won promotion back to Serie A after a decade away. That first season back brought mixed fortunes despite a comfortable 11th placed finish.
A trio of Uruguayans were recruited for the campaign and two of them, Ruben Paz and Jose Perdomo, flopped badly. The third import was striker Carlos Aguilera and his name would become synonymous with the modern history of the club.
Suffering a poor working relationship with his coach, Spinelli made what would prove to be an inspired change at the helm. Out went the architect of Genoa’s promotion Franco Scoglio and in came Osvaldo Bagnoli, the coach who had taken unfashionable Verona to the most unlikely of scudetto wins six years earlier.
Bagnoli was a master of putting together disciplined, well-balanced teams and extracting the very best from modest players. Genoa was a perfect platform for him as this was a squad that featured next to no big names or stellar reputations. Two cost-effective signings that summer would transform the squad’s fortunes.
Out went the previous season’s top scorer David Fontolan expensively to Inter while he was replaced by the hugely more effective Czech World Cup striker Tomas Skuhravy.
The Czech paired up with Aguilera and together they formed one of the most devastating big man – small man front pairings the modern game has seen. Skuhravy was a colossus in the air, hugely powerful and a real handful for opposing defenders to contain; Aguilera was the quick and agile foil who would feast gleefully on the knockdowns that came his way. Another new import was Brazilian left-back Branco who would add power and devastating ability at set pieces.
Genoa proved to be one of the revelations of the 1990-91 season by finishing fourth in Serie A and remaining unbeaten at home all season, this in a year when their city rivals also hugely overachieved and pipped the Milan clubs to win its solitary championship.
Skuhravy and Aguilera matched each other goal for goal and completed the season tied on 15 Serie A strikes apiece, but this was a success built on hard graft and togetherness throughout the team. Keeper Simone Braglia was very typical of the sort of player that characterised this side, one who had led a journeyman’s career to that point without ever losing focus or determination to take any opportunity for the big time that presented itself.
Vincenzo Torrente was a ferocious man-marking right back who came from lower leagues; Gianluca Signorini an authoritative and muscular sweeper; Stefanie Eranio was the classy Rolls-Royce in midfield having come through the club’s youth ranks; Roberto Onorati lacked pace on the left but showed good vision and passing range to link with Branco; Gennaro Ruotolo was a dynamic presence in the centre who liked to break forward from midfield.
Two members of the squad cast off rejection from bigger clubs to reconstruct their careers at Genoa. Midfield playmaker Mario Bortolazzi had been part of Milan’s 1988 title-winning squad but was sold that very same summer, while reserve forward Marco Pacione had been hounded out of Juventus after carrying the can for the club’s 1986 European Cup elimination by Barcelona.
With a first-ever appearance in European football to look forward to, Spinelli was determined to keep his squad together and turned down sizeable offers for Eranio, Ruotolo, Skuhravy and Torrente. The 1991-92 UEFA Cup campaign was a thrilling one with Genoa travelling all the way to the semi-finals before being eliminated by Ajax, but the extra fixtures came at the expense of League form and the club finished in a precariously low 14th place.
The spell was broken and Spinelli was ready to cash in. Bagnoli quit to look after his ill daughter and during the summer of 1992 his carefully assembled team started to break up with Eranio finally making his move to Milan and Aguilera sold to Torino. Replacements like John Van’t Schip, Kazzy Miura and Igor Dobrovolski proved sub-standard and once again Skuhravy’s goals were all that kept Genoa above the relegation zone in its centenary year.
The same pattern followed the following season with brilliant youngsters Andrea Fortunato and Christian Panucci moving on to Juventus and Milan respectively replaced by a job lot of cheaply assembled replacements.
Ultimately even the ever-consistent goal scoring of Tomas Skuhravy couldn’t save the club and Genoa finally succumbed to relegation in 1995. Just four seasons later their city rivals followed them down and once again discussion about the major two-club Italian cities would become focused once again solely around Milan, Turin and Roma.