Italian football came onto English television at just the right time to convert many newcomers to calcio. One of the major criticisms of the game on the peninsula historically is that it is strictly for the purist, that it does not contain the instant excitement that you might find from the game in Britain or other parts of Europe.
It would be wrong to say that this is a complete figment of the casual fan’s imagination. Goals per game ratios may have been higher in, say, England the 1970s and 80s as two sides playing 4-4-2 was always going to produce more goalmouth action than the sweeper systems that remained popular on the peninsula until the late 1980s. However, by the mid 1990’s, the game in Italy had changed to such an extent that goals per game ratios in Serie A were higher than those of the EPL between 1995 and 1999. A big part of this transformation was the willingness of some new coaches to abandon tried and tested ideas and place the emphasis on offence. At the forefront of this tactical revolution was Zdenek Zeman and a side that managed to light up Serie A for a few glorious and immensely exciting years.
This is not one of those instances of a tiny club that goes on a romantic journey and wins public adulation by way of chronic over-achievement. Foggia had spent time in Serie A in the 1960s and 1970s and had managed stints at the elite level that lasted as long as four seasons. Ultimately, the period of time for which many remember them would be defined by the way in which they played, the part they played in changing outlooks on calcio and the way it was perceived by outsiders. Zeman had already managed Foggia for a brief stint in the mid 1980s, but it is a reflection of his unique nature that his second spell at the club shattered the (often correct) notion ‘you should never go back’.
Like Arrigo Sacchi, Zeman had never played football professionally, indeed the sports of his youth in his native Czechoslovakia had included handball and volleyball. So he felt no institutional tie towards calcio and its accepted methods. Out went the sweeper system and in came a 4-3-3 formation which involved constant movement with the aim of breaking into offensive positions as far as possible. What is more, Zeman aimed to dispel the notion that attacking football was in some way carefree, blasé, or merely the work of a lazy coach who lacked a genuine game-plan. His training sessions were lengthy, detailed affairs where players would be instructed when to make a run and where to. His teams were always drilled in fitness to enable the frequent interchanging of positions that his system required to work. The basic rationale was: – the more times we break in numbers into the opposing penalty area, the more goals we score – think Charles Hughes and his ‘position of maximum opportunity’ but with results that are more pleasant on the eye!
The consequences were indeed pleasant. Scoring 67 goals as they romped to the Serie B title in 1991, Foggia had shown that their coach’s methods, applied to the letter, could be both efficient and entertaining. Joint top scorer in the second tier that season was Francesco Baiano, who bagged 22 goals, with Roberto Rambaudi contributing a far from shabby 15 himself. That they smashed four past Reggina in the final game of the 1990/91 season was a taster of the impact they would make at the elite level. Many players who appeared for Satanelli that season would go on to have great careers at other more illustrious clubs. Dan Petrescu was a marauding full-back whose bursts forward into goalscoring positions epitomised the philosophy of his coach. Igor Shalimov specialised in breaking from midfield to support the front players.
Of those, take any three from Giuseppe Signori, Baino, Rambaudi and Igor Kolyvanov. With this Eastern European influence allied to young and talented Italian players, their ninth-placed finish was not really a surprise in retrospect. Baiano scored 16 times and Signori 11 as Foggia racked up a collective tally of 58. They attacked in numbers, but in a way that displayed planning and organisation. Like all attack-minded systems, however, they were prone to defensive nightmares.
In the final game of 1991/92, which they actually led 2-1 at half time, Milan scored seven without reply as Foggia’s goals conceded count also reached 58. It was perhaps a lesson that faced with vastly superior opposition in which awareness of their capacity to hurt should also be kept in consideration.
Unsurprisingly, much bigger fish came looking for their better players that summer. Baiano was sold to Fiorentina, Shalimov to Inter Milan and Signori began the love affair with Lazio for which he is most remembered. Zeman’s eye for a player matched his tactical nous. In came Luigi Di Biagio, who would make the holding midfield position his own, and Bryan Roy, the Dutch international wide player who had just been part of Ajax’ UEFA Cup winning side. Di Biagio’s presence in the centre of the pitch and Roy’s speed and skill, either in wide or central areas, would prove valuable assets as Foggia carried on in the same vain. Foggia finished eleventh this time, showing too much quality and endeavour to ever get drawn into a relegation fight, but just lacking the consistency to mount a serious European challenge. Faced with a string of sides above them with greater financial clout and resources, that final push would prove elusive. This would again prove the case in 1993/94. Twelve goals from Roy and a further nine from another great signing, Giovanni Stroppa, ensured only a ninth-placed finish. They were three points off qualifying for Europe and Zeman probably felt he had taken Foggia as far as he could. 143 goals in 102 Serie A games under his stewardship is a fitting statistical snapshot of his achievements.
Foggia was, by now counting, the financial cost of operating at the elite level and their squad would suffer serious depletion in the summer of 1994. Jose. A. Chamot went with his old coach to Lazio, where Zeman would again have great success for his first two seasons in the capital. Bryan Roy was sold to Nottingham Forest where he struck up an unlikely but undeniably lethal partnership with Stan Collymore. Stroppa’s move to Milan saw his career stagnate as he was little more than a fringe player at a club blessed with a depth of midfield talent. Di Biagio and Kolyvanov remained, but the departing personnel was not adequately replaced and while Lazio, with Zeman’s new ideas and a powerful team finished second, Foggia’s relegation was confirmed with two games to spare by a 3-0 loss at Genoa. New coach Enrico Catuzzi lasted only the 1994/95 season and Foggia went into freefall, dropping into the third tier in 1997/98 and the fourth in 2001.
Zeman, however, has become synonymous with words like ‘pioneer’, ‘revolutionary’ and that old phrase that bands and artists like to have spoken of them – ‘ahead of his time’. The cultured Bohemian may not have the collection of medals and trophies of Capello, Lippi or Trapattoni, but he did more to change the face of Italian coaching than almost anyone. He demonstrated that offence could be a considered and well thought-out plan of action rather than the default option of an idealist. Moreover, his teams entertained and won at the same time, which helped spawn a wave of coaches who were closer to his philosophy than the chess players of a generation earlier. Modern calcio owes him a great deal, and every accolade that has been showered on him is, in the view of this writer, thoroughly deserved.