The Forgotten Friendly: England's Encounter with Sardinia's Finest
Few recall England's final game before Italia 90. Yet it introduced a player who became one of the most beloved - and transformative - in English football.
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When Gianfranco Zola signed for Chelsea in November of 1996, it signaled the first tremor of a seismic shift within European football. For decades, the Serie A had been the ultimate destination for the world’s best footballers; the league with clubs rich enough to buy any player they wanted. No one left Italian football unless they were all played out and no longer good enough.
That wasn’t the case with Zola. Although thirty when he moved to London, he was still a regular both for Parma and the Italian national team. A few months earlier, despite missing a crucial penalty that resulted in early elimination, he had still been at the heart of much that was good during Italy’s otherwise disappointing Euro 96 campaign.
The transfer also signaled a shift in Chelsea’s status. One of the architects behind the birth of the Premier League, they were largely viewed an ambitious upstart that was more adventurous than most other English clubs when it came to shopping in Europe for talent. They’d made an impact by moving for French defender Frank Lebeouf after two visits to the Serie A to get Gianluca Vialli and Ruud Gullit. Both were veterans with their career’s end well in sight, yet they still added a lot of glamour to a league that largely preferred to shop in Scandinavia. They’d also bought Roberto di Matteo, another Italy regular at the time but who, as a more defensive player, generated less excitement.
Zola was different. He was a true star and, importantly, one who immediately felt at home in London. Zola also transformed Chelsea’s fortunes, pushing them into the elite bracket and winning six trophies with them over the course of seven seasons. He remained a game changer till the very last, a mesmerizing display against Liverpool on the final day that served to confirm Chelsea’s place in the Champions League at the expense of their opponents. That also happened to be the game that convinced a certain Roman Abramovich to pour his wealth into Chelsea and forever change English football’s status quo.
Yet, for all the impact that Zola had over those seven years he spent in the Premier League, his first encounter with English football had come well before the day he signed for Chelsea. And even before his was a name many in Italy could recognise.
It was the summer of 1990 and England’s preparation for the World Cup had been anything but smooth. The memory of their dismal failure in Euro ’88, when England had started the tournament as favourites and returned home with three defeats in three, was still fresh. For some in the media – and among the national team’s support - this meant open season on manager Bobby Robson who was labelled as unpatriotic for lining up a job overseas once his England contract came to an end.
Yet this was a minor distraction. Much more significant was the fear of hooligans running riot which had seen the cancellation of some games earmarked by the FA as pre-tournament friendlies, thanks also to government authorities that always thought the worst of football fans.
It was also this fear that led the World Cup organisers to the decision that all of England’s group games would be played in Sardinia. The memories of the running battles at the European championships held in Italy a decade earlier and those from Heysel coloured local attitudes towards English supporters. If they couldn’t force them out of the tournament – and there were some attempts at this – trapping England on an island was seen as the best way to control the damage. With one airport and no overland route, this was seen as the best solution to filter who was allowed to enter the country and police them once there. Not to mention that the higher costs to get there could probably act as a deterrent as well.
For the English team itself, this did not matter much. If anything, it was an advantage as it not only saved them from having to travel to different cities but also allowed them the luxury of getting to know the stadium in which they were playing.
In fact, England had arrived on the island as early as May. To gain some match fitness, a friendly against Cagliari was organised behind closed doors. Freshly promoted to the Serie A and led by another man who would eventually become an icon in England – Claudio Ranieri – Cagliari were well up for the challenge. Perhaps too much; those who were there talk of a bruising encounter that was at times anything but friendly.
Robson’s team then flew to Tunisia where they played out a 1-1 draw against the local national team, a game where Abdelhamid Hergal scored a spectacular goal and England only managed to salvage a draw in the last minute through Steve Bull. Despite Robson’s calls for people not to “read too much into it. This was just a limbering up game. The matches that matter will be played in Italy,” it added to the air of negativity around England’s prospects.
Eager to ease a bit the pressure whilst improving the English’s reputation with the local, Bobby Robson sought to arrange one final friendly match. The man tasked with setting it all up was Stefano Arrica, who had been assigned to support the English team by the organising committee and who had bonded with Robson whilst playing golf.
Arrica, part of Sardinian football nobility – his father Angelo had been the general manager that pieced together the Cagliari side which won the Serie A title in 1970 – initially thought that a matchup with the oldest football team on the island – SEF Torres – might be ideal for the occasion but then demurred, afraid that this might be too tempting of a target for the much feared ‘hooligans’ as the Italians seemed to consider all English fans.
Instead, they decided to piece together a local representative putting together the best players that the island could offer. This largely meant amateur players with experiences limited to the Italian lower leagues; only six could boast professional status.
The star among these was undoubtedly Gianfranco Zola. Although, in this case, the star billing only came from a comparison with his team-mates on the day rather than his achievements. Zola would eventually become widely recognised as one of the finest players on the planet, yet his rise to the top was not straightforward. Despite Cagliari’s success in 1970, Sardinian football was not really considered by the rest of Italy; few went there looking for talent. Even on the island itself, there were those who felt that Zola was too small and frail to make an impact.
Indeed, despite ten goals in twenty-seven appearances spread over two seasons, his time at Nuorese was overshadowed with doubts over his physicality. It was only towards the end of his time there and, in particular, when he moved to Torres that those misgivings began to fade.
A lot of the credit for that breakthrough goes to Giovanni Maria Mele, known in Sardinia as Zomeddu, who first came across Zola at his local village team of Corassi di Oliena before finding him again when he took over at Nuorese.
Instead of telling Zola that football was not for him, as some others had done, he arranged for him to go training with Italian weightlifting champion Nardino Masu. It was an inspired idea that allowed Zola to build more muscle and the physical presence needed to withstand challenges. Zola was clearly inspired and took it a step further, training also in judo to help him learn how to better cushion his falls.
It all came together at Torres where Zola started to really impose himself and led the side to promotion to the Serie C1 in his first season with them. For a time Torres could even claim of being the island’s top team seeing that they were even doing better than Cagliari who had fallen from their heights to the Serie C.
His performances there finally caught the attention of Luciano Moggi who identified in Zola a possible replacement for the increasingly erratic Diego Maradona and made the move to sign the Sardinian talent for Napoli. No one in Naples was thinking of moving the Argentine on but having someone like Zola was a good insurance policy.
It was why in the summer of 1989 Zola finally made it to the Serie A, five years after he had made his first senior appearance.
It would still be some time, however, before he could get to nail a place among the starting line-up. That was why, despite being twenty-four in 1990, rather than playing in Italia 90 he ended up facing England in a pre-tournament friendly alongside a mix of lower-league pros and amateurs.
Tellingly the man chosen to lead the Sardinian team was Mariano Dessi, a renown coach locally but virtually unheard of away from the island. Passionate about football from an early age, Dessi had managed to build a career as a coach despite never having played the game at senior level. His footballing ideology had been shaped by a dinner with Heriberto Herrera, the league winning coach with Juventus.
Heriberto is not to be confused with his namesake Helenio, the legendary Inter manager who popularised catenaccio. Indeed, Heriberto’s philosophy went counter to that idea, being an enthusiastic proponent of total football. It was an idea that impressed Dessi who integrated the philosophy in his football wherever he went coaching across Sardinia. “I have always played rotational football. Football based on movement, in other words," he professed.
That was also why he wanted Zola playing against England; the quality of the opponent was forcing him to adopt a more pragmatic approach yet he still wanted to have some attacking vigour. For all of Dessi’s tactical tinkering, there was a gulf in class and no one expected anything other than a defeat. Still professional pride had to be protected as well; no one wanted a humiliation.
Wary of a repeat of what had happened against Cagliari, Robson had asked Arrica to tell the locals to take it easy. “But actually, it was the English who were pounding like blacksmiths!” Arrica later recalled.
"Yes, indeed, they were hitting hard," comes the confirmation from Francesco Marroccu, currently a sporting director but at the time a workhorse with local side Iglesias and one of the pros in the local side. "But the truth is that from a physical standpoint, there was an abyss. Seeing those statuesque physiques was, in a certain sense, beautiful and impressive."
“Zola was the only one among us who could hold his own at that level,” Maroccu continues. “Our plan was simply: give the ball to Gianfranco and hope we don’t concede fifty. Because it truly was a siege.”
The game was played out in front of a sell-out crowd of 3,000 largely local fans who packed the tiny Campo Tharros in Oristano. This being also an attempt by the English team to win over the locals, all the money collected from ticket sales went towards local charities.
There was also charity on the football pitch. When the game kicked off, McMahon picked up the ball and ran towards his own goal before rifling a shot past an immobile Davide Seaman. It was a good-will gesture to ease any fears that the local amateurs might have had for their pride.
Still, the gulf in class was huge. England ran out easy winners hitting ten past the amateurs; hat-tricks by Neil Webb and Peter Beardsley, two goals by Steve Bull and one each for David Platt and Steve McMahon. Towards the end, Alessandro Tomasso pulled another goal back for the hosts, beating Seaman directly from a free kick. As for Zola, there were a couple of moves that highlighted his talent and sent the watching fans – that included his parents – into raptures of delight.
Interestingly, one of the players who most impressed the Sardinians was the English defender Terry Butcher.
"Never in my entire career have I seen a player of that build," recalls Roberto Ennas, an experienced striker who had been Zola’s partner up front at Torres. "At one point, I tried to outrun him along the wing and managed to beat him in speed. He caught up to me in a second and executed a perfectly clean sliding tackle, but so powerful that the ball slammed against the fence and bounced into the air, reaching the midfield. Impressive."
"Majestic, frightening," echoes Marroccu when he recalls the defender.
Later on that summer Paul Gascoigne would become the undoubted star of England’s World Cup but on this occasion Robson kept him on the sidelines all throughout the ninety minutes. Not that it stopped him from making a mark.
"Robson kept him on the bench, and he gifted the spectators in the stands 90 minutes of a show," recalls Walter Tolu, the then captain of Torres with whom he had secured safety in the Serie C1 two days prior. "He was on the bench, and every time I passed in front of him, he shouted 'Rambo-Rambo' at me, surely because of my long, curly hair."
"But the even more amusing thing was something else: a few years later, when I was playing for Fidelis Andria, I encountered him before a Coppa Italia match against Lazio. As we were waiting to go out on to the pitch, he recognized me and started yelling all sorts of things at me. My teammates were astonished, I was doubled over in laughter."
Tolu is not the only one with fond memories of Gascoigne; Arrica also has plenty of tales particularly of the times when the young midfielder would sneak out of the hotel. "I used to go out with someone from the staff," he recounts, "and we'd search for Gazza. We'd find him in some beach bar, drinking. 'Come on, Paul, stop giving us a headache,' I'd tell him in English. 'Just five more minutes,' he'd reply. It was never easy getting him back to the hotel. Meanwhile, he had befriended the bartender and bonded with everyone in the bar. He was never quarrelsome. He was a very tender guy with a big heart, but completely crazy.”
Arrica would bring him back to the retreat, but then he'd sometimes run off again. “He was a handful; when he drank, he slurred incomprehensible words. Even with his Newcastle accent, I struggled to understand him. No, convincing him was never easy.”
“Still, Gazza cared a lot about the national team and performing well in those weeks."
That he did and with him England, going on to enjoy their best World Cup in decades; a success which served as a launch pad for the rebirth of English football. Their friendly in Oristano became a forgotten footnote for all but the Sardinians who played in it and, for one Gianfranco Zola, provide a glimpse of the future.
Despite the lack of good football, still fondly remember Italia 90, so much that I wrote a book about it. Echoes of an Italian Summer from Pitch Publishing examines Italia 90 from a fresh angle, unearthing an array of stories from this iconic World Cup. If you enjoyed this piece, then you’ll probably love Echoes of an Italian Summer as well.