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Brendan Crossan: The halcyon days of Italian football come flooding back with 'Golazzo' memories

Fiorentina's Gabriel Batistuta was one of the leading lights of Italian football in the mid-90s

IT was Sunday August 25, 1996. We were four university students on a train from Florence to Milan to watch the Super Cup between Fiorentina and AC Milan, Italy’s curtain raiser to the new season.

Milan wasn’t part of our itinerary before we left for Europe in the summer of ’96.

We’d planned a three-night stay in Florence before catching the Eurobus to Nice in the south of France – the last leg of an unforgettable road trip.

Florence was one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Our hostel digs were bordering on five-star.

It seemed plain wrong to leave Florence to spend several hours on a train to reach the legendary San Siro stadium.

The costs of the train and match tickets – roughly eight pounds each to see the game – were blowing a sizeable hole in our budgets.

Our mantra was: ‘We pass this way but once’ - and so we bought our match tickets in a coffee shop beside Fiorentina’s Stadio Communale and boarded the train bound for Milan.

Back then, Italy’s Serie A was the most prestigious domestic league in world football. Milan were crowned champions a couple of months earlier, Fiorentina Coppa Italia winners.

Our seats were hanging over the halfway line. It was perfect.

Everywhere we looked were world-class players in both line-ups. The imperturbable defensive trio of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Marcel Desailly were lining up in the famous red and black stripes of Milan.

The classy Croat Zvonimir Boban, I remember, was much more impressive in the flesh than on our Channel 4 TV screens back home.

Dejan Savicevic was a joy to watch on that balmy night in Milan, and there was George Weah, the undisputed king of Liberia, who would go on to score one of best individual goals ever seen against Verona the following month.

Milan couldn’t the ball off Rui Costa, Fiorentina’s masterful playmaker.

Up front, Gabriel Batistuta was still in his pomp and the best player on the field in the San Siro that night, scoring his side’s two goals that won the game.

Savicevic scored for Milan before Batistuta’s late winner.

Memories of that night came flooding back after watching BT Sport’s ‘Golazzo: The Football Italia Story’ last Sunday night.

Those of a certain vintage will fondly recall the days when Channel 4 hit the jackpot and signed exclusive rights to screen the best of the ‘live’ action from Italy between 1992 and 2002.

Sky, or BSkyB as it was known in the early days, used to show Serie A action.

It was on Sky we watched the last, desperate days of Diego Maradona’s time at Napoli.

Even though they still had some great players, southern Italy’s hastily built football empire was crumbling at the same time of Diego’s demise.

Even without Maradona, Italy still housed the best players in the world – at Juventus, Milan, Inter, Fiorentina and even unfashionable Parma and Sampdoria.

Unlike in today’s football world, great players were spread across the league. Every club, no matter how small, seemed to have at least one rock star footballer.

Juve had Roberto Baggio, Florence was being swooned by Rui Costa and Batistuta, Careca still made the earth move down in Naples, likewise Beppe Signori at Lazio.

Dennis Bergkamp would join Inter, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini Sampdoria’s lynchpins, Gianfranco Zola was the new kid on the block with Parma and Milan had Marco Van Basten, Roberto Donadoni, Savicevic, Baresi and the rest.

Sky’s head was well and truly turned by winning exclusive rights to show exclusive ‘live’ action from the new English Premiership in the 1992/93 season – and so there was an opening in the market for a British broadcaster to take up the Serie A baton.

Channel 4 seemed such an unlikely candidate. Italia ’90 may have been one of the more sterile World Cups but there was still a huge audience that hankered after some of the tournament’s stars – many of whom plied their trade in Serie A.

In recounting how ‘Golazzo’ became one of the most watched football programmes on TV every Sunday afternoon in the 1990s, Michael Grade, Chief Executive of Channel 4 (1988-1997) said: “It was very hard to get sport that anybody wanted to watch. We had sumo wrestling which was fun and different and not exactly a mass sport, apart from the actual size of the contestants!”

Initially, Channel 4 were only interested in showing Lazio’s games ‘live’ due to the imminent arrival of England’s Italia ’90 hero Paul Gascoigne.

Upon contacting Rai – Italy’s state broadcaster – they told Channel 4 executives they could not only have Lazio’s games but all the games for the princely sum of £650,000 per season.

“They were delighted to have it on British television. It was a very easy deal to make. It was a lot of Lira but not too many pounds,” smiled Grade.

Italia Football executive producer Neil Duncanson recalls: “We bought the rights for the season for £650,000 which today would allow you to show four-and-a-half minutes of an English Premier League game.”

Serie A followers remember Golazzo’s slightly eccentric host James Richardson who presented Channel 4’s coverage from piazzas around Italy, sitting over an espresso and untouched desserts sifting through the country’s football newspapers.

There were numerous cameo appearances from ‘Gazza’, David Platt, Paul Ince – England’s three Italia ’90 exiles – while Roberto Baggio, Zola and Sampdoria’s bald winger Attilio Lombardo all indulged Richardson.

While every other football show sat with stern faces, ‘Golazzo’ never took itself too seriously.

With its unmistakable theme music, which climaxed with ‘Gooolaaaazzzzzooooo’, over three million tuned in to watch Channel 4’s first ‘live’ game between Sampdoria and Lazio on September 6 1992 which finished in a happy three-all draw.

Back in the early 90s, ‘live’ football was still quite a novel idea compared to the wall-to-wall coverage of today.

You could chart the progress of star players every week rather than waiting four years for the next World Cup to come around.

By the time we got back to our beautiful hostel in Florence it was four or five in the morning.

‘Golazzo’ had made Serie A junkies out of us all.

Our trip to the San Siro to watch some of the best players in the world busted our student budgets and left us eating baguettes in Nice.

Twenty-two years on you ask yourself: Was it worth it? It was the best thing we ever did.

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