Gianluca Pagliuca: Sampdoria’s wall

The portiere is held in high regard in Lo Stivale. Italy is a footballing nation that finds as much beauty in keeping the ball out of the net as it does from putting it in. A stark contrast to another footballing giant Brazil, their blatant distrust of the goalkeeper rooted in the theory that he is the joy killer, whose sole purpose is to rebuff and disrupt the Joga Bonito. There are few countries that can hold a light to the goalkeepers that Italy has produced over the years, dating back to the days of the legendary Dino Zoff. Nineteen-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma is next in line, having eclipsed the 100-game mark already for AC Milan with fans of the Azzurri expecting him to don the gloves for the foreseeable future.

Inter’s Walter Zenga was Italy’s starting goalkeeper for the home World Cup in 1990 as the Azzurri came within a game of making the final. It was in the semi-final defeat to Argentina that the Italians conceded their first goal of the tournament, Claudio Caniggia heading past a hesitant Zenga to send the game to penalties.

The shootout proved one step too far for the hosts, as the nation mourned their exit in Naples when the final was within touching distance. Knowing then what we know now maybe coach Azeglio Vicini should have turned to Zenga’s understudy Gianluca Pagliuca for the penalty shootout. The Sampdoria man had yet to cement his reputation as the penalty takers worst nightmare.

Pagliuca was born at Sant’Orsola hospital in Bologna the year Italy was stunned by North Korea at the World Cup in 1966. He joined his hometown club as a schoolboy, but it would take a move 300km west when he finished school to kick-start a career that would last 20 years. The man who came to be known as ‘The Wall’ made his debut for Sampdoria during the 1987/88 season and quickly deposed Guido Bistazzoni as the Blucerchiati number one, even winning a Coppa Italia medal in his first season at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.

Sampdoria were formed in 1946 when two clubs, Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria, merged. They were a steady but unsuccessful side in their formative years and could often be found in and around midtable of the top flight with the odd sojourn to Serie B thrown in from time to time. All of this changed dramatically when millionaire businessman Paolo Mantovani bought the club in 1979. The Roman entrepreneur vowed to put an end to the days in lower division and set about bringing the Genoese club to the Serie A top table.

The masterstroke came in 1986 when Vujadin Boskov was appointed coach and within five years the Blucerchiati was ready to thumb their nose at the established hierarchy of reigning champions Napoli, Juventus, AC and Inter Milan. By this time Italy was the place to be for any aspiring top-class footballer. The glitz and glamour of the footballing peninsula brought players in from far and wide. With a rule of only three overseas players allowed per squad though the margin for error was slim.

Both Milan giants added a triumvirate of players from the same country; The Rossoneri opted for a trio that won at Euro ’88 with the Netherlands in Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. Inter took a similar approach yet they signed three German World Cup winners: Lothar Matthäus, Jurgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme. Not to be outdone, Juventus broke the bank to add Azzurri darling Roberto Baggio, much to the chagrin of Fiorentina fans and Thomas Hassler also joined fresh from his World Cup win with the Nationalmannschaft.

Despite eschewing the big names Sampdoria’s approach was one of strength in unity. A squad of young stars suitably aided and abetted by unheralded heroes went up against the best Europe had to offer. The goals of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, coupled with the stoic Pietro Vierchowod at the heart of a backline in front of the giant Pagliuca. With this Boskov had found a recipe for success. Back-to-back Coppa Italia titles and a narrow final defeat to Barcelona was the prelude for their first European Cup Winners’ Cup trophy win the following year, Pagliuca kept a clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Anderlecht. The 24-year-old’s stock was on the rise as he headed for a career-defining season, one which steered him towards international recognition.

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La Samp had never finished above fourth in the league before and got off to a slow start with injured talisman Vialli missing the opening games. His return garnered goals and more importantly wins, his partnership with the irrepressible Mancini who probed and pressed saw them rise up the table. Home and away wins secured over both Milan sides and Napoli, the second a 4-1 hammering in Maradona’s final game for the Partenopei.

Two late goals beat Inter, no mean feat in itself, yet even more impressive considering Sampdoria were down to 10 men. The return 2-0 victory at the San Siro all but sealed the title. Inter bombarded Pagliuca’s goal with 24 shots but ‘The Wall’ stood firm. His 6’ 4in frame also kept out a Matthäus penalty despite being bombarded with missiles and flares from the Nerazzurri Ultras in the Curva Nord. A comprehensive 3-0 win over Lecce two weeks later sealed the Blucerchiati’s first Scudetto.

Expectations had risen the following season and the pressure began to tell. League performance fell away with Sampdoria even flirting with relegation at one point before an eventual recovery took them to a more respectable sixth place. Their maiden participation in the European Cup was a different story. La Samp comfortably dispatched of Rosenborg and Honved before topping a group that contained old adversaries Anderlecht and the crack Serbian side Red Star Belgrade.

The reward was a final against Barcelona at Wembley, in what would be the last European Cup. Barca’s attacking threat of Hristo Stoichkov and Jose Salinas was stifled by the Sampdoria defence expertly marshalled by Vierchowod. Vialli missed several chances, with some questioning whether an impending move to Juventus had turned his head. Pagliuca kept Michael Laudrup at bay and even had the post to thank for one Stoichkov effort.

Vialli was replaced and with it went Samp’s hopes of victory, their best chance now was to hope for penalties and put faith in Pagliuca who had made saving them an art form. Ronald Koeman had other ideas though and in extra time he rifled an indirect free-kick past Pagliuca for what would be the only goal of the game.

As the squad started to break up Pagliuca had usurped Zenga in the national team and was the number one for the 1994 World Cup in the USA. His tournament got off to an inauspicious start, when Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland upset the Azzurri 1-0 in their opening match. A scooped Ray Houghton shot dipped over a stranded Pagliuca and into the goal before the Samp stopper saw red in the second game, dismissed for handling the ball outside of his area as Norwegian Oyvind Leonhardsen bore down on goal.

Italy limped through the group stages finishing third with Pagliuca suspended for the next two games. He was back in the line-up for what two weeks earlier seemed an unlikely semi-final with Bulgaria. Italy, notoriously slow starters in tournaments, had grown into this World Cup, the goals of Roberto Baggio seeing them past Nigeria. Il Divin Codino hit another brace in a 2-1 win to secure a place in the final where Brazil awaited.

The heat of Pasadena sapped the life out of the game and it slowly edged towards a penalty shootout. Despite Pagliuca making history by being the first goalkeeper to save a penalty in a World Cup shootout, Baggio turned from hero to villain and sent his penalty into the California sky and handed the trophy to the Seleção.

Pagliuca got over this disappointment by joining Inter Milan that summer with the man he replaced for Italy, Zenga, going the other way. His £7.5m move was a record for a goalkeeper and would stand for seven years until Gianluigi Buffon left Parma for Juventus in a deal worth a whopping £53.5m. His imperious form continued at the San Siro and although he won a UEFA Cup winners medal there he never truly challenged for the Scudetto again. Despite chairman Massimo Moratti bankrolling the club and signing such players as Ronaldo and Ivan Zamorano his trigger-happy nature with managers was much to the detriment of the side and any stability they hoped for.

The emergence of Angelo Peruzzi had cost Pagliuca his place in the national side with the Juventus man making the position his own at Euro ’96. However, when injury struck, Pagliuca returned for France ’98 and added to his reputation by saving another penalty, this time in the quarter-final against the hosts. Pagliuca’s heroics couldn’t be replicated in the resulting shootout and Italy faced heartache again.

When Marcello Lippi took over the Nerazzurri in 1999 history repeated and Peruzzi left the Old Lady and took Pagliuca’s place at club level too. ‘The Wall’ returned home and spent seven seasons with Bologna, starring in the game that relegated Sampdoria to Serie B, something which didn’t go down well with the Blucerchiati Tifosi.

After one more season with Ascoli, Pagliuca called it a day at the age of 41. His career spanned three decades yet due to the strength of the goalkeeping position in his homeland he won only 39 caps for the national team. The generational talents of Pagliuca alongside Luca Marchegiani, Francesco Toldo, Buffon and Peruzzi spoke volumes about the quality that Italy goalkeeping had to offer in the 90’s and 00’s. He may not be spoken of in the same breath as Zoff and Buffon, yet his 592 career appearances and 24 Serie A penalty saves to add to both domestic and European trophies, Gianluca Pagliuca can go down as one of the best goalkeepers Italy has produced.

By Matt Evans

Part of our Number Ones series

(This feature was originally published as part of our Relive series)

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