Scudetto a Tavolino: The Multi-Billion Lira Championship Turned By A Single Coin

Arbitration in sport has a long and unedifying history. But even by those dismal standards, October’s decision to award three points to Juventus at the expense of quarantined Napoli felt like a particularly low ebb. Napoli argue their no-show in Turin was under direction from public health authorities, seeking to contain the spread of a deadly virus. Sympathy for Napoli’s plight was pervasive in the world of calcio. Even some Juventini were heard to express discontent. It was a classic case of how writing the rules is often simpler than applying them. 

Victories a tavolino (at the table) are something of a calcio institution, providing moments of great controversy, seemingly endless debate and lingering feelings of resentment. Perhaps the most seismic of these judgments took place three decades ago, and went in Napoli’s favour. It was an episode laden with bitterness and accusation, and one which played a critical role in the destination of the scudetto. 

In the late-1980s, Serie A was a consistently gripping spectacle; a ferociously competitive championship, which had seen five different victors in five seasons. The 1989/90 campaign saw reigning champions Inter, with their German trio of Lothar Matthäus, Andreas Brehme and Jürgen Klinsmann going toe-to-toe with city rivals AC Milan, propelled by the brilliant Dutch triumvirate of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten. Looking beyond the northern powerhouses, the South American-inspired Napoli of Maradona and Careca were mounting a serious challenge for their second scudetto. 

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At the mid-way point in the season, Napoli had established a slender two-point advantage at the summit of the table. Looking back over their shoulder, the Partenopei could see the chasing pack of Milan, Inter, Sampdoria and Roma all within three points of them. As winter gave way to spring, the pendulum of the scudetto race dramatically swung away from Napoli as they capitulated to their nearest rivals. Two defeats in a fortnight at the San Siro, followed by a loss away to Sampdoria handed the initiative to AC Milan. 

With just four games of the season remaining, and Milan leading by a single point, the plot was to take a climactic twist. Napoli were greeted by a typically hostile reception when they arrived in Bergamo to face Atalanta on matchday 31. Maradona and his team-mates were enduring a frustrating afternoon as La Dea’s rear-guard held firm. Goalless, and with just a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, Napoli’s Brazilian midfielder Alemão went to collect the ball from below the Curva Nord. What happened next had a fundamental bearing on the destination of the scudetto – and it had nothing to do with football. 

A coin was thrown from the curva, striking Alemão on the top of the head. Looking rattled but not seriously harmed, he began to walk away, dismissing the offer of treatment from the Napoli physio, Salvatore Carmando. Eventually, Carmando catches hold of the Brazilian, placing a compress onto his head and ushering him to the side of the pitch. Carmando is seen barking orders into Alemão’s ear, leaning in to be heard over the baying cacophony of the curva. Given Alemão’s reputation as a tenacious midfielder, his immediate withdrawal from the game was a source of bemusement. 

Napoli pressed hard for the remainder of the game, seeking to make the crucial breakthrough. However, they did so in the knowledge that the result may, in any event, become moot. Amidst a burgeoning problem of fan disorder on the curva, the Italian Federation had introducing a ruling that if any player was forcibly withdrawn from a match as a consequence of fan behaviour, the victory would automatically be awarded to the damaged party. Whilst chaos was unfolding in Bergamo, 250km away, Milan were having their own travails in similarly goalless encounter in Bologna. 

After the game, Napoli President Corrado Ferlaino visited Alemão in the medical centre, reporting to the assembled press that his player was in a bad way, unable to recognise Il Presidente. Meanwhile, Milan enlisted the services of a lip reader to forensically appraise TV coverage, in order to evidence the claim that Alemão, under instruction from Carmando, feigned injury to invoke the Federation’s rule. Although nobody quite believed Ferlaino’s embellished account of Alemão’s condition, both the rules and precedent were clear and there was ample evidence for the points to be awarded to Napoli, bringing them on par with Milan. 

The ruling sparked outrage in the red-and-black half of Milan…but worse was to come for the rossoneri. In the penultimate game of the season, with the teams still tied on points, Milan visited a Verona side immersed in a battle at the opposite end of the table. Milan edged ahead on half an hour when a long-range Marco Simeone free-kick bounced under the outstretched arms of a young Angelo Peruzzi. Thereafter, the script took a curious twist. Milan were denied two clear penalties by referee Rosario Lo Bello, the second of which resulted in the expulsion of an incensed Arrigo Sacchi from the Milan bench. 

Verona equalised on the hour and, with Napoli comfortably leading in Bologna, Milan were on the verge of ceding a decisive advantage to the Neapolitans. As Milan desperately pushed for a winner, frustrations began to boil over. First, Rijkaard received a second yellow card for dissent. Then an incredulous Van Basten saw red after throwing his shirt to the ground in protest at another bewildering decision. Verona added insult to injury by plundering a late winner against the nine men. A further red card for an infuriated Alessandro Costacurta book-ended a cataclysmic afternoon for Milan. 

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Conspiracy theories abounded about the refereeing performance of Rosario Lo Bello that afternoon in Verona. Some Milanisti claimed this was a premeditated act of ‘compensation’ by the Associazione Italiana Arbitri (Italian Referee’s Association). A fortnight earlier, on the day of the Alemão incident, Bologna had been denied a clear goal when the referee failed to spot the ball had crossed the line, a mistake which had gifted Milan a point.

An alternative set of theories focused on the Italian Federation, who were attempting to conclude the domestic season in good time ahead of that summer’s World Cup and reluctant to shoe-horn a scudetto play-off into an already congested calendar. Perhaps more persuasively, the Federation also stood to benefit from having two Italian representatives in the European Cup the following year if (and only if) Napoli won the scudetto and Milan prevailed in the European Cup Final. 

Napoli went into the final day of the championship with a two-point advantage, duly dispatching Lazio to seal their, and Maradona’s, coveted second scudetto. Outraged and embittered, the episode left a rancorous taste in the mouths of Milan. Even with the consolation of a European Cup Final victory three weeks later and the subsequent passage of three decades, that deep perception of injustice burns brightly amongst those who lived through it.

And that’s the story of how a multi-billion Lira championship race was turned by a single coin. 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, check out this article about AC Milan’s novel approach to the winter break in the 1990s.

Title Image: Campionato Io Ti Amo Anni ’80, La Gazzetta dello Sport

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