I like to think I was present at the birth of a special relationship between Scottish and Italian football. Back in the early 1980s, when I was an awkward teenager and still a proud possessor of a full head of hair, top Serie A sides used to come for pre-season training at a sports complex close to the Tuscan village where grandfather grew up before he left for Scotland in 1936. I used to love going there in the summer months for a chance to glimpse a few elements of Calcio’s aristocracy, such as the gloriously elegant Italian international Giancarlo Antognoni and his slightly more uncompromising colleague Claudio Gentile. It felt as if the Gods of football had descended to walk amongst us mere mortals. I swooned at their style and swagger.
The same decade also brought to an end a ban on foreign imports to Italy which had been in place throughout the 1970s and, slowly but surely, overseas stars started to make their mark. Among their number were two British players who ended up at Sampdoria and at the Genoa club’s summer base nestled in the hills of the Garfagnana. My father ferried me up to the training ground to try to meet Trevor Francis and Graeme Souness and, somewhere in my attic, there is a picture of me standing somewhat sheepishly with the pair. At the same time, a seed was being planted in a love-affair between two nations which would only fully blossom more than a decade later.
Those two footballers, of course, would end up moving to Rangers, with Souness becoming manager during revolutionary years at the Ibrox club. Although he would not bring in any Italian players, he did take the Scottish club to the same centre – Il Ciocco, about 30 miles from Lucca – that he had enjoyed during his playing days. It was a tradition that his successor, Walter Smith, would also carry on, taking an admiration for all things Italian to an even greater height. There were times when it felt like the flight path from Pisa to Prestwick was a personal shuttle service for a footballing exodus.
But we need to back-pedal for a moment to understand just how momentous this sporting invasion would be. When I was growing up in Dumfries and Galloway during the 1970s, it was impossible to consider that Italian internationals or players who had featured for the likes of Juventus, Milan or Fiorentina might end up playing in Scotland. The most I could hope for was to spot the odd Italoscozzese (Italian Scot) like myself among my collection of football cards. I was too young to really remember Lou Macari at Celtic, but I recall Peter Marinello on his return north of the border to Motherwell and, later in the 1980s, Joe Tortolano at Hibs. But these boys hailed from Largs, Edinburgh and Stirling – a long way from Rome, Florence or Turin. Foreign players from anywhere other than England were such a rarity that nobody could seriously think that they would ever give up the Mediterranean for Motherwell on a soggy Saturday.
Things change, though, and a couple of key factors shifted the football landscape significantly. One was a major spending spree being undertaken by certain Scottish clubs, and another was the Bosman ruling of 1995, which banned restrictions on signing players from the European Union and also allowed them freedom of movement at the end of their contracts without the need for a transfer fee. If you allied that to a slowing down in the extravagance of wages in Italy and a growing globalisation of the sport, you had the perfect conditions to make a switch from Serie A to Scotland seem not quite so strange all of a sudden.
Within a decade, dozens of Italians of varying abilities would try their luck at clubs across the country. One of the first significant figures in that march to the new frontier would be as forceful a figure as Hannibal on the back of an elephant.
Pasquale Bruno landed at Hearts in 1995 with significantly more baggage than your average Ryanair passenger. His reputation in Italy, forged with Juventus, Torino and Fiorentina, was that of the self-styled hardman – he was nicknamed The Animal for his uncompromising attitude. Among his most famous moments was a sending off in the Turin derby, after which he had to be wrestled off the pitch by his team-mates. It was a role which he was happy to play up to when he was interviewed by James Richardson for Channel 4’s Football Italia. “On the pitch I am very aggressive but in daily life I’m pretty calm,” he claimed. “It reminds me of the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. For journalists I am the most aggressive footballer in Italy, that’s a label I will have as long as I play.”
He was never likely to bring the skills and flair associated with the Italian game to Tynecastle, but rather its darker arts, and so it proved to be over a couple of seasons. He helped the Edinburgh club to a Scottish Cup final but was also, almost inevitably, the recipient of one of the four red cards Hearts players were shown in one infamous game with Rangers at Ibrox. It always felt, to me anyway, a bit like you were watching him through your fingers for fear of what you might witness. In truth, he was a better footballer than the stereotype he often acted out but, nonetheless, you always felt disaster was just one impulsive tackle away, even if he did enjoy his time in Scotland.
“They hit even more than I do but do it like real men,” he told La Stampa of his Scottish experience. “Nobody is sneaky and does it behind your back, nobody spits at you. And when you turn on the TV you don’t see some politician looking to get popular on the back of football by looking in horror at that animal Pasquale Bruno.”
A season later, he would be joined in Edinburgh by another workmanlike player in the shape of Stefano Salvatori, who boasted Milan and Fiorentina on his CV. The energetic midfielder would go one better than Bruno and help Hearts lift the Scottish Cup in 1998, the second of his three seasons with the club. On that famous day for Jim Jefferies’ side, no fewer than three of his countrymen were in the opposing side, with the Old Firm having also acquired a taste for an Italian.
It would be Celtic who would strike first with the arrival of former Lazio, Juventus, Milan and Napoli man Paolo Di Canio in 1996 in a move which raised eyebrows in both countries. Despite the fact that his career had never quite scaled the heights it had promised, the gifted attacking midfielder was still at the peak of his powers when he moved to Scotland. In a stuttering first interview on signing for the Glasgow club, he spoke of his excitement at joining a side he used to play Subbuteo with as a boy. A player of both talent and temper, there was rarely a dull moment during his solitary season. It might not have delivered trophies, but he often lit up even the most dull encounter before skipping across the border to England to Sheffield Wednesday and then West Ham.
Just as he was leaving, though, the most significant influx of Serie A players was taking place. At Parkhead, Di Canio was replaced by the more prosaic powers of defender Enrico Annoni – a former team-mate of Bruno’s at Torino. But, in the spirit of trying to outdo their historic rivals at every turn, Rangers signed four Italians. Sergio Porrini of Juventus and Fiorentina’s Lorenzo Amoruso bolstered the defence, while from Perugia came an in-form striker in the shape of Marco Negri and a battling young midfielder by the name of Gennaro Gattuso. They would all, in their own way, write intriguing chapters at Ibrox.
“From the moment I started training with Rangers, I realised football in Scotland was very different from that in my homeland,” said Negri in his autobiography, Moody Blue. “Before the game, while I was struggling with a fresh oil and parmesan plain pasta, I stared incredulously at the other players scooping fried eggs, beans, toast soaked in butter, chicken and a couple of forkfuls of spaghetti into their mouths. And they were all together on the same plate.”
This would become a common theme, with many of the Italians voicing surprise at the dietary habits of their team-mates. Others struggled to come to terms with the weather. But some revelled in the freedom from the tactical shackles they had been forced to don in their homeland. They also only ever had good things to say about the passionate atmosphere they experienced playing in front of Scottish fans. There was also, it must be said, a view that they were stepping down a level in terms of the quality of the opposition they were facing – Serie A was still one of Europe’s top leagues at that time, while Scotland continually struggled to make its mark.
Negri’s initial impact would only underline that perceived gulf in class. He ripped through Scottish defences with 23 goals in his first 10 Premier League matches before he was struck in the eye with a squash ball while playing against Porrini. The accident would destroy his season and, ultimately, was a turning point in his career as he never really returned to his previous levels. At one stage it had looked like he would end that first season with 50 goals. Scotland should have been the stepping stone to even greater things. But it all stalled so abruptly that you can’t help wonder what might have been for both Negri and Rangers alike.
Gattuso, for his part, would stay at Ibrox for just one season before returning to Italy and going on to win a World Cup in 2006. But Porrini and Amoruso would hang around much longer and secure a string of honours. Indeed, the latter even harboured hopes of being capped for his new homeland. Looking back, it would have crowned the incredible Scottish romance with Italian players quite nicely. A larger than life character, ‘Amo’ was rarely out of the headlines and, nowadays, can still be found talking a good game as a pundit on all matters Fiorentina-related.
These mixed results from imports saw the vogue for Italian players start to fade, but they would enjoy a resurgence in spectacular style a little further north in an amazing crash and burn tale at Dundee. It started in May 2000 with the appointment of Ivano Bonetti as manager at Dens Park, with his brother Dario as assistant. Both had played for Juventus – Ivano as a scurrying midfielder, Dario a more lumbering defender – and had serious Serie A credentials on the pitch. Their managerial abilities, however, had not really been tested and they were to get their baptism of fire in Scotland. Even at the time, it seemed like a curious appointment and there was some resentment over the manner in which previous boss Jocky Scott had been ousted. Nonetheless, the Italians said all the right things when they came in. If nothing else, it was going to be an interesting experiment.
“All our careers we have worked within winning environments among the best professionals in the sport,” said Ivano. “Success and a will to win has driven us forward all these years. Now we want to put to work at Dundee what we have learned.”
They were followed into the city by a string of their countrymen, who had varying levels of impact. Alessandro Romano, Marco De Marchi, Patrizio Billio, Marco Roccati, Marco Russo and Massimo Beghetto all played for the club at one stage or another and, incredibly, were joined by another former Serie A player – former Argentina striker Claudio Caniggia.
For a while, the club was stealing the headlines but results were never quite as good as hoped for and the big-spending model never looked sustainable. The cracks started to show at the end of that second season. “The Bonettis were part of a new order at Dens Park, a vision of the Marr brothers – Peter and Jimmy – who had great plans for their club,” wrote BBC Scotland’s Alasdair Lamont. “But it was a relationship that turned sour as the club failed to hit the heights expected by the Marrs, despite a flurry of transfer activity.” In July 2002, the pair were shown the door.
I was present, however, at a dramatic postscript to this particular tale. In September 2003, Fabrizio Ravanelli signed for Dundee and was paraded in front of the fans as they took on his former team Perugia in the UEFA Cup. In truth, I remember the former Juve striker looked a little bemused by where he had ended up, but he need not have worried. Within a few weeks, the club had gone into administration and he would be unceremoniously sent on his way to find alternative employment.
That ignominious end really brought the door crashing down on the big-name Italian signings in Scotland. New financial realities meant that internationals or those with experience at Serie A giants were generally out of reach. One small exception was former Milan midfielder Massimo Donati, who had a couple of seasons at Celtic in the late 2000s before returning to Hamilton this term. Otherwise, there is a feeling things have almost gone full circle.
If you look around Scottish football nowadays, the echoes of that powerful Italian presence are very hard to hear. Apart from Donati, it takes a very close inspection to find any and their influence is almost negligible at the top end of the game. Manuel Pascali was a stalwart for Kilmarnock and Raffaele De Vita featured for Livingston and Ross County up until recently, while Celtic still have goalkeeper Leonardo Fasan on their books. But you have to go down the divisions to find another with Giuliano Morena at Stranraer. Luca Gasparotto at Falkirk and Queen’s Park’s Dario Zanatta are both Canadian – although presumably of Italian origin – while Brechin’s Gary Fusco is from Edinburgh. Trying to find such players feels like a return to my 1970s childhood and seizing on any Italian connection, however tenuous.
The days when former Serie A stars were battling it out in cup finals or lifting major Scottish honours are a distant memory. Their history in this country has been a chequered one, with a few tales of amazing success but just as many of dramatic and abject failure, but what they have rarely been is boring. Each story seems to have had a little spicy kick which has made it memorable in one way or another. It appears unlikely the times when big names from Italy make their way to Scotland will ever return but you never know. That first rush of arrivals seemed impossible to imagine in the 1980s and yet it happened. A second wave would surely, if nothing else, give a few more stories to tell.