The San Paolo goal feast that took everyone by surprise
Even in a city as superstitious as Naples, the omens can sometimes be wrong. The fans turning out for the visit of league leaders Inter in February 1980 had every reason to expect a tense, low-scoring affair. Instead, they were treated to a glorious riot of goals.
These were two old-school Italian sides built on a solid bedrock of rugged defence. The Nerazzurri were a little more expansive but had kept their opponents from scoring in half of their away matches up to that point. Napoli had already played out seven 0-0 draws in their opening 19 games – their goals against total was eight and at home it was just three. The nets at the San Paolo must have been in pristine condition.
Yet it quickly became apparent that neither side had any intention of living up to their defensive reputation. Eugenio Bersellini on the Inter bench and his Napoli counterpart, Brazilian Luis Vinicio, watched their men go into battle in cavalier fashion. It produced the highest scoring match of the entire season for either side.
Bersellini, dubbed Il Mago della Campagna (The Wizard of the Countryside) for his work at provincial outfits like Lecce, Como, Cesena and Sampdoria, had been building his Nerazzurri side for a while. Appointed by President Ivanoe Fraizzoli in 1977, he gradually strengthened his team to take a serious tilt at the title. The subtle left-foot of Evaristo Beccalossi guided his troops, although the inspirational Becca was missing for the trip to Napoli.
Vinicio, for his part, was busy trying to recreate past glories. He had taken Napoli as close as they would get to the Scudetto before the days of Diego Maradona back in 1974-75 in his first spell on the bench for the Partenopei. His return to Naples, after a couple of seasons at Lazio, was more about fighting for survival with a team whose heartbeat was still defensive legend Giuseppe Bruscolotti.
Their week 20 encounter of that 1979/80 season started with a pulsating rhythm. The game swung from end to end before Inter winger Carlo Muraro, in his sixth Serie A season with the club, opened the scoring after 18 minutes. A long, through ball split the Napoli defence and he made no mistake in sliding a low shot past the despairing dive of experienced keeper Luciano Castellini. They could already feel their advantage over city rivals Milan extending at the top of the table.
The home side, spurred on by a crowd of more than 80,000, had other ideas. They had already forced a goal-line clearance from the Inter rearguard and when a free-kick was awarded in the 22nd minute, they took full advantage. A pile-driver shot was deflected off the arm of Inter midfielder Giancarlo Pasinato leaving Ivano Bordon – the eternal second choice to Dino Zoff for Italy – helpless. Pasinato would be substituted moments after his unfortunate part in conceding the equalising goal.
A little after the half hour mark, Inter forged their way back into the lead. It was that man Muraro again who popped up on the back post to head home a lovely right-wing cross by Domenico Caso, signed in the summer from Napoli. Once again the lead would last only a matter of moments.
Hometown boy Giovanni Improta was the hero this time around. He cracked in a right foot shot from the edge of the penalty area which once again seemed to take a deflection before beating Bordon. It was with the scoreline at an already improbable 2-2 that the sides went into the half-time interval.
It would take two of the biggest names in Inter’s history to swing the match decisively in their favour. Once again Muraro was involved as in the 57th minute he rose at the back post to nod a cross down for Alessandro Altobelli. The man nicknamed “Spillo”, the pin, because of his tall, slim frame, produced a delicious left-foot half-volley from close range to put his team back in front.
Any questions about the outcome appeared to be dispelled about 15 minutes later when the undoubted man of the match Muraro skipped clear on the right. He floated a ball into the box which was met by the onrushing Giuseppe Baresi. He controlled expertly and drove a shot into the roof of the net to make it 4-2.
Yet Napoli refused to go down without a fight. A long-range effort from former Lanerossi Vicenza midfielder Mario Guidetti hit the crossbar but he was not to be denied. With nine minutes remaining, he played a neat one-two on the edge of the box before sliding a shot under the oncoming Bordon to give the home fans hope.
The Azzurri almost pulled off a most improbable comeback draw in the closing stages of the clash. Improta broke clear on the right and, charging in on goal, struck a cross cum shot from an impossible angle. It cannoned off the point where post and crossbar meet to help Inter keep their lead intact and secure another two vital points.
“We risked losing, I seem to remember Napoli were fighting hard down at the bottom of the table,” recalled Inter skipper Graziano Bini years later. “And the San Paolo was full as always.”
But they held on to win and the victory ensured the Milanese side stayed five points clear of Milan at the top of the table and they never looked like being reeled back in. They clinched the Scudetto with a couple of weeks to spare from Juventus who had overtaken Milan into second place. Napoli would plod on to solid, if unspectacular Serie A survival with an 11th place finish. In a bitter twist to the end of that campaign, Milan and Lazio would be relegated for their part in the Totonero betting scandal.
Despite securing the only Scudetto of his career, Bersellini still seemed a discontented soul. Some commentators wondered if there was anything could make him smile. He said;
“We won the title but I’m not entirely satisfied with my team. I know I am a perfectionist and never happy but too many things which we tried and retried in training did not happen during matches. We might have won the Scudetto this year but I think we played better 12 months ago when our inexperience always ended up costing us dearly.”
That was a view echoed, to some extent, by Bini. He said: “I think the year before we were a better team but with the arrival of Caso we filled a gap. Tactically he sped us up – he wasn’t fast but he was quick-witted – he was a fundamental part of winning the title.”
It was Inter’s 12th Scudetto, won by a team which even the club itself describes as ‘operaia’ (workmanlike). But for one February afternoon at least they threw off that tag to deliver a most memorable match. It was an encounter which ensured their challenge for the title was a winning one – and left tens of thousands of Neapolitans cursing their luck.