Great Calcio Sides: Foggia 1989–91
To the outside world, there has never been much remarkable about the town of Foggia.
Situated in Puglia in the south-east of the Italy, it is a place known as the ‘Granary of Italy’ more for its agriculture than anything else, its famous tomatoes being the only household name it provided for much of its history.
However, the local football side would, eventually, make it one of the most talked about places on the Peninsula.
Foggia Calcio was formed in 1920 but merged with local side Foggia Incedit in 1957/58 to form US Foggia. As a small team with little backing, they played in the lower leagues for four decades, before finally earning its first break into the ‘big time’.
Once the merger had taken place, the club was taken over by local timber industrialist Domenico Rosa Rosa, who installed another local man, Oronzo Pugilese, as coach. He quickly won promotion to Serie B and it was in 1963/64 that Foggia made it to Serie A for the first time, where they stayed for three years. Relegation followed and the side established itself as a ‘yo yo’ club, being promoted and relegated to and from Serie A several times in the following seasons.
But, things were about to make a dramatic change in 1989 when they made a ground-breaking coaching appointment.
It has never been easy to be a foreign tactician in Italy, a country that takes great pride in the fact that it has always had a production line of home grown coaches, good enough to excel at the highest level.
Because of the wealth of options in this area, clubs in Italy have often been reluctant to look overseas, but one of the exceptions to this rule was a man who was already in the country, and his name was Zdenek Zeman.
Zeman was born in Prague, in the former Czechoslovakia during the communist era and developed his passion for the game from his uncle Cestmir Vycpalek, a former player and manager for Juventus. Zeman first came to Italy to visit his uncle in Palermo in 1968, however during this time the USSR invaded his homeland, leading him to take the decision to stay in Italy.
After marrying an Italian, he gained citizenship and coached a number of local amateur sides in the Sicilian capital. His uncle’s influence gave him an opportunity within the professional game with the Palermo youth team and after gaining his Patentino (coaching licence), from the national centre of calcio known as Coverciano, he began to work his way up the coaching ladder.
Zeman was first appointed to Foggia in 1986, when the club was in Serie C, but the relationship was short lived as he was sacked before the championship was over. An even briefer stint with Parma in Serie B followed which lasted just seven games.
It would take a return to Sicily to find his first success and it came with Messina. In the 1988 season he took them to a creditable 8th place, thanks in no small part to the goals of future 1990 World cup star, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci.
As a result of this achievement, Foggia chairman Pasquale Casillo took the decision to re-appoint Zeman the following year.
What followed was one of the most remarkable stories in the history of Italian football.
Zeman began working to instill his own philosophy at the club, a style which involved a fierce pressing game and a high defensive line. Indeed Foggia were one of the best exponents of the offside trap that could be found at the time.
He employed an offensive 4-3-3 formation which was almost unheard of in Italy during the 1980s, a system that would become his trademark.
Using what he had learned about the game in Italy from his uncle, he blended it with his own ideas. The preference for a high pressure tactic is said to come from his days playing handball whilst a student.
In the 1990/91 season, Foggia gained promotion from Serie B under Zeman, winning it by 6 points, a big margin back in the days when it was still two points for a win. They amassed a remarkable goal difference of +31, more than double that of second placed Verona.
The team had understandably begun to turn heads by now, but there was still some doubt as to how they would perform in the top flight. This was a time in which many Italian clubs were financially very strong and it seemed almost hopeless that provincial sides could compete on a level playing field.
These doubts were quickly quashed as Foggia proved to be very competitive, causing the press to dub them ‘Foggia dei Miracoli’.
Whereas most smaller clubs would adopt a defensive attitude to cope with the plethora of international football stars on show in Serie A, Zeman’s strategy focused on attack and winning the ball back early in advanced positions. This strategy was quite unique at the time and eventually coined the phrase, Zemanlandia, which was henceforth used to describe all of his teams.
Zeman had understandably won much praise in the media for his cavalier style. The established clubs of Serie A didn’t know what had hit them and this allowed Foggia to collect a wealth of points in their debut season.
Their goals tally summed up this swashbuckling method, 58 scored and 58 conceded, as the team finished the 91/92 season in a highly creditable 9th place, just below traditional heavyweights, Inter.
Despite an 8-2 hammering by Fabio Capello’s dominant AC Milan and other heavy losses to the likes of Juventus, Foggia still came up with some impressive results including a highly satisfying double over local rivals Bari.
The side registered heavily on the top scorers list with Francesco Baiano in third place on 16 goals, bettered only by world class superstars Marco Van Basten and Roberto Baggio. Fellow strike partner, Giuseppe Signori, contributed 11 more.
Despite their relative defensive frailties, Foggia had nonetheless announced their arrival in Serie A and had won over the press and neutral fans, their 4-3-3 often morphing into something resembling a 2-3-5. It was all about goals and entertainment.
The team’s success was built around huge levels of stamina and grueling training sessions, however Zeman did have some quality individuals to work with and many of his stars went on to bigger clubs.
Striker Baiano, contributing 38 goals in 69 appearances in his two seasons at Foggia, joined Fiorentina in 1992 and formed a famous partnership with Gabriel Batistuta, before a stint in England with Derby county.
Known for his deadly left foot and unique penalty taking style, which involved no run up and a 180° pivot, Signori was one of the most feared marksman in Europe during the early to mid 90’s. His tally of 46 goals in 100 appearances was vital during Foggia’s rise to, and subsequent stay, in Serie A. In his early days he was used wide on the left in order to exploit his crossing ability and turn of pace, however as his scoring form improved he was later used in a central striking role.
Signori went on to Lazio where he won the Capocannoniere title as top scorer in Serie A in three of the next four seasons, winning 28 caps for the Italian national team.
Completing the attacking trident wide on the right was Roberto Rambaudi, another dependable crosser, who would also later feature for the Biancocelesti.
Zemanlandia wasn’t just about the front three however, other important pieces of the jigsaw included Russian midfielder Igor Shalimov, future Italy international, Luigi Di Biagio and Romanian international right back, Dan Petrescu.
When the first wave of stars began to depart, Foggia were able to use the funds raised to find quality replacements including Russian international striker, Igor Kolyvanov and Argentine centre back Jose Antonio Chamot.
Unfortunately, if somewhat inevitably, their stars continued to be picked off at the end of each season and it was difficult for Foggia to make any further progress. Zeman impressively managed to repeat his success with 12th and 9th placed finishes in the ’93 and ’94 campaigns, but his frustration had begun to show with the financial predicaments the club was faced with.
In the summer of 1994, with further sales inevitable, Zeman accepted an offer from Lazio, where he would renew his relationship with striker Signori.
Without their inspirational coach, Foggia sadly succumbed to relegation the following season and over the next three years would find themselves plummeting into the abyss of Italy’s fourth tier, Serie C2.
Several years in the wilderness later and Foggia, who reformed as a club following financial meltdown, have started to make their way back. They even reunited briefly with Zeman in 2010 after Pasquale Casillo re-acquired the club but they remain in the Lega Pro for the time being.
Zeman’s return was short lived as he moved on in 2011 to coach and win Serie B with Pescara, where his young and free-flowing side, including stars such as Ciro Immobile, Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne, re-ignited memories of Foggia’s glory years, being labelled by the press as Zemanlandia 2.0.