When Giampaolo Pozzo, a man born into a family wealthy from producing power tools in north-eastern Italy, bought local football team Udinese in 1986 it was a time of despair as the fallout from the second Totonero betting scandal restricted the team to Serie B.
Over the next 10 years the work would be put in place to create, and prolong, one of calcio’s cult teams.
Pozzo knew that the quaint Stadio Friuli would only generate so much revenue, as would the limited sponsorship opportunities for a team well outside the seven sisters of Serie A, all of which was emphasised further by being relatively geographically isolated.
Thus, a clear vision had to be set out through networking and scouting to maximise potential and soon the buy-low, sell-high mantra began, Alessandro Orlando being the first fruits of this labour in the early 1990s.
Results on the pitch, nevertheless, are what counts and promotion from the second-tier in the 1994/5 season was the stepping stone to Serie A; establishment was almost instantaneous. Coach Alberto Zaccheroni built a side that hit the ground running and would lose just four times at the Friuli in the 1995/96 campaign, remaining unbeaten at home until late December.
In amongst this was a 1-0 home win over Juventus in November in front of 34,000 fans that massively boosted the confidence of a generally inexperienced team, a further victory over Fiorentina and a battling draw with Roma proved that Bianconeri could hold it against the big boys in Udine.
However, the reverse fixtures against these three opponents told the story of why 11th was meant to be the glass ceiling for a side like Udinese. The Giallorossi and Viola calmly dispatched the Zebrette, while the Old Lady were made to work but ultimately conquered their Bianconeri rivals by two goals to one, despite being a goal and man down.
While the second half of the season flustered Zaccheroni’s men there was the foundation to build and the Italian tactician’s methods were unquestioned heading into the following season. The 3-4-3 system was built around high tempo wing play that would deliver timely crosses to either of the three strikers.
As tripartite attacks go, Udinese’s in the mid-90s went a long way to creating their classic status; Paolo Poggi was a Venetian favourite who had fired the Zebrette out of Serie B, but his reputation would remain local and pale in comparison to his illustrious strike partners. Indeed, messrs Oliver Bierhoff and Marcio Amoroso were the headline grabbers during this period but the construction of a solid spine in his regular XI was an undervalued Zaccheroni achievement.
Centre-back Alessando Calori would go on to make over Udinese 250 appearances as a tough, commanding defender in a three-man formation that has gotten the better of even the wisest defensive marshals. Rafaelle Sergio would join Calori in defence during the 1996/97 season while the front-three remained in full force to collectively grab 70% of Bianconeri goals that campaign; Fabio Rossitto and Dane Thomas Helveg provided further stability.
The 96/97 campaign would differ greatly from its predecessor; Juve and Sampdoria claimed crushing victories at the Friuli, a feat repeated by the Blucerchiati back at the Marassi with Roberto Mancini and Vincenzo Montella ripping apart Udinese’s defensive openness. With the fairy tale games perhaps toned down it was a more professional season, lesser opponents were dealt with both home and away as a fifth placed finish secured European qualification. This would be delivered to Friuli-Venezia Giulia for 11 of the following 19 seasons.
One game sticks out of the record books, Bierhoff and Amoroso combined for a 3-0 reverse at the Stadio delle Alpi to condemn eventual champions Juventus to one of three defeats for that season. Christian Vieri and Zinedine Zidane missed penalties; nothing would deny the Zebrette that win as they continued to be a bogey-team for the Old Lady.
When German target man Bierhoff joined from minnows Ascoli, little figured he would go onto secure the Capocannoniere with Udinese, the winning brace for Germany in the Euro 96 final, and later the Scudetto with AC Milan. Renowned for his aerial ability and knack of arriving at the right time, Bierhoff was the unfashionable choice in amongst Serie A’s most glamorous period. Indeed, that summed Udinese up, as they remained unfashionable and unfancied despite an upward trajectory.
As the 1997/98 season drew to a close this was defined by Karlsruhe-born attacker Bierhoff, who had scored a last day brace against Vicenza to net the league’s top scorer award, altogether the less exotic option when considering the names he left trailing in his wake. Inter’s Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta, Alessandro Del Piero, Vincenzo Montella, and Filippo Inzaghi is quite the illustrious set of strikers and in the end of season scoring charts they followed Bierhoff in exactly that order.
That 27 goal haul was just the sub-plot for Udinese’s rise to third place in 1997/98, Zaccheroni reaching his pinnacle at the Friuli. The signing of young and promising players continued with Martin Jorgensen and Stephen Appiah adding a more international touch to the squad, which now competed on three fronts.
The Zebrette were more expressive and ruthless this time round, knocking off Brescia 0-4 and Lecce 6-0 alongside a vengeful 3-0 trouncing away to Sampdoria. UEFA Cup qualification was to be assured again but key moments stuck out that limited, if it were fair to put it that way, Udinese to third place and outside of Champions League qualification.
The top two of Juventus and Inter conceded a significantly lower amount than the north-easterners and heavy defeats to Parma (4-0) and the Old Lady (4-1) were demoralising punctures in their ascent to Europe’s biggest competition.
Their final showdowns with the top two put the nail in the coffin and restricted the Bianconeri to a still-magnificent third. In March Juve’s Del Piero scored an 89th minute leveller at the Friuli in what was a massive moment for both teams, while the clash at the Giuseppe Meazza against Inter all but confirmed Champions League football for the Nerazzurri.
Late goals from Youri Djorkaeff and Ronaldo came after Bierhoff had a goal disallowed and a free header rebound off the upright, the home team’s celebrations at the final whistle summing up what it meant to beat this Udinese team.
The European expeditions of the Bianconeri were as limited as the numbers that tend to follow the perennial overachievers. With considerable depths of European know-how, these opponents did not fear the trek to Udine. The difference in experience was probably to blame as Ajax stole an away goals victory with ten minutes to go in 1998/99, while Bayer Leverkusen took out the Zebrette at the first round the following year.
In reality, the clash with the Germans came too soon as the 1998/99 season was truly the end of one era and the start of another. Bierhoff and the ever-improving Helveg left to AC Milan along with coach Zaccheroni, Scudetto success awaited the trio, but Udinese were left in the lurch. Arguably the biggest hole to fill was Bierhoff’s, but fortunately it was simply a matter of paving the way for Brazilian forward Amoroso.
At his first European club, Amoroso fitted the Udinese psyche perfectly and claimed his own 22-goal Cappacannoniere in 1999, ahead of his former teammate. Like others in this Bianconeri team, Amoroso established himself at international level and after a spell with Parma he became the most expensive player in German history when moving to Borussia Dortmund for €25 million.
The first taste of Francesco Guidolin began in earnest, claiming sixth in the league after a successful transition, eventually the club would qualify for Champions League football under Luciano Spalletti in 2004/05.
The impact of the 1995-8 side was that Pozzo’s foundations had finally been laid; players trusted coming to Udine to enhance their career and the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Medhi Benatia and Juan Cuadrado would follow in decades to come. Udinese have since stayed true to form, maintaining a consistent overachieving atmosphere to bring a quality of football well above the remit of a small town club in the north east of the Italian peninsula.