Despite new gripes over ‘stolen scudetto’, Napoli’s Serie A title won 30 years ago was legit

May 1988: Ruud Gullit of AC Milan and Diego Maradona in action during the Italian Serie A in Napoli, Italy. Milan won the match 3-2. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport
May 1988: Ruud Gullit of AC Milan and Diego Maradona in action during the Italian Serie A in Napoli, Italy. Milan won the match 3-2. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport /

Napoli narrowly beat out AC Milan for the league title in 1990, a testy Serie A title race whose validity is still debated to this day.

It seems almost silly to have to debate the merits of a past title winner. It is especially silly to do so when that championship was won nearly 30 years ago. But that’s what sports fans sometimes do in bars and at games, or in this case, former players in interviews.

Which brings us to the latest debate over the merits of a title won by Napoli back in 1990, edging out rivals AC Milan on the final weekend of the season. This April 29 will mark the 30th anniversary of that scudetto, which is also the last time the southern Italian club won the league.

While the coronavirus outbreak in Italy has put the current season’s thrilling title race on hold, a series of events in 1990 highlighted another classic Serie A race at the time.

If you can’t argue about the current season, why not debate a past one? Former Dutch superstar Marco van Basten, a member of that losing AC Milan side, did just that when he told the Italian daily Corriere dello Sera recently that Napoli “stole” the title from them that season.

“Stolen scudetto? Everyone knows that it was so. But nobody has ever had the courage to say it,” he said.

How so? Let’s take a look back at that spring’s riveting title race between Diego Maradona’s side and AC Milan, a team that would go on to dominate Europe under coach Arrigo Sacchi.

Napoli finished the 1989-90 season with 51 points, two more than AC Milan. Van Basten would end the season as the league’s top scorer with 19 goals.

The turning points, according to van Basten, took place in the final month of the season. The Rossoneri were in the driver’s seat with 44 points, with Napoli just a point behind them. Two points were awarded for a win at the time. But matchday 31 on April 8 changed everything. AC Milan played Bologna to a 0-0 draw on the road, while Napoli did the same at Bergamo against Atalanta.

But Napoli’s draw was overturned (Napoli was given an automatic 2-0 victory) after Brazilian midfielder Alemao was hit in the head with a coin. Two weeks later, on matchday 33, Verona, then in a fight to avoid relegation, stunned AC Milan 2-1.

As a result, Napoli went to 49 points, followed by AC Milan at 47. Both teams would win a week later on the final matchday, giving Napoli their second title in three years and cementing Maradona as an idol among the city’s rabid fans to this day.

Van Basten now claims the fix was in. He said the Italian FA had an interest in sending two teams to the European Champions’ Cup (the precursor to today’s UEFA Champions League) the following season and orchestrated the whole thing.

“First the Bergamo scene, with the coin in the head of Alemao and the Napoli masseur who tells him to simulate a trauma,” he said. “Then our defeat in Verona. An ambush, with a referee like [Rosario] Lo Bello who did everything to make us lose and whistled in a scandalous way.”

While the scenes that unfolded in Bergamo have been disputed for years, there is no doubt that Alemao was hit with a 100 lire coin. Replays confirmed that it happened. How injured Alemao actually was by the impact of that coin rages on. Napoli’s medics claimed that the player suffered severe head trauma. Nonetheless, it was the right call. Fan violence against a player can result in a score being overturned, even if we don’t see it applied often modernly.

What van Basten fails to mention is that a referee decision went in AC Milan’s favor that same day against Bologna. In fact, AC Milan escaped with a scoreless draw on the road when they should have lost 1-0, after a Bologna goal was disallowed. These were in the days before VAR. It turns out that Tullio Lanese, the match official, would realize his error after seeing a replay of Lorenzo Marronaro’s goal on TV while having dinner that evening.

As for the defeat against Verona (widely referred to as the “Fatal Verona” game), the Rossoneri lost that game not on the heels of bad officiating, but because they had lost their cool. That game saw van Basten, Sacchi, Frank Rijkaard and Alessandro Costacurta all red carded, and rightly so, for their poor behavior. Lo Bello recalled years later that Rijkaard had spat at him twice, hitting one of his shoes the second time. It was Davide Pellegrini’s goal (he was not offside I might add) in the 89th minute that gave Verona the win. The team, despite the big win, would be relegated a week later.

While AC Milan would go on to win in Europe (a second consecutive European Cup came that season), the Partenopei were the better team in Serie A that season. AC Milan had lost four of their first 10 games, only catching up to Napoli after they had their own run of poor form midway through the season.

Even with Napoli getting an extra point out of the Bologna, it match doesn’t change the fact that they won the title by two points. Take away that point and Napoli would have still captured the scudetto. The reality is that the defeat still stings for AC Milan because Serie A was harder to win in those days than the European Cup, a testament to the difficulty of Italy’s talent-laden top flight in those days.

In all, Napoli would go 21-9-4, while AC Milan amassed a 22-5-7 record. Napoli would also score 57 goals that season, more than any team in Serie A. Led by Maradona’s 16 goals and Brazilian striker Careca who chipped in 10, Napoli were a force to contend with in those days. The team reached the semifinals of the Coppa Italia that season and featured Italian stars like defender Ciro Ferrara, Andrea Carnevale and Maradona protege Gianfranco Zola.

The debate over that season may persist to this day, but there should be little to argue about. Van Basten’s anger should be geared at Atalanta’s fans for their poor behavior and his teammates for their loss to Verona. Despite what van Basten now says, Napoli were the better team that year.

Next. Italy halts Serie A season due to coronavirus. dark