Chair Held High: Mondonico’s Torino

WORDS: PAUL GRECH

In this excerpt from Il Re Calcio: Stories from Italian Football, we take a look back at the resurgent Torino side of Scifo, Casagrande and Lentini, who came so close to European glory in 1992 under the astute management of their underappreciated, chair-wielding coach Emiliano Mondonico…

As far as iconic UEFA Cup moments go, it is one that has largely been forgotten. Indeed, such is the status of the competition these days that very few games are deemed memorable, let alone individual slices of them. Yet the image has stuck in the collective memories of Torino fans, a symbol of protest against both the decisions being taken in that particular game and a fate that has often been so cruel to them.

That image, the one that you probably don’t remember even if you did watch the return leg of the 1992 final between Torino and Ajax, is of manager Emiliano Mondonico on the sidelines holding aloft a folding chair.

It is, in many ways, an unjust memory of one of the most under-rated managers; one who might not have won much but who nevertheless made the Italian game memorable. Yet it is also the fairest representation of a man who never shied away from showing his emotions and passion, characteristics that made him such a loved figure at all the clubs he managed.

A player with modest abilities who spent most of his career playing in the lower leagues with Cremonese, Mondonico had two brief flings in Serie A, first with Torino and then with Atalanta.

It was with Cremonese that he got his start in coaching, initially with their youths before progressing on to the first team, whom he led to Serie A after an absence of 57 years. It was a fantastic achievement, even if their stay lasted just one season. Mondonico left soon afterwards and quickly moved on to Como, where he achieved a creditable ninth-place finish in the Italian top flight.

Those results attracted Atalanta’s attention and he joined his former club in 1987. Probably the biggest ‘provincial’ side in Italy, Atalanta had just been relegated to Serie B in despite having reached the final of the Coppa Italia, where they lost to champions Napoli but still qualified, as runners-up, for a place in the following season’s European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Understandably promotion was their main concern and Mondonico duly delivered that in his first season. Much less was expected from their venture into Europe, but Serie B Atalanta sprung a surprise, making it all the way to the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, where only the might of SV Mechelen – the cash-rich Belgian team who had put together one of the finest sides of the era – forced them out.

It was a success on which Atalanta and Mondonico continued to build, finishing ninth and seventh in their next two seasons, that latter result earning them qualification into the UEFA Cup, despite the team being largely made up of home-grown players. In fact, that played to one of Mondonico’s main strengths: his ability to develop and grow talent.

Boosted by his work in Bergamo, Mondonico’s reputation was rising to the extent that when newly promoted – and increasingly ambitious – Torino went looking for a manager, their former player seemed the obvious choice.

Torino is a particular club, one where heartbreak is accepted – and expected – like no other.  This is not a reference to the great team that it lost in the Superga air disaster of 1949, nor to the suffocating dominance of city rivals Juventus. Admittedly those are huge factors but not the only ones.

This is a club where every ray of hope seems to be viciously blotted out, as it was in the late sixties when Gigi Meroni – the fantastic dribbler who appeared to be ushering in a glorious new era at the club – was tragically killed after being hit by a car. Ironically, the driver was a Torino fan who idolised Meroni.

Even so, their fall into Serie B had been sudden; they’d actually reached the Coppa Italia final a year earlier and been regulars in the UEFA Cup in previous seasons. So, once their return to Serie A was secured, the ambition was to regain their former status, and that is what Mondonico achieved in his first season, guiding them to an excellent fifth-place finish.

Mondonico even managed to win some silverware, leading Toro to victory in the Mitropa Cup, a competition established in 1927 for clubs from Italy, Austria and Hungary and which in many ways provided the template for the European Cup. By 1991, the competition had lost its lustre with only second-rank clubs taking part and it would survive for just one more season after Torino’s success. Yet it was still a trophy; still a start.

At this point, it probably bears reminding that this was the golden era of Italian football where clubs’ money and the league’s status acted as a beacon to attract the world’s best players. Even the weakest teams could boast some fantastic individuals.

Torino’s main man in that respect was Martin Vazquez. Bar the Champions Cup, the Spaniard had won all that there was to win with Real Madrid before making the move to Italy where, after a shaky start, he quickly became a key player for Torino. Alongside him in midfield, Torino got Enzo Scifo with the great Belgian midfielder dictating the rhythm, his passing skills more than made up for his relative lack of speed.

If those two were players of world repute, the third foreign player was significantly less known. Walter Casagrande had played for Brazil and for some big clubs (including Porto and Corinthians), yet his introduction to Italian football came at lowly Ascoli where he had toiled for four years before making the move to Torino in 1991.

In truth, Casagrande was perhaps the least Brazilian looking striker ever to pick up the game. So tall that he walked permanently hunched and with long, curly hair, he bore greater resemblance to a hair metal rock band groupie than a footballer. When you saw him run, any doubts about his profession multiplied, so slow and sluggish was he. Yet he had good technique and could use his height to good effect. Above all, he worked hard for the team.

Indeed it was that acceptance of his limits, allied with his desire to work hard to overcome them that made him ideal for Mondonico, himself is a humble man who built a strong bond with his players because of it.

For Mondonico, the most important element in football is the team, which is probably why he always managed to coach his teams into achieving more than they were considered capable of.

Otherwise, the coach’s approach was typically Italian, taking care of the fundamentals and working hard on the defensive shape of his teams. His philosophy – a word he would probably shudder at – has been defined as “calcio pane e salame” (“bread and salami football”) – basic, without any frills. It is a definition he has embraced.

“I consider pane e salame as being delicious, like little else,” he answered when this was mentioned to him. “I have good memories about it: when I was a child my parents used to bake the bread and I used to put the salami on it. Football is a simple game, otherwise people wouldn’t be talking about it.”

Whatever his methods, they have always been effective, which is largely why he has been favoured by clubs in desperate situations; fighting to stay above water.

That wasn’t the case when he joined Torino, however, where he was expected to move them forward and build the side – which is precisely what he did.

He had plenty of talent with which to work here. Apart from the club’s foreign stars, Mondonico could call upon terrific youngsters like Luca Marchegiani, Roberto Mussi and, above all, Gigi Lentini.

All of them prospered under Mondonico’s careful tutoring and Torino’s progress was marked. The UEFA Cup suddenly became a realistic target, not that this should have been a complete surprise, as this was an era when Italian clubs dominated the competition – the previous two finals had been all-Italian affairs.

Even so, few had much hope when Torino were drawn to play the mighty Real Madrid in the semi-final. Surely the Spanish side, full as it was with international players, wouldn’t fail. Boosted by Mondonico’s infectious confidence, however, Torino thought differently. They went to the Bernabeu for the first leg without any fear and scored first (Casagrande latching on to a spilled ball), before losing 2-1.

That away goal gave them the ideal platform for the home leg and, assisted by over 70,000 Granata fans in the Stadio delle Alpi, they made it count.

Before the game Mondonico had called for his players to play with heart – to show their Cuore Granata – and that is what they did. Real Madrid found themselves under pressure from the start and seven minutes in they buckled when Ricardo Rocha put past his own keeper from a perfect cross by Lentini.

Then, midway through the second half, Lentini was at it again, laying the ball on a plate for Luca Fusi to tap in and kill off the tie. For the first time in their history, Torino were in a European final. With Real beaten, confidence rose even further. Perhaps this time it would indeed be their turn to celebrate.

To do so, they would have to win against Louis van Gaal’s Ajax, a relatively inexperienced but hugely promising side made up largely of young talents who would eventually claim the Champions League. In the spring of 1992, however, they were still largely unknown.

Once again, Torino went in to the tie with little fear and with the first game at home they started pressing for an early goal. So confident were they that for a moment they forgot Mondonico’s defensive caution and that lapse cost them dear when Wim Jonk received the ball midway into the Torino half and unleashed an unstoppable shot to give Ajax the lead in Turin.

For a few seconds the fans, like the players, were stunned, but they soon got back to their task with added ferocity, pressing and probing until Casagrande grabbed the equaliser in the second half, scooping in a scuffed shot.

It seemed like the signal for them to put in more effort; that the tie had reached its tipping point. Instead it was Ajax who scored again, a blow that would have killed many other teams off – but not a side managed by Emiliano Mondonico.

Torino kicked-off once more, attacking with all their hearts and eventually Casagrande scored a fine individual goal to grab another draw.

Despite the relief of that equaliser, however, Torino knew they would have to win the second leg away from home. Ajax, on the other hand, were keenly aware that they could take the trophy with a draw, and they played that way too.

From the off Torino attacked, but little happened for them until, on 20 minutes, Lentini’s perfect cross was met by Casagrande, rising above everyone else. It was a perfect move and a perfect header that looked destined for the back of the net but which, instead, thudded against the post.

Not to worry, it was still early, Torino could keep chipping away.

As the game progressed, however, it became increasingly more difficult. Ajax had prepared well and kept the ball from Torino who, for their part, kept pressing, albeit with little joy.

Then, 10 minutes from time, a gap opened up. Defender Mussi advanced with the ball, striking a shot that took a deflection off an Ajax player and was seemingly on its way in.

Perhaps for another club it would have gone in, but not for Torino. Instead it hit the post and rebounded to safety. A few minutes later, when Gianluca Sordo – another young player given time by Mondonico – pivoted brilliantly in the box, hitting a perfect volley that gave neither the on-looking defenders nor the goalkeeper any time to react, the woodwork denied the Granata.

To those watching it seemed that the dark clouds had arrived once more to blot out Torino’s hope.

It must certainly have seemed that way to Mondonico, and it seemed to be preying on his mind a few minutes from the end of the tie when he saw the referee wave away a penalty claim. Replays would later show that the referee got it right but Mondonico only saw one of his players going down when clear on goal, and he could think of only one reason for that. Blinded by the frustration and the injustice of it all, his instinctive reaction was to pick up the chair on which he was sitting and raise it over his head.

“When, in the trattoria that my family owned, a client raised a chair, it was seen as a very clear signal: you had to be careful because tempers could start flaring,” he explained years later. “That was certainly something that I could have avoided, but I wanted to draw the referee’s attention, so that he would be more careful.”

It was to no avail. The game ended goalless and Torino were left heartbroken once again. “Coming second is the worst possible thing,” Mondonico reflected. “It is better to lose in the first round because to get to the final and come second, you realise that you don’t mean a thing.”

On this particular instance he was wrong, though. In time, he would come to see how much that moment meant to the Torino fans. Mondonico’s time with them came to an end three years later but in that period he won a Coppa Italia – the last major success in their history – and then returned when they needed him to get back into Serie A in 1998.

They certainly remembered in 2011, when it emerged that he was fighting cancer. A couple of hundred Torino fans got together at their historic Filadelfia stadium, each holding a chair high over his head. They wanted to show Mondonico that, sometimes, even the most apparently futile gestures can have a lasting impact and that, no matter the injustices of fate, the Cuore Granata would never stop beating.

Paul Grech is the author of Il Re Calcio, Stories from Italian Football a collection of lesser known stories from what many would term the golden age of Italian football, the eighties and nineties. You can buy the book here. You can follow Paul on twitter @Paul_Grech
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