Tthere has been plenty of glamor and drama here in its 124-year history Series Abut no day produced as much as May 5, 2002. The day began with three teams vying for the title and, at the other end of the table, four sides trying to maintain their status in the world’s undisputed best league.
When the sun rose that morning, Inter – led by Héctor Cúper and composed of Ronaldo, Christian Vieri and Clarence Seedorf – was at the top of the table with 69 points. Club owner Massimo Moratti has twice broken the world transfer record since taking over in 1995, but his huge investment has yet to bring the club a title. Inter had a galaxy of stars and has been at the top of the table since the end of March. Their task on the last day was simple: to beat Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico and the Scudetto would be theirs. But there was still a real three-way race for the title at stake.
Juventus, which sold Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid last summer but still had a great partnership between David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero, took second place with 68 points. They would travel to Udinese on the last day of the campaign. And defending champion Fabio Capello Roma, who have lost just two league games all season, was third in the table with 67 points. On the last day they went to the Stadio delle Alpi to face Turin.
Big names weren’t just reserved for the title race. Brescia he started the day by two points safely despite being Roberto Baggio, Pep Guardiola and Luca Toni. Just above them with 39 points was Piacenza, which produced one of the stories of the season. Their 35-year-old striker Dario Hübner was just one goal behind Trezeguet in the Golden Boot race that entered the final day.
Juventus, who in their all-black jerseys looked like they were thinking of a job, made the first move in the title race. They took a 1-0 lead at Udinese after just two minutes. Antonio Conte broke through on the right and perfectly inserted Trezeguet, who easily scored in the bottom corner. The already noisy Stadio Friuli – which was full of traveling fans holding “JUVE” signs – was almost on its way. Trezeguet’s goal took Juve above Inter to the top of the league and also gave him a two-goal advantage in the race for Capocannoniere.
It was a great start for Juve, and things got even better when Trezeguet became a supplier in the 11th minute. His excellently weighted pass to the cross set up Del Piero, who deftly controlled the ball with a deft first touch before ending up in the bottom corner. Eleven minutes passed and Juventus was leading 2-0 and on the way to winning the title.
The news soon reached the south to thousands of Inter fans at the Stadio Olimpico via the increasingly popular transistor radio. Inter needed an answer and arrived quickly. After 12 minutes, Luigi Di Biagio sent the corner kick right to Lazio goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi who headed it sharply past the keeper. He took off his shirt and ran towards the Inter fans.
Inter led 1-0 and returned to the top, but Lazio did not intend to turn around. After a difficult defense of the guests, Karel Poborsky equalized for Lazio. Inter came together and Di Biagio scored again and regained the lead. However, this was a classic Serie A era and there were more upheavals. When Inter left-back Vratislav Greško tried to return the ball to his goalkeeper in the last minute of the first half, Poborsky read it and scored. It was a big blow to Inter’s hopes in the title and it came at the worst possible moment.
With Inter drawing 2-2 at Lazio and Juventus winning 2-0 at Udinese, Marcello Lippi held on to his last team of the season. Whatever he said worked. Juventus came out in the second half with a mighty spring. They did not want to lose the lead, so it was up to Inter to beat Lazio.
Brescia also needed a goal in the match against Bologna. Their fans produced a local inscription that read: “Dio esiste ed ha il codino”(God exists and has a ponytail). God works in mysterious ways, but he didn’t work for Baggio or Brescia in the first half. With their game still goalless, Brescia was falling.
Returning to the capital, Inter started the half unusually muted. They had a six-point lead in the title race a few weeks earlier, but they looked like a shadow of themselves. When Diego Simeone – a former Inter player – gave Lazio a 3-2 lead in 10 minutes of the second half, it came as no surprise. His lack of celebration was a faint consolation to Inter, who now had to climb the mountain.
Soon things for Inter went from bad to worse Rome woke up in the match against Turin. Antonio Cassano scored a beautiful lob for Roma’s 1-0 lead. Inter finished third in the 23rd minute. Football is a cruel game, but Inter fans know that the gods can be especially malicious.
The penalty for Inter was not over. With 73 minutes on the clock, Simone Inzaghi – the current head of Inter – increased Lazio’s lead to 4-2. Shortly afterwards, Ronaldo was replaced. He sat on the bench and sobbed as streams of tears ran through his fingers as Inter’s dreams lay in ruins. It remains one of the most famous images in Serie A history. It was supposed to be Ronaldo’s last game for the club.
As Inter disbanded, their former player Baggio began to get lucky with Brescia. Jonathan Bachini put Brescia in the lead at the beginning of the second half, then Baggia was hacked by Massimo Tarantino and Pierluigi Collina was awarded a penalty. After a great cross, Gianluca Pagliuca saved a point blank header from Baggia, good move postponed by 2-0. Luca Toni scored for Brescia third in the afternoon while they stayed awake.
Brescia’s survival meant Baggio would play top-notch football for at least another year. The 35-year-old has recovered from a cruciate ligament rupture in just 77 days to make himself available to the Italian national team for the 2002 World Cup, but his efforts have been in vain as Giovanni Trapattoni overlooked him for Japan and South Korea.
As Juve fans sang hoarsely in Udine, and Inter fans began to come to terms with one of the biggest crashes in modern sport, he got the epilogue of this epic story. When goat-bearded Hübner scored a penalty for Piacenza and brought them to a 2-0 lead against Verona, he was now just one goal behind Trezeguet in the fight for the Golden Boot. The win was enough to keep Piacenza in Serie A, but would Hübner score again to catch Trezeguet?
After six minutes of play, the veteran striker found himself on the goal of Verona. He circled the goalkeeper and from a narrow angle threw the ball into the net. The 35-year-old earned a share of Capocannoniere. He took off his shirt and roared in celebration.
When full-time whistles blew across the country, Juventus were champions of Italy, Roma were second and Inter dropped to third. Juve would retain their title – and reach the Champions League final – next year; Inter finally won another title in 2007; and Roma are still waiting to secure another Scudetto.
Looking back on May 5, 2002 – a day that had as much drama as any football fan could expect from an entire season – the only sadness is that this was perhaps the last day of the glorious Serie A empire that dominated world football for two decades.