“He greeted me saying ‘welcome bomber’,” Giuseppe Signori recalls. “I thought he was confused. I only had five goals in Serie B, I was anything but a bomber. He had seen something else, evidently.”
The man on the other side of this conversation was a certain Zdeněk Zeman, the notorious attack-minded coach and disciple of the 4-3-3 who’d go on to be one of the defining string-pullers of 1990s calcio, and yes, he had seen something else.
«Zeman fu fondamentale per me.
La prima volta che mi vide mi accolse a braccia aperte: “Ciao bomber”, mi disse.
Io risposi che si era sbagliato.
Avevo segnato appena 5 gol in B.
Lui però replicò: “Vedrai…”.
Aveva ragione». pic.twitter.com/DYakUEJgmT
— Sciabolata Morbida (@SciabolataFFP) February 17, 2018
Signori’s collaboration with the Czech boss at Serie B outfit Foggia in 1989 would be the making of the diminutive Italian; a previous nobody who was released by Inter at 16 due to his slight frame and had endured rather dismal spells at several clubs in the lower leagues of Italian football.
Before he met Zeman, Signori was deployed as a winger because of the nifty burst of pace and impressive close control he possessed. He was anything but a prolific goalscorer, but the maverick Zeman distinguished the previously unforeseen.
“I knew he could score a lot of goals, I knew it as a fact,” the Czech recalls of a 21-year-old Signori. He immediately thrust the Italian into attack.
Zemanlandia was all about having three goalscorers making up the front three. Rather than the archetypal Dutch approach to the 4-3-3 – with wingers hugging the flanks to open up space for the creative hub in central zones – Zeman wanted his advanced triumvirate narrow, attracting the attention of opposition full-backs and opening up space for his own full-backs to surge into.
Consagra, Matrecano, Padalino, #Mancini, Picasso, Codispoti, Shalimov, Baiano, Rambaudi, Barone, Signori. Zeman 91/92 pic.twitter.com/X8ozK3qI
— ciav (@stefanociavatta) March 30, 2012
It was gung-ho and somewhat chaotic. But it got the very best out of Signori, who established a harmonious dynamic with partners Francesco Baiano and Roberto Rambaudi at Foggia.
Signori would net 46 goals in 100 appearances between 1989 and 1992 for Zeman’s side as they gained promotion to the top-tier following an astounding campaign in 1990/91. Their first season in Serie A, meanwhile, was similarly spellbinding on their way to a ninth-place finish as they scored 58 times; a haul only topped by three teams in the previous 25 years.
However, as is usually the case with any revolutionary upstarts, Foggia were pickpocketed by the rest of Italy for their brightest stars. Signori moved to Lazio in 1992, a club at the start of their Sergio Cragnotti-led project which would eventually culminate in a title under Sven-Göran Eriksson in 2000.
Signori, though, would be in Bologna, serving as Roberto Baggio’s successor in Emilia-Romagna at the time the Biancocelesti were winning that Scudetti. In fact, Beppe never got the honour of lifting a piece of silverware during his five years at Lazio, but there’s no questioning the impact he had in the Italian capital.
Signori was a fan favourite at the Stadio Olimpico after his 1992 switch from Foggia | Getty Images/Getty Images
There was a reason 4,000 Lazio ultras and Curva Nord leaders demonstrated outside the headquarters of Cirio – a food company owned by the Cragnotti family – after reports emerged of his potential sale to Parma in 1995 – a sale that was swiftly cancelled by Cragnotti.
Signori was a legendary figure at the Stadio Olimpico. A fan favourite.
He’s just one of nine players in calcio history to win the Capocannoniere on at least three occasions, with his rise impeccably timed with the growing audience in the UK following Paul Gascoigne’s switch to the Biancocelesti in the summer of ’92 and the emergence of Channel 4’s Gazzetta Football Italia hosted by James Richardson.
Signori’s Lazio debut against Sampdoria was the show’s first live offering, and with arguably England’s finest centre-back at the time, Des Walker, shepherding the Samp defence, the contest was met with plenty of intrigue among the unsuspecting and perhaps ignorant English audience who viewed Italy as merely “the land of Catenaccio”.
Within 21 minutes, however, three million viewers had already been treated to a Signori brace, with his exposure and fan base growing immediately, both in Rome and around the world.
Signori would continue his stellar start to life in the Italian capital with 11 goals from his opening 12 games. Then came the standout strike against Inter amid his maiden Capocannoniere crown.
#Lazio 96-97 Home shirt made by @UmbroUK as worn by #Italy International Giuseppe #Signori#SSLazio #keepitclassic pic.twitter.com/T5hRtSChjU
— Classic Football Shirts (@classicshirts) January 13, 2016
It was a sequence which embodied the 5’7″ forward; he received possession on the halfway line, breezed past Nerazzurri skipper Giuseppe Bergomi with a rapid change of pace before outwitting the helpless Riccardo Ferri via the sharpest of direction changes which opened up the angle to finish across Walter Zenga with the utmost precision.
That was Signori’s magic; he had the capacity to cut through defences single-handedly and score from the acutest of angles with total authority. The diminutive Italian was a pleasure to behold. The sort of player that had the Olimpico on the edge of their seats at any point the ball arrived at his feet, the excitement and expectation reaching a crescendo within.
Signori’s 26 goals in 1992/93 was the most prolific Serie A tally since Sergio Brighenti in 1960/61, and he’d retain his crown a season later with 23 strikes. His third title arrived under Zeman in 1995/96, joining Bari’s Igor Pratti at the top of the scoring charts.
Eriksson’s arrival in Rome would signal the end for Signori, with the shagger favouring the similarly profiled Roberto Mancini – who he brought along from Sampdoria – in his 4-4-2. Thus. the Italian settled in Bologna, where he won just the second piece of silverware in his career in the form of the 1998 Intertoto Cup.
Signori with Baggio | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
But just like he did with the Biancocelesti ultras, Signori stole the hearts of the Rossoblu faithful through his magical play style and the iconic one-step spot-kick technique among other prolific idiosyncrasies.
67 goals for Bologna took his Serie A total up to 188, which currently places him joint-ninth on the list of all-time scorers in calcio history, ahead of other goalscoring luminaries such as Batistuta, Mancini and Inzaghi.
In a revolutionised, attack-friendly Serie A, Giuseppe Signori flourished.