There has been plenty of glamour and drama in the 124-year history of Serie A, but no single day produced as much as 5 May 2002. The day began with three teams competing for the title and, at the other end of the table, four sides trying to retain their status in what was unquestionably the best league in the world.
When the sun rose that morning, Inter – who were managed by Héctor Cúper and had Ronaldo, Christian Vieri and Clarence Seedorf in their squad – were top of the table on 69 points. Club owner Massimo Moratti had broken the world transfer record twice since he had taken over in 1995, but his vast investment had yet to bring the club a league title. Inter had a galaxy of stars and had been top of the table since late March. Their task on the final day was simple: beat Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico and the Scudetto would be theirs. But there was still a genuine three-way title race in play.
Juventus, who had sold Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid the previous summer but still had the formidable strike partnership of David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero, sat in second place on 68 points. They would travel to Udinese on the final day of the campaign. And Fabio Capello’s defending champions Roma, who had only lost two league games all season, were third in the table on 67 points. They were off to the Stadio delle Alpi on the final day to face Torino.
The big names were not only reserved for the title race. Brescia began the day two points adrift of safety despite having Roberto Baggio, Pep Guardiola and Luca Toni in their squad. Just above them on 39 points were Piacenza, who has produced one of the stories of the season. Their 35-year-old striker Dario Hübner was just one goal behind Trezeguet in the race for the golden boot going into the final day.
Juventus, who looked like they meant business in their all-black shirts, made the first move in the title race. They took a 1-0 lead at Udinese after just two minutes. Antonio Conte burst down the right and delivered a perfect cross to Trezeguet, who headed into the bottom corner with ease. The already noisy Stadio Friuli – which was full of travelling fans who held aloft signs reading “JUVE” – almost lifted off. Trezeguet’s goal took Juve above Inter to top of the league and it also gave him a two-goal lead in the race for the Capocannoniere.
It was a great start for Juve and things got even better when Trezeguet turned provider in the 11th minute. His excellently weighted crossfield pass set up Del Piero, who controlled the ball with a deft first touch before finishing into the bottom corner. Eleven minutes had passed and Juventus were 2-0 up and on course to win the title.
The news soon made its way south to the thousands of Inter fans at the Stadio Olimpico via the ever popular transistor radio. Inter needed a response and it came quickly. In the 12th minute, Luigi Di Biagio sent a corner into the six-yard box, Lazio keeper Angelo Peruzzi flapped at it and Vieri tapped the ball home. He ripped his shirt off and sprinted to the Inter fans.
Inter were 1-0 up and back on top, but Lazio were not going to roll over. After some ponderous defending from the visitors, Karel Poborsky lashed home an equaliser for Lazio. Inter rallied and Di Biagio scored again to restore their lead. However, this was classic era Serie A and there were more twists to come. When Inter left-back Vratislav Gresko tried to head the ball back to his goalkeeper in the last minute of the first half, Poborsky read it, and nipped in to score. It was a huge blow for Inter’s title hopes and it had come at the worst possible time.
With Inter drawing 2-2 at Lazio and Juventus winning 2-0 at Udinese, Marcello Lippi gave his final team talk of the season. Whatever he said, it worked. Juventus came out for the second half with an imperious spring in their step. They were not going to let their lead slip, so it was up to Inter to beat Lazio.
Brescia were also in need of a goal in their game against Bologna. Their fans had produced a homemade sign that read: “Dio esiste ed ha il codino” (God exists and he has a ponytail). God works in mysterious ways but he was not working for Baggio or Brescia in the first half. With their game still goalless, Brescia were going down.
Returning to the capital, Inter started the half with a strangely muted energy. They had held a six-point lead in the title race a few weeks earlier but looked a shadow of themselves. When Diego Simeone – a former Inter player – gave Lazio a 3-2 lead 10 minutes into the second half, it did not come as a surprise. His lack of celebration was scant consolation to Inter, who now had a mountain to climb.
Things soon went from bad to worse for Inter as Roma woke up in their match against Torino. Antonio Cassano scored a beautiful lob to give Roma a 1-0 lead. Inter had gone from title winners to third place in the course of 23 minutes. Football is a cruel game but Inter fans know the gods can be particularly malicious.
The punishment was not over for Inter. With 73 minutes on the clock, Simone Inzaghi – the current Inter boss – extended Lazio’s lead to 4-2. Shortly afterwards, Ronaldo was substituted. He sat on the bench and sobbed, with streams of tears running through his fingers as Inter’s dreams lay in ruins. It remains one of the most iconic images in Serie A history. It was to be Ronaldo’s last game for the club.
While Inter were falling apart, their former player Baggio was starting to have some luck with Brescia. Jonathan Bachini gave Brescia the lead early in the second half and then Baggio was hacked down by Massimo Tarantino, with Pierluigi Collina awarding the penalty. Gianluca Pagliuca saved Baggio’s initial effort but the ball bobbled up and he put it away to make it 2-0. Luca Toni scored Brescia’s third of the afternoon as they stayed up.
Brescia’s survival meant Baggio would play top-flight football for at least another year. The 35-year-old had recovered from a torn cruciate ligament in just 77 days to make himself available for Italy’s squad for the 2002 World Cup, but his efforts were in vain as Giovanni Trapattoni would overlook him for Japan and South Korea.
As Juve fans sang themselves hoarse in Udine and Inter supporters started to come to terms with one of the greatest meltdowns in modern sport, there was an epilogue to this epic story. When the goatee-bearded Hübner scored a penalty for Piacenza to give them a 2-0 lead against Verona, he was now just one goal behind Trezeguet in the battle for the golden boot. The victory was enough to keep Piacenza in Serie A, but would Hübner score again to catch Trezeguet?
With six minutes to play, the veteran striker found himself bearing down on the Verona goal. He rounded the goalkeeper and slid the ball into the net from a tight angle. The 35-year-old had earned a share of the Capocannoniere. He pulled off his shirt and roared in celebration.
When the full-time whistles blew across the country, Juventus were champions of Italy, Roma were runners up and Inter had collapsed to third. Juve would go on to retain their title – and reach the Champions League final – the following year; Inter finally won another title in 2007; and Roma are still waiting to secure another Scudetto.
Looking back on 5 May 2002 – a day that had as much drama as any football fan could expect from a whole season – the only sadness is that this was perhaps the last day of the glorious Serie A empire that had dominated world football for two decades.