As a BBC correspondent, Nicholas Walton covered post-communist politics in Georgia and Poland, and civil war in Sierra Leone and Bosnia. He found a quiet haven in Genoa, his wife’s hometown. He also adopted his wife’s team, Sampdoria. In his new history of Genoa, Nicholas presents the iconic kit of the blucerchiati as one of the port city’s great contributions to the world – along with pesto.

Roberto Mancini playing with Sampdoria in 1990-91, the only season the club has won the scudetto.

Roberto Mancini playing with Sampdoria in 1990-91, the only season the club has won the Scudetto.


The 1980s were not entirely plain sailing for Italy, but many things seemed to be going right. By 1975 the post-war emigration of labour to northern Europe was reversing, and there were more returnees than emigrants. Although in 1976 the Italian economy shrank for the first time since the Second World War, the whole of Europe was suffering setbacks, and the situation in traditional heavyweights like Britain was teetering on the brink of disaster. The “Third Italy” of small businesses (especially in regions like Veneto) was on the rise, and in 1986 Italy achieved the sorpasso, overtaking the United Kingdom to become the fifth largest economy in the world (Italians felt that the next on the list, France, was in its sights, but this was never achieved). One needs to know both how quickly Italy grew in the post-war period and also how the trajectory that led to the sorpasso has since faltered, if one is to understand the Italy and – of course – the Genoa of today.

By the 1980s Italian football was also showing distinct signs of virility as it built up to its great moment in the sun with the 1990 World Cup. It had glamour and skill, just as British football was deep into its cul-de-sac of hoofball tactics and off-pitch thuggery. And it had money, which was bringing some of the world’s biggest stars to Serie A, including Diego Maradona at Napoli, Michel Platini at Juventus and Marco van Basten at AC Milan. Sampdoria also looked abroad, and dug up classy players like Scotland’s Graeme Souness and England’s Trevor Francis. It was a good time to be at Samp, but it was not just a place to pick up a nice sunshine-laced pay-off at the end of a playing career. After a spectacularly trophyless history, Sampdoria was going places. The driving force was the club president, Paolo Montovani, and its Yugoslav manager, Vujadin Boškov. Over the next few years, fans of Genoa CFC could only watch and grind their teeth.

The team that Boškov and Montovani created was skilful and close-knit to the point of defiance. As well as a distinguished sprinkling of international talent, at its heart was a formidable crop of young Italian players such as Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli. The arrival of the prodigious teenager Mancini in 1982 was a statement of the ambition that Mantovani brought to Sampdoria. He was fiery, and on several occasions the young man had to be separated from the established England international Trevor Francis in training.

The club then shocked its fans by starting to win things. It picked up three Coppa Italias in the 1980s, and slowly began to move up the Serie A table. Ominously, the bigger clubs started sniffing around the best players. Italian football is a clannish place, and the established powers were the place to be for titles and recognition. “You would hardly call us or our chairman part of Italian football’s aristocracy”, Vialli noted, looking back at the period in his book The Italian Job. Mancini himself blames his limited international career on his loyalty to the blucerchiati: “It was my fault. My fault that I played for Samp. Just as it was Vialli’s fault and Pietro Vierchowod’s fault that they were also with Samp and not with a ‘big club’.” Despite this, the club’s senior players made a pact over dinner in 1989 to resist the draw of more glamorous clubs until they had achieved something with Sampdoria.

The players stuck together, and a group of them became known as the “Seven Dwarfs” because they were always seen socialising with each other (Mancini was Cucciolo, the character known as Dopey in the English version). The team won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1990, the year that Italy hosted the World Cup and the city opened the Stadio Luigi Ferraris for its two teams in Marassi. Unlike the stadiums in other Italian cities, festering in the exurbs like home decoration superstores, the terracotta-coloured Luigi Ferraris is very much part of Genoa.

The real pay-off was a year later. The team was clearly the best in Serie A, and secured the Scudetto in style before the final match. In that last game of the season (against Lazio) the players once again showed their togetherness and exuberance by taking to the pitch with bleached hair: not something that would ever be seen at Italy’s more aristocratic clubs. A year later Sampdoria were beaten by Barcelona in the final of the European Cup at Wembley, and gradually the team began to be dismantled. When Mancini left, he took with him a tattoo of the club badge on his ankle, and fifteen years of memories: “this team is my life […] I will never forget Sampdoria. I may have won less than I possibly could, but the love is worth more than success. I have given so much, but I got even more back.” To this day, Mancini’s good looks remain burned on the retinas of many thousands of Genoa’s women.


There is a pleasing symmetry between Sampdoria’s fortunes and the post-war rebirth of Italy. The club was only created after the war ended, and its stylish peak was reached just at that point when Italy hosted the World Cup and Serie A was the envy of the world. There is also something deeply Genoese about the team and its humble, unfashionable roots: if Genoa CFC is the pedigree dog, Sampdoria is the mongrel. Fittingly it was formed from the merger of two different clubs, Andrea Doria and Sampierdarenese (the current club merges both their names and their colours), but the story goes back further.

Andrea Doria, as befits a team named after the city’s great admiral, has a long history, reaching back into the nineteenth century. When Genoa CFC opened Italy’s first proper stadium in the Marassi district in 1911 (featuring seats, and changing rooms for both teams and the referee), Andrea Doria had its own little ground just next door. La Caienna was named after a French prison camp and the supporters were right up against the pitch. It was the poor relation, and in 1913 Genoa CFC poached two of its best players. Unfortunately for the bigger club, the players tried to cash their illegal 1,000 lire signing-on cheques at a bank with an Andrea Doria-supporting bank teller, who promptly informed the authorities.

Sampierdarenese was another small team, with a base in the working-class Sampierdarena suburb. Sampierdarena used to be a fishing village just to the west of Genoa’s port, and is named after the dialect for St Peter of the Sands (San Pietro d’Arena). With the arrival of the railways it became a centre for heavy industry such as shipbuilding, and was the heart of the area known as the “Manchester of Italy” for its manufacturing. Its football section was founded in 1899 but it did not challenge for anything meaningful until after the First World War, when it bought out a league team, Pro Liguria of Bolzaneto.

The first union between the two teams came at the end of the 1926-7 season, thanks to the fascists, who were inveterate tinkerers in the world of calcio. The new club went under the suitably fascist name of La Dominante, and after an almost-dominante 3rd place finish in their first Serie B season, they then managed a distinctly non-dominante bottom-placed finish and relegation. The marriage was over and the two former clubs went their own ways. A few years later Sampierdarenese tried the merger route once again, joining with Corniglianese and Rivarolese to make Associazione Liguria Calcio. The full merger of Andrea Doria and Sampierdarenese, however, only came after the end of the Second World War. They took on that curious name “Sampdoria”, and that iconic shirt (the blue was from Andrea Doria, and the white/red/black/white hooped middle from Sampierdarenese).

They also picked up a curious club badge, as sported by Roberto Mancini on his ankle. At a distance it looks like an untidy cedar tree or a werewolf wearing a tam-o’-shanter. In fact the silhouette is of a typically Genoese roughly-bearded sailor, the lupo di mare (“wolf of the sea”) called Baciccia, a dialect corruption of John the Baptist (Giovanni Battista). Jammed unapologetically in his mouth is a pipe – in 2009 an anti-smoking group failed in their slightly ludicrous campaign to get it removed from the badge.

As with the team that stormed the league back in 1991, Sampdoria has developed a reputation for doing things differently, and a certain sense of style. When Christian Karembeu played for the club, the players protested against French nuclear tests in the Pacific (he was born in New Caledonia). They also wore “Peace No War” T-shirts in solidarity with their Yugoslav team-mate Nenad Sakić during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

The club’s sense of style is best seen at a small shop a few metres down the Vico del Fieno, a typical Genoese carrugio with an uncertain gradient, grubby uneven cobbles, and a drunk’s slight meander. While Genoa CFC has its museum, full of black and white images of the men who introduced calcio to Italy and picked up an armful of titles, Sampdoria has SoulSamp. 

The shop is not stylish in a precious catwalk way, but through a glorious, almost English, cross-fertilisation of style and the street. (Sampdoria fans can be credited with beginning the ultrà movement in 1971, fusing football, youth culture and politics.) As John Ashdown wrote in the Guardian, “Sampdoria fans are a lucky bunch. When they buy a replica shirt they become wearers of one of football’s Great Kits”, and that kit is based around that simple but utterly pleasing combination of colours: blue, white, red, black, white, then blue again. It is an iconic combination that sits alongside, or above, the most recognisable kits in the world – Arsenal, Ajax, Celtic, Flamengo, River Plate and Boca Juniors. With Genoa CFC you suspect that the ideal piece of merchandise would be a discreetly ornate enamelled stickpin featuring a griffin and the Cross of St George; for Sampdoria it is a T-shirt in the iconic club colours, and that is where SoulSamp comes in.

The T-shirts borrow heavily from a fashion-conscious ultrà culture and from that golden period in the late 1980s and 1990s when Sampdoria took on Italy’s elite on its own terms, and won. Although it is Genoa CFC that cultivates its English links, it is the upstart neighbours that had British players, and they feature heavily on SoulSamp T-shirts: Graeme Souness (“The ball is mine”, as well as “I’m the idol of the ladies; Champagne Charlie is my name”), Trevor Francis (“Trevormania”), and Des Walker (“You’ll never beat Des Walker”). There are mod scooters in Samp colours, “Merseysamp”, “Soulsamp fish and chips”, “Northern SoulSamp” and a Get Carter era Michael Caine (“Going to the match, lads?”).

Ultrà culture is not confined to Sampdoria: the city also hosted the first “summit” meeting of ultrà groups in 1995. This followed the killing of a Genoa CFC fan, Claudio Spagnolo, by the AC Milan fan Simone Brasaglia, during fighting before a match. Spagnolo’s death led to a full-scale riot, with cars overturned and Molotov cocktails thrown. Throughout Italy 40,000 matches at all levels of football were cancelled. The “summit” meeting was a not-entirely convincing attempt by ultrà groups to draw a line between themselves and what they called “violent mavericks”. The rather more benign and stylish side of the ultrà movement can be seen in the shirts of SoulSamp.

As is often the case with football clubs, they say something important about the nature of their home city and its people. In Genoa’s case, the combination of Genoa CFC with its glorious past and Samp with its style and underdog grit is particularly fitting, just as the city has its UNESCO-listed Palazzi dei Rolli and then the chaotic exuberance of the vicoli tumbling down into the port.

The tension between the two Genoese clubs also speaks to the tension at the heart of the city. It is not a simple divide like the Glaswegian one between a Catholic club and a Protestant club, but something less tangible. Although Genoa CFC has a more establishment feel to it, and Sampdoria has an association with the industrial suburbs, there is no clear-cut geographical distinction. One friend suggests that the difference now is about mentality: Genoa fans are defensive and backward looking, and can be quite parochial in their focus on the rivalry with Sampdoria; Samp fans are more outward looking, but rather than pretend they are a big club (like a tramp in a top hat) they relish the role of the underdog. In this sense they are two sides to the same Genoese coin, and an indispensable part of the city that they represent.


Adapted from Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower by Nicholas Walton, by permission of Oxford University Press. © 2015 by Nicholas Walton. Available from Oxford University Press

Nicholas Walton was the European editor for the BBC World Service. Currently based in Singapore, he consults for various NGOs and hosts the podcast New Books in European Studies. Nicholas tweets at @npw99.