By Jonny Sharples
Defensive midfielders are often underrated: they are, indeed, underrated to the point where they become overrated and one man, Claude Makelele, even has a role in football named after him. But there is one man, one watercarrier, one mediano, who can perhaps lay claim to being one of the most underrated players of all time.
On 14th November 1990 in a the Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle, San Marino, a 31 year old midfielder by the name of Massimo Bonini made his full international debut playing the first half of a 4-0 defeat to Switzerland in a Euro ’92 qualifying game. It may seem bizarre that a player who had to wait until his early thirties to make his first foray into international football may be heralded as one of the most important players of his generation but that’s exactly what the man who wore the number eight shirt for San Marino that day was.
Beginning his career in San Marino with S.S. Juvenes as a schoolboy, Bonini moved the short distance to Italian football in 1977 when he joined Serie D side Bellaria Igea in the highest level of non-professional football in the country. He stayed at the club for just one season, making thirty-three appearances and notching up just one goal, before moving up a division into the newly formed Serie C1 with Forlì. Again, Massimo Bonini stayed just one season with the club, narrowly avoiding relegation to Serie C2, before getting a move to Forlì’s neighbours Cesena and he moved to the Stadio Dino Manuzzi, and into Serie B, in 1979.
Bonini would stay with the Seahorses for two years, narrowly missing out on promotion to Serie A in his first year at the club before they secured themselves a place in the top division of Italian football with a third placed finish in the 1980/1981 season. Between those two years he also got his first taste of international football, albeit with the Italian under-21s. Although a Sammarinese national by birth, San Marino were not a recognised country by UEFA and so all players from the nation were assimilated to be Italian.
By 1981 Bonini had worked his way up from Serie D to Serie A and his talent had not gone unnoticed, with Juventus manager Giovanni Trapattoni earmarking the midfielder as a replacement for the ageing Giuseppe Furino, who went on to act as Massimo Bonini’s mentor during his early years at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin. Juventus were defending champions, already blessed with midfielders such as Liam Brady and Marco Tardelli, and on the hunt for their twentieth title in the 1981/1982 season and Bonini didn’t have to wait long for his first chance in a Juventus shirt as he came off the bench against his former club Cesena in a 6-1 victory on the opening day of the season. The Old Lady finished the season as champions for the twentieth time and Bonini collected the first of his three Serie A winners’ medals.
The summer of 1982 saw Liam Brady depart for Sampdoria and he was replaced in the Juventus side by a Frenchman by the name of Michel Platini, who joined the Italian side from Saint-Étienne. The signing of an attacking midfielder as prolific as Platini put more emphasis on the defensive work of Bonini, by now Trapattoni’s first choice holding midfield player. The Sammarinese’s athleticism and hard work allowed the Frenchman to score 16 goals in his first Serie A season and earnt the man from San Mario the nickname ‘The Marathoner’ in honour of his tireless running. Of course, it was not just covering for Plantini that Massimo Bonini was charged with, he was also surrounded by the attacking talents of Roberto Bettega, Paolo Rossi, Zbigniew Boniek, the aforementioned Marco Tardelli and covering for Juventus’ attack-minded full-back Antonio Cabrini.
And if mopping up after his own team wasn’t enough for the man from San Marino, there were also opposition players to worry about, whether it was Napoli’s Diego Maradona or Falaco during his time at Inter. Bonini highlighted the latter’s “ability to occupy space and move without the ball, disappearing around the field and when you saw him it was already too late” but commented that Maradona would “be left to [Claudio] Gentile”.
By 1985 Bonini had added his second Serie A title, the Italian Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup and the Bravo Award (for the best player in Europe under the age of 24) to his growing collection of honours and at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium on 29th May he lifted the European Cup. Of course Juventus’ 1-0 victory over Liverpool, courtesy of a Michel Plantini penalty, is overshadowed by the tragic death of 39 football supporters, and reflecting on that day Massimo Bonini stated, “It was just senseless. I just couldn’t celebrate”. Although the midfielder is the first and only player from San Marino to win the biggest prize in European club football, due to the events of that day Bonini refuses to count Juve’s victory that night among his honours.
Juventus added title number twenty-two, and Bonini’s third Serie A winners’ medal, in 1986 when they won the league by four points from Roma but were knocked out of the European Cup at the quarter final stage by eventual runners-up Barcelona. Giovanni Trapattoni left Juventus after ten years for Inter Milan in 1986, Michel Platini retired a year later and one of the greatest club sides of all time had reached the end of an era. Massimo Bonini remained at Juventus until 1988, when he moved to Bologna, having made 296 appearances for the club in all competitions for The Old Lady, scoring six times and winning eight trophies with the European Super Cup in 1984 and the Intercontinental Cup in 1985 also in his trophy cabinet.
And so we return to that November night in Serravalle, seven years after he last played any level of international football, when Bonini finally received a full international cap as San Marino were officially recognised by UEFA. The midfielder would go on to win eighteen further international caps, ending on the losing side in every subsequent international he featured in. But Massimo Bonini had fulfilled the dream of playing for his national side, he had turned down several requests to represent Italy throughout his impressive career, he was Sammarinese and only ever wanted to play for San Marino. Bonini said of his decision, “It didn’t seem right with respect to my country to change nationality. It was very beautiful because my team-mates were the lads I had played with as a child; so I had the chance to represent San Marino and be reunited with my old friends, who hadn’t had my luck in football. It was great”.
Massimo Bonini was San Marino’s national team manager between 1996 and 1998, was named their greatest ever player at the 2004 UEFA Jubilee and, perhaps, his importance to the Juventus side he represented with great pride between 1981 and 1988 can be summed up by Michel Platini who once said, “It does not matter if I smoke, the important thing is that Bonini does not smoke as he has to run for me”.
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