The former Inter manager Annibale Frossi once observed that the perfect scoreline would be a nil-nil draw. It was a line that summed up the defensive ethos propagated by the journalist Gianni Brera that dominated the Italian game in the second half of the 20th century: in the 1960s catenaccio brought two European Cups for both Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan and Helenio Herrera’s Inter. 

The idea that defensive solidity came before all else (due, Brera believed, somewhat eccentrically, to the genetic makeup of Italians), conditioned the way Italy viewed the game, long after it stopped being successful in Europe. At the peak of his influence, he’d routinely, and mercilessly, criticise Milan’s star player, Gianni Rivera. 

Rivera represented everything Brera was against: he was skilful and creative and possessed that innate ability to do pretty much what he wanted with a football, but he was fragile and reluctant to perform his defensive duties. To Brera, individuality in football wasn’t to be condoned or commended. 

In the late 1980s, Brera also opposed Arrigo Sacchi’s tactical innovations at Milan, believing that the true architects of their success were Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard rather than Sacchi’s pressing system. For Brera, being reactive was Italy’s forte, taking the initiative was better left to the Dutch or the Brazilians. 

That Brera died in late 1992 feels symbolic given it was in that year that the game began rapidly to evolve. In many respects, football was breaking away from the old Brera-esque ideology that many at the top of the game felt was holding it back. If this was the year the game decided to sell its soul for corporate money, the dogmatic approaches that characterised – and many say blighted – Italia ’90 could no longer be tolerated. If the commercialisation of the game was to prove successful, TV executives and advertising moguls needed adventurous play and goals, preferably an abundance of them. 

The creation of the back-pass law at the beginning of the 1992-93 season caused sweat-inducing chaos for goalkeepers across the world. No longer able simply to pick up a pass from a defender in the safety of their penalty box, they now had to think strategically about their next move. Furthermore, they had to learn to use their feet, which led to anarchy. 

Nowhere was this more prevalent than in Serie A. Matches were traditionally, and notoriously, tight affairs, but in the post-backpass-rule landscape, some of the scorelines bordered on ludicrous: Pescara 4 Milan 5, Fiorentina 3 Milan 7, Genoa 4 Ancona 4, Lazio 5 Parma 2. For a league in which for years scores had resembled binary code, this was heady stuff. Serie A’s goal-to-game ratio soared from 2.27 in 1991-92 to 2.8 the next season. 

Brera would have had no time for a coach like Zdeněk Zeman, the Czech who eschewed even the most basic principles of defending. Zemanlandia was in its infancy when Brera died, with his Foggia side playing a brand of football hitherto unseen from a provincial team. 

Furthermore, how Brera would have felt about the game between Zeman’s Roma and Inter on a hot, balmy Monday night in early May 1999, with its nine goals and countless opportunities for more, hardly needs a second guess. 

The scoreline was also a reflection of the times: Serie A’s goal-per-game ratio had steadily increased year-on-year (albeit more steadily after the aberration of 1992-93). Only the Bundesliga produced more goals per game in 1998-99. 

To say Inter had been living up to their ‘pazza [crazy] Inter’ moniker in 1998-99 would be akin to saying Lionel Messi can play a bit. Even by their standards, Inter’s penchant for self-destruction was dialled up to 11. The sacking of Gigi Simoni in November, on the night he won the Panchina d’oro award for best coach in Serie A, was disastrous. Six months earlier, Simoni had won the Uefa Cup and pushed a stellar Juventus team to the wire in an enthralling title race. In the week leading up to his dismissal, he’d masterminded a 3-1 win over the reigning European champions Real Madrid at San Siro in the Champions League. 

“I immediately understood that Simoni’s sacking would have devastating consequences,” said Roberto Baggio, who signed from Bologna after France ’98. “At that point the team was gone.” Baggio maintained that despite the less than ideal start Simoni still had the dressing room. 

Simoni had, in truth, struggled to fine-tune an extremely top-heavy squad and combined with Ronaldo’s post- World Cup injuries Inter struggled for consistency. Despite having lost four games before Christmas they were only five points off the top of the table. But for the impatient president Massimo Moratti, that was several defeats too many. 

Simoni’s sacking haunted Moratti for years. “It was a mistake,” he said in 2016. “I regret it and I paid for it with three more coaches.” Moratti hired Mircea Lucescu who, after a high-scoring start, was sacked following a horrible February and March that saw Inter win one game and suffer a comprehensive defeat to Manchester United in the quarter-final of the Champions League. After a 4-0 demolition by soon-to-be-relegated Sampdoria, the goalkeeping coach Luciano Castellini was given a month-long promotion. 

Castellini won his opening match against Fiorentina and didn’t win again before making way for the returning Roy Hodgson at the end of April. Such was the disarray at the club and Moratti’s impulsiveness that he appointed Hodgson as caretaker manager after witnessing a lifeless training session from Castellini the day after the Sampdoria defeat, and told no one in the upper echelons of the club about it. Only Ronaldo had been privy to the latest managerial change. Upon hearing the news of their fourth manager of the season, Inter’s players thought it was a joke. 

Hodgson’s mandate was simple: with four games left, he was to qualify them for the Uefa Cup. “I’m here as a friend to lend a hand,” Hodgson said on arrival. Ronaldo, who was in Barcelona visiting a psychologist, welcomed Hodgson’s appointment, feeling that he could unite a fractured and, according to Baggio, half-committed squad. 

Roma were five points ahead of Inter in the table and tussling with Parma in the race for the fourth spot in the newly expanded Champions League. Zeman was in his second season at Roma, via a two-and-a-half-year stint across the capital with Lazio, and had the distinction of becoming the first coach in history to pass from one Roman team to another. 

Despite not winning silverware at Lazio, he’d had unearthed a raw centre-back by the name of Alessandro Nesta. He also effectively ended Paul Gascoigne’s turbulent stay in Italy. 

While Zeman recognised the greatness in Gazza, the mercurial midfielder’s perpetual lack of fitness, which was vital for his ultra-attacking system, was never going to endear him to the Czech. Zeman instructed Lazio to move him on at the end of his first season. Poor results midway through his third season saw Zeman replaced by Sven-Göran Eriksson. 

Named as Roma’s manager in the summer of 1997, Zeman would refine and polish Francesco Totti’s game until he could play in almost any position in the final third of the pitch. Zeman also gave Totti the No.10 shirt. A fourth-place finish in 1997-98, Roma’s best of the decade, boded well for Zeman. 

As ever, he deployed his faithful 4-3-3 system, with Totti and Paulo Sergio playing as interchangeable wingers. Most had expected Hodgson to stick with the 4-4-2 that he’d used during his first spell as Inter coach, which had ended in a 1-1 draw against Roma in May 1997. Hodgson surprised everyone, implementing an uncharacteristically attacking 4-3-1-2 formation that saw Baggio, supported by the muscle of Javier Zanetti, Diego Simeone and Benoît Cauet, play as a trequartista behind Ivan Zamorano and Ronaldo. 

The opening exchanges gave little hint as to what lay ahead: the ball ping- ponged from one side to the next, with the goalkeepers untested. Neither side could keep possession for long enough to exert control. 

Suddenly, Inter drew first blood. Simeone received the ball in central midfield, and shifted the ball out to Zanetti, who passed it forward to Baggio. Roma’s Aldair was instantly drawn towards Baggio, while Ronaldo, sniffing out space, burst forward into the Aldair-shaped hole in the Roma defence. Baggio, seemingly unaware of Ronaldo’s whereabouts, pivoted on his right foot and clipped a beautifully weighted through-ball with his left foot into the space behind Roma’s high backline. Ronaldo ghosted past Zago and Marco Quadrini, rounded the goalkeeper Michael Konsel on the edge of the box and the rest was never in doubt. 

The Baggio-Ronaldo combination was the pairing Moratti hoped would propel Inter to their first title in a decade. The two had scored 47 goals between them the previous season, and Moratti had failed in an attempt to pry Baggio from Bologna in the January 1998 transfer window, only for Baggio to decline the offer. Ronaldo had arguably superseded Baggio as the world’s greatest player; and the prospect of the two playing together was mouth-watering, at least theoretically. Injuries had restricted them to only nine starts together. This was to be the highlight. 

Less than five minutes later, Inter widened their margin. Konsel tipped a Baggio curler, destined for the top corner, over the bar. Baggio’s corner was headed out to Cauet, who slid it across the Roma box to Zanetti. The Argentinian spread a wondrous outside of the right foot pass to Baggio that completely bypassed Roma’s defence. Baggio picked out Zamorano, whose deft run to the centre of the box left him unmarked. The Chilean slipped at the moment of contact, but it worked to his benefit, the ball looping over Konsel into the net. 

The match hardly had time to breathe before Roma got a goal back through a Totti penalty. 

A marvellous passage of play saw Ronaldo take the ball from deep, sidestep Luigi Di Biagio with magnificent ease, and play a lightning one-two with Zamorano before being hacked down by Quadrini on the edge of the box. 

These were the vestiges of Ronaldo 1.0, when he was the complete player who took free-kicks, corners and could link up play in addition to being the prototype centre-forward for the next millennium. Six consecutive summers of playing football, a heavy workload in the gym and the punishment he suffered from defenders would take its toll. Within a year, his body, already starting to wilt under the strain of too much football, would break down completely. 

So concerned was Zeman about the damage Baggio and Ronaldo were causing from deeper areas, that he took off Dmitri Alenichev (for all the talent on both sides, the only Champions League winners were he and Zanetti) for Damiano Tommasi after 33 minutes. 

The change didn’t make any immediate difference as Inter scored a third. Zanetti went on a driving run through the middle, past a not-up-to-speed Tommasi, before sliding the ball through for Zamorano. Zanetti’s pass wasn’t the most direct – in fact, it was going away from goal – yet Zamorano managed a brilliantly executed chip over Konsel, who seemed to fall over rather than attempt a save. 

By the time Pierluigi Collina called for half-time, Roma could’ve been level, but Gianluca Pagliuca thwarted Vincent Candela and Marco Delvecchio. Roma were finding success exposing Dario Šimić’s inexperience, with Tommasi and Di Biagio spraying long diagonal balls in behind for the marauding Candela. 

The “festival of goals”, as La Gazzetta dello Sport would put it the next day, continued within two minutes of the restart. The spindly Paulo Sergio reduced the deficit to one before, remarkably, Delvecchio headed in Paulo Sergio’s cross for the equaliser after 49 minutes. 

Zeman’s insistence on implementing a high offside line was proving extremely risky: Ronaldo got his second after Baggio and Zamorano sliced through Roma with two touches. Baggio’s cushioned volley, just inside the Roma half, played in Zamorano, who unselfishly squared it to Ronaldo. 

There was an end of season, nothing to play for, feel to the game: tactics didn’t seem to matter, any semblance of constraint had long since gone, every player on the pitch wanted to attack. The game resided in either side’s final third. 

Eusebio Di Francesco, via a miscued shot from Paulo Sergio and the head of Totti, angled a shot to make it 4-4. This, incidentally, was the fourth time that season Roma had scored four goals or more in a match (they’d do it again, against Vicenza, on the final day). They scored more goals than any team that season, 10 more than the champions Milan. But, as ever with a Zeman side, their defensive fragility was evidenced in the 49 goals they conceded, the most of any of the top five sides. 

Baggio wasn’t finished tormenting Roma, revelling in the freedom their defence granted him. At this stage he was no longer the dribbling virtuoso of his Fiorentina and Juventus days. But his vision and technique remained unparalleled. Now 32, with speckles of grey in his hair, he could still illuminate the pitch. By his standards, it wasn’t a season to savour: niggling injuries had restricted him and that, combined with the general anarchy surrounding Inter, saw him lose his place in the Italy national team (a place he would never get back). Nonetheless he sparkled in cameos against Real Madrid and Roma before Christmas. 

Here, Baggio glided around the pitch, as the best No.10s do, receiving the ball in pockets of space between the lines and threatening to inflict damage on Roma’s brittle rearguard. 

Down the right touchline, Baggio played a smart give and go with Zanetti, before running inwards and playing another one-two, this time with Youri Djorkaeff. Yards from the penalty area, he floated the ball over the Roma defence for Ronaldo, who volleyed the ball instantly into the net. It would have been the goal of the game, but offside was given. It was a dubious call. 

The match just continued giving. Delvecchio was inches away from connecting with Totti’s curled cross; two minutes later, the ball would be in the Roma net, for the final time. Šimić sprayed the ball down Roma’s left towards Djorkaeff, who drew a foul from fellow World Cup winner Candela on the edge of the area, near the byline. Baggio stood over the set-piece, and crossed for the onrushing Simeone to plant a powerful header past Konsel. “4-5... 4-5... 4-5.... incredibile,” said Fabio Caressa on commentary, as if by repeating the scoreline enough times, he would convince everyone at home what they were watching was in fact real. 

Lost count of the number of Baggio assists? Three and a half. 

Nine goals. There could have been 19. “It was 90 minutes, but it felt like two days,” Hodgson said, his shirt caked in sweat from the muggy Roman air. Both Hodgson and Zeman acknowledged that while the game was compelling, it was due to a plethora of defensive mistakes.

This was the result that ultimately cost Zeman his job. Roma would win their final two games but miss out on the last Champions League spot by a single point. Franco Sensi, Roma’s president, recognised that retaining Zeman was counter-productive if they wanted to win the title and turned to the more pragmatic Fabio Capello, who would deliver the scudetto in his second season. 

Zeman became a coaching vagabond, ostracised from the upper echelons of Serie A. He wouldn’t coach another big side until a second spell with Roma 13 years later (he attributed this to the political pressure exerted by Juventus – and more specifically their president Luciano Moggi – after accusing Juve’s players of doping, which led to a lengthy trial). 

Victory for Inter proved only a brief respite from the general malaise of their season. Defeats to Parma and Venezia confined them to a two-legged Uefa Cup playoff with Bologna, which they also lost. A season that had them pegged as title favourites promptly descended into chaos and ended in ignominy: of the teams that finished in the top nine positions, only they wouldn’t have European football in 1999-00. In fact, they finished closer to Serie B than to the champions Milan. 

In came serial winner Marcello Lippi, alongside a raft of shiny, new signings. Yet even Lippi struggled to impose order. He became involved in a public feud with Baggio, and Ronaldo’s knee collapsed – in Rome – against Lazio in the final of the Coppa Italia. Lippi would only last a year. 

While Brera had been dead for six years, his philosophy still desperately hung in the air, pouring scorn over the match. La Repubblica, rather dismissively, labelled it as something one would see in volleyball or handball. La Gazzetta dello Sport followed in a similarly despairing tone. In his report of the match, Ruggiero Palombo described it as a “fun game for people with less sophisticated palates”. 

“The goal is the juice of fun in football, and if we see nine of them in one game, the public is happy,” said Baggio after the game. This time, the Romans were entertained.