Attempting to collect a square pass, Glenn Hysén allows the ball to slip momentarily from his control. Too late. As he turns to try to recover his mistake, Careca is already gliding into the penalty area. Neville Southall saves the Brazilian’s low, diagonal shot from left to right but when the great goalkeeper regains his balance, Marco van Basten is closing in. 

You can guess what happens next. The Dutchman did not build a reputation as one of the most proficient forwards in the world by missing such chances and he swiftly gives his team the lead. Careca jogs to congratulate Van Basten who is, unusually, wearing the No. 11 shirt. The pair high-five and share a brief embrace.

Even football’s most diligent historians might find it difficult to fathom how these 13 seconds of action were possible. How were these players on the same pitch at the same time? 

Van Basten and Careca were opponents in Italy, at Milan and Napoli respectively, from 1987 until 1993, but never played together. 

After his move from Fiorentina to Liverpool in 1989, Hysén, a Swede, and Southall, a Welshman, were adversaries on Merseyside until Hysén returned home in 1992. Neither Van Basten nor Careca played in England, while Southall spent his entire club career in that country, including 17 years with Everton.

Also on the pitch that day were Diego Simeone – more of him later – Lothar Matthäus, John Barnes and Dean Saunders. Gianluigi Lentini, who would become the world’s most expensive player when he joined Milan from Torino for £13million in 1992, came on as a second-half substitute. Halfway to winning his second league title for Arsenal, Lee Dixon was the English team’s right-back.

But this was no charity match, nor a friendly played for dubious benefits in a country with a questionable human-rights record. 

On 16 January 1991, before 18,000 at Napoli’s San Paolo Stadium, a Serie A Select XI took on the best of Football League Division One. Watching the footage, the camera angles take the mind back immediately to the magic nights of the World Cup the previous summer.

Indeed, in their red shirts, white shorts and red socks, the Football League side could have passed for an England national side wearing their change kit. 

The Italians’ outfit was rather more garish, resembling an early-1990s Marseille top that had run in the wash. However tasteless the strip, though, theirs were apparently the better footballers and Van Basten’s goal, in the 26th minute, established the pattern. 

Two minutes later, Mark Wright – who had played in the stadium for England less than six months earlier in a World Cup quarter-final victory over Cameroon – dawdled on the ball. 

Once more, Careca seized on the mistake and this time beat Southall with his right foot, finding the bottom-left corner. Wright’s sliding tackle had failed to disturb the Brazilian and as the ball settled in the net, the centre-half slapped the ground in frustration. The roar was noticeably louder for the second goal than the first as the Neapolitan crowd enjoyed another chance to celebrate a player they had come to adore.

In the second half, the Italians created another goal with a combination that would never be repeated. The Genoa full-back Branco, a World Cup-winner with Brazil in 1994, found Paolo Di Canio of Juventus, whose career ended without a full cap for Italy. Di Canio released the ball just before Wright’s tackle felled him. 

The pass found Simeone, a young Pisa midfielder spending his first season in European football after leaving Vélez Sarsfield of Argentina. Simeone would not be able to help his new club survive in the top flight and spent the following campaign in Serie B before joining Sevilla in 1992. 

The goal was a rare moment of release in a tough season for the future Atlético Madrid coach. Nevertheless, he looked strangely glum after beating David Seaman, Southall’s replacement, with a drive that arrowed past the man who was to be a hero at Euro 96 five years later. 

His haircut, too, was incongruous – a Chris Waddle-worthy mullet, on a man whose playing and coaching style demands a short back and sides. Simeone was no star of Italian football at that time. Had the A-listers – Frank Rijkaard, Giuseppe Giannini, Roberto Donadoni – been available, he would probably not have been chosen. Yet coach Alberto Bigon’s squad would have given most teams of the era a serious game.

Giovanni Galli, the goalkeeper, won seven trophies with Milan, including two European Cups. Aldair made more than 300 appearances for Roma, helping them to only their third Serie A title in 2001. Alessandro Bianchi, a right-winger for Inter, played nine times for Italy. In his only season in Italian football, Oleksiy Mykhailychenko was a champion with Sampdoria. 

Gabriele Pin, a clever midfielder remembered for his time at Parma and Lazio, worked extensively as Cesare Prandelli’s assistant, notably with Italy, when they reached the final of Euro 2012. Had he belonged to another generation, Pin’s sometime Parma teammate Lorenzo Minotti would have won many more than eight caps in the Azzurri defence. Instead, he fought for a place with Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini, and Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro soon swept past him. 

The English side, managed by Lawrie McMenemy, was no less impressive. Hysén, Steve Nicol, Steve McMahon, Ian Rush and Barnes had won the title with Liverpool the previous season. Dixon, Limpar, Michael Thomas and Paul Davis helped Arsenal succeed them four months later. Steve Bull never reached the top flight with Wolves, but that did not stop him making England’s 1990 World Cup squad. Saunders was an improving forward with Derby who joined Liverpool for £2.9million five months later. In this game, he hit the post with a second-half header.

Trying to dig out information about this match, you regret that there are no more of its type. Naturally, today’s schedule makes organisation problematic. But that was also the case a quarter of a century ago. 

The broadcaster presenting highlights of the game on Italian television talks of an “improvised” Serie A side. This was not the most powerful XI available: there was no Maldini nor Baresi, no Roberto Baggio nor Gianluca Vialli.

English clubs had returned to European competition that season after their competitive ban, imposed after the Heysel Stadium tragedy in 1985, was lifted, so the fixture list was suddenly busier than it had been. It did not prevent the two federations gathering impressive squads. How much more difficult would it be for their counterparts today?

Perhaps the power of the top clubs would be a roadblock too imposing to move past. Can we really imagine Manchester City allowing Sergio Agüero to represent the Premier League against another of Europe’s strongest divisions? Would Barcelona do the same with Lionel Messi, or Juventus with Paul Pogba? Consider the following conversation between the DFB and Pep Guardiola: “Look, Pep. I know you’ve got a Champions League semi-final later this month, but we’d really like it if you let us have Robert Lewandowski and Philipp Lahm for a one-off game against the French League. Pep? Hello? Pep?” 

Clubs kick up enough of a fuss when their footballers have the temerity to play for their countries in qualifying matches. It would be a tough sell to make them change their stance for a one-off game between league representative sides.

Staunch Premier League believers offer ever more questionable arguments to prove its quality over that of rival competitions. La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 have similar loyalists. Thanks to satellite television and online streaming, the top European leagues are now easy to follow and each has its overseas supporters. But until the best of ours take on the best of theirs, it will be impossible to reach a satisfactory conclusion about which is superior.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see David Silva and Alexis Sánchez combine to create a goal for Harry Kane, or watch Gonzalo Higuaín run on to a pass from Claudio Marchisio, hold off Gerard Piqué and shoot past Jan Oblak? 

Imagine if these moves could happen for real, not just on the latest release for the latest games console. Imagine if they helped dismantle lazy statements about the relative quality of different leagues. 

The best of ours against the best of theirs and by the final whistle we would all have a good idea of which team, and therefore league, was stronger. 

The calendar is packed enough as it is. What difference would a few more dates make? It is time to revive the inter-league representative match. Now, who will volunteer to help me take the argument to the clubs? 

Lega Nazionale XI: Galli (Taffarel); Garzya, Aldair (Branco), Pin, Benedetti, Jozić (Minotti), Bianchi (Lentini), Mykhailychenko, Careca, Matthäus (Simeone), Van Basten (Di Canio).  

The Football League XI: Southall (Seaman), Dixon, Nicol, Thomas (Bowen), Wright, Hysén (Curle), Limpar (Saunders), McMahon, Rush (Bull), Davis, Barnes.


This article appeared on Episode Fifty Six of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.