Mauro Bressan will always be remembered as a one-goal wonder – but, my God, what a goal to be remembered by.
When the jobbing midfielder was named in the Fiorentina line-up for a Champions League group stage clash with Barcelona in November 1999, few could have predicted he would score one of the most iconic goals in the history of the competition.
In truth, Bressan was something of a journeyman, plucked from the relative obscurity of Serie B side Como after catching the eye of legendary Foggia coach Zdenek Zeman.
Within a year, he was headed for the bright lights of Serie A, first with Cagliari and then Bari, where his Michael Carrick-esque metronomic passing and ball retention made him an ideal foil for an exciting array of young talent at the club that included Nicola Ventola, Gianluca Zambrotta and Antonio Cassano.
By the time he rocked up at Fiorentina two years later, Bressan was 28 and at the peak of his powers.
Bressan added depth to the squad and some much-needed composure and organisation to a team that had buckled under pressure a year earlier; surrendering the chance of a first Scudetto in 30 years with a dramatic collapse in form over the final few months of the season.
Despite the disappointment, Fiorentina had still salvaged a third-place finish and Champions League qualification, setting the stage for Bressan’s big moment.
By the time Fiorentina faced off against Barcelona at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, qualification for the second group stage had already been secured courtesy of a 1-0 win over Arsenal at Wembley, sealed with a thunderous Batistuta strike.
Bressan nevertheless went into the game with a point to prove. The midfielder had been a bit-part player during his first few months at the club, watching on as Fiorentina’s title hopes quickly evaporated.
Though they fared better in Europe, Bressan had only seen half an hour of action against group whipping boys AIK. A dead rubber against Barca, already confirmed as group winners, may not have had anything riding on it, but the Italian made sure it would be a night to remember.
Barcelona had handily dispatched Fiorentina 4-2 at the Camp Nou earlier in the campaign and fielded a strong line-up that included the likes of Luis Figo, Pep Guardiola, Patrick Kluivert and Rivaldo alongside emerging stars like Xavi and Carles Puyol.
Despite the array of talents on either team, this would be Bressan’s night to shine. The midfielder was never a regular goalscorer, which only made what happened 15 minutes into the game that bit more extraordinary.
There was undoubtedly an element of good fortune to the way the ball came to Bressan on the edge of the Barcelona box; a hurried Guardiola clearance, some miscontrol by Fiorentina’s Jorg Heinrich and an attempted header from Rivaldo that failed to connect.
But there was no mistaking the quality of his strike. Bressan had his back to goal as the ball bounced in front of him hanging in the air for long enough to allow him to adjust his position and execute a stunning bicycle kick from all of 25 yards out.
🔥 Best bicycle kick in history?
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 2, 2020
Surrounded by players from either side, the Italian defied the laws of physics, generating enough power on the ball to send it looping through the air and over the hapless Francesc Arnau in the Barcelona goal.
Arnau was powerless to prevent it from flying satisfyingly into the top-right hand corner off the underside of the bar. The Spaniard desperately lurched backwards in a futile attempt at a save only to collide with the post and end up tangled in his own net, a visibly beaten man.
The noise among the 25,000 packed into the Artemio Franchi was deafening as Bressan’s team-mates ran to embrace the midfielder, whose expression was a mixture of unadulterated joy and surprise.
It was a goal that was stunning not least in the unorthodox technique applied but also the fact it had been scored by a player not known for scoring goals of any sort, let alone ones of such spectacular ones.
“It probably seemed a bit crazy at the time,” Bressan later told FourFourTwo, “but I wanted to try it because I had attempted it a few times in training with not much success.
“It all came down to the way I hit it, and that came about through co-ordination, then connecting cleanly with the ball. When I got back onto my feet I just started screaming.”
Fiorentina perhaps understandably struggled to regain their composure in the aftermath, with Barcelona taking full advantage to score twice through Luis Figo and Rivaldo and go in 2-1 up at the break.
But Bressan – still on a high after his once-in-a-lifetime strike – found another gear after the interval with brilliant assist often gets overlooked in the retelling of his greatest night.
Abel Balbo collected the ball 30 yards from goal before playing a square pass to Bressan who in a moment of unheralded genius, returned it to the Argentine with a first-time backheel that split the Catalan defence in two.
Balbo duly finished with aplomb, but there was no mistaking Bressan’s role as the architect of what was a brilliant attacking move and an assist to savour.
The Argentine added a third for Fiorentina 14 minutes later before Rivaldo volleyed home shortly after to complete a memorable night for both teams.
The game remains a brilliant advert for the Champions League, played by two teams worthy of a place in the next round and one forever revisited in YouTube highlights reels and DVD compilations.
For Bressan, however, it was so much more than that. This proved to be the only time he ever completed full 90 minutes of Champions League football – the midfielder inexplicably returned to his role as a bit-part player in the second group phase, with Fiorentina ultimately bowing out.
The Italian nevertheless found a way to etch his name into the history of the tournament forever in much the same way Tony Yeboah managed the same with Leeds in the Premier League with a couple of blistering strikes back in the mid-90s.
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Bressan still gets asked about the goal to this day. While it’s one regularly wheeled out by the Champions League social media admins during online discussions about bicycle kicks, best ever goals or even just to mark the Italian’s birthday.
An ITV countdown of the tournament’s best ever goals even ranked it as second only to Zinedine Zidane’s Champions League final winner for Real Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen.
Though he remained a squad player, there was a happy ending of sorts to Bressan’s Florence adventure, with the midfielder making a significant contribution to Fiorentina’s Coppa Italia success a season later in 2001.
Bressan not only scored against Milan in the semis but also set up Paolo Vanoli for a crucial goal in the first leg of the final against Parma with a brilliant floated cross.
He returned to his nomadic ways soon after, spending single seasons at Venezia and Genoa, where he performed admirably, before returning to where it all began at Como.
There was still time for one last adventure in Switzerland with FC Lugano and FC Chiasso, where Bressan continued to play regularly before hanging up his boots aged 38, in 2009.
Had the story ended there, then Bressan might have been remembered more affectionately as a cult hero in his homeland. But it didn’t.
In 2011, Bressan was one of 16 arrested for suspected match-fixing in Italy’s lower leagues. Among those also implicated was ex-Lazio captain and Football Italia icon Giuseppe Signori and former Atalanta captain and Italy international Cristiano Doni.
The arrests were the culmination of a six-month investigation by police who uncovered “important and compelling” evidence indicating that those arrested were part of a criminal organisation suspected of manipulating results in Serie B and Serie C games.
A year later, in August 2012, the Italian Football Federation’s (FIGC) disciplinary committee banned Bressan from football for three-and-a-half years.
The allegations and the match-fixing scandals that engulfed the Italian game left an indelible stain on those involved.
Yet despite this, the name Mauro Bressan lives on as something else – a reminder of the magic of football and the special kind of fleeting brilliance that makes it such a compelling spectacle.