Football: Salvatori the inspirer seeks Cup salvation

An Italian can today bring Scottish Cup glory to Hearts, or see three compatriots take the honours for Rangers. Phil Gordon reports
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IN ITALY, it is common practice for statues of saints to be carried through the streets on their celebrational feast day. If Stefano Salvatori helps Hearts win their first piece of silverware in 36 years today, he might be carried all the way back to Edinburgh.

Salvatori's presence in the Scottish Cup final at Celtic Park denotes that the east end of Glasgow will be turned into Little Italy for a day. Apart from the presence of the former Milan player in Jim Jefferies' ranks, Rangers will employ three of his compatriots as they seek to avoid finishing the season empty handed for the first time since the 1985-86 season.

The former Perugia pair of Rino Gattuso and Marco Negri will be part of Walter Smith's thinking for his final game in charge of the side he made the epicentre of Scottish football over the last decade. So too will be the former Fiorentina centre-half, Lorenzo Amoruso.

With neat symmetry, Amoruso played against Salvatori in the Hearts midfielder's last game in Italy two years ago. The lucky omen for Rangers fans is that it, too, was a final - the Italian Cup, Fiorentina v Atalanta - and that Amoruso's team won.

"It was a two-leg match," recalled Amoruso, "and we won the first match in Florence and then I scored in the second leg when we won 3-1. The Italian Cup has become more important to coaches and clubs in recent years but it still does not have the tradition that the Scottish Cup has."

Amoruso has tasted that tradition first hand. He made his much delayed debut for Rangers last month on the same pitch he will roam today: in the 2-1 semi-final win over Celtic.

It was an occasion which moved the giant 27-year-old, who had been ruled out almost from the day he joined the Ibrox side with an Achilles injury which required three operations and two months of rehabilitation back in the old country.

"I only planned to sit on the bench, not play," said Amoruso, "because I was not really ready. But Gordan Petric got injured and I came on after 20 minutes. Playing in that kind of game is a test of a player's character. But you cannot be afraid to play in such games if you are a professional.

"It was marvellous to hear my name being sung and then to discover the sensations of being a footballer that you have missed for so long: making tackles, shouting to team-mates. The result was wonderful."

At Hearts, Salvatori is perhaps grateful not to be weighed down with tradition: because all of it is negative. Hearts' record as Scotland's all-time chokers - they have lost a Scottish Cup final in every decade since they last won in 1956 - is not something that concerns the Italian.

"The past is not important," said the 31-year-old ballwinner. "It is the future that is important." Salvatori, who started his career with Milan before moving on to Fiorentina and Atalanta, came to Edinburgh in 1996, two months after Hearts' most recent Cup final capitulation, a 5-1 hammering by Rangers.

In that time, Salvatori has been impressed by the club's growth both on and off the pitch. Sell-out crowds of 18,000 packed Tynecastle during the league season as the club appeared on the brink of ending its 36-year silverware famine by winning the title. Now, the Italian insists, those fans are rightly demanding the Cup as compensation.

"We lost the title," he says ruefully. "We drew too many matches we should have won. It is difficult for us to compete with Celtic or Rangers because of the money they have to buy players, but sometimes money does not make a team. That only happens if you work together."

Certainly that has been the evidence both at Rangers this season, and at Salvatori's old club, Milan. He played 15 Serie A games in 1989-90 but was left in the stand for the European Cup final that year and competition with Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten was too fierce to hang around for long, so he sought his fortune elsewhere.

At the same time, a young defender called Amoruso was making a name for himself down at Bari. "I joined them when I was 17 and I played alongside David Platt for a few months, before I moved away on loan."

Amoruso eventually helped Bari win promotion and Fiorentina bought him to add some steel to the side behind the cavalier talents of Garbriel Batistuta. However, he had a hankering for Britain and, although Manchester United showed a late interest, Amoruso plumped for Rangers, joining for pounds 4m last June.

"I told my agent that I had a good feeling about Walter Smith from the moment I met him," explained Amoruso. "He listens to players and helped me so much, especially when I had my terrible injury. He was like a father to me."

Naturally, Amoruso and the other Rangers players wish to give Smith the Scottish Cup as a leaving present before he makes way for Dick Advocaat. "It would be nice for Walter to win his last game," he says, "but it will be difficult. Hearts are a good team, with great pace in attack, especially Neil McCann and Stephane Adam."

For Salvatori, winning would represent the last piece of the footballing jigsaw he feels his adopted city needs to challenge the Old Firm duopoly.

"We have got some fantastic players," the Italian enthuses. "We also play some of the most attractive football in Scotland. With a few more players to strengthen the squad, we can go on to many successes. We have the capacity to create a dynasty here like Milan or Juventus." Or Rangers?

"On the pitch, we have a 50-50 chance. You never know."