Written by: Apollo Heyes (@ApolloHeyes)
On a warm August afternoon, the San Siro in Milan was filled with 75,000 people for the kick off of the 1997/98 season, starting with Inter’s game vs Brescia. There was an excited buzz in the stadium, and all for one player, an exciting striker who had recently arrived from Barcelona for a world record fee of €25m; The 20-year-old Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, more simply known as Ronaldo.
Whilst Ronaldo didn’t score in his first game, another player making his debut in Serie A did. A man 10 years his senior, playing for the opponent, 30-year-old Italian Dario Hübner. Nobody would have expected that between these two players, only one of them would win the Capocannoniere (Serie A top scorer) title during their time in Serie A, and that player wasn’t Ronaldo. This is the story of Dario Hübner, il Bisonte (The Bison), one of the most unusual players in Italian football.
Born on the 28th April 1967 in Muggia, a small town in the extreme North East of Italy, Hübner spent the early parts of his career in smaller clubs in Italy’s lower leagues, making his debut for Serie D side Pievigina, before moving up a division to Pergolettese in Serie C. In this period of his career, he gained a qualification in carpentry, worked as a house painter and made doors in a factory, whilst playing football outside of his working hours. He also was a noted chain smoker, and drunk copious amounts of grappa in his free time. Despite these unusual qualities, Hübner continued to improve and climb the football pyramid.
After a successful season with Pergolettese in Serie C2, he moved to Fano Calcio, where he finally achieved a professional contract at the age of 22. Hübner spent 3 seasons there, quietly improving and impressing, before his first ‘breakout’ season where he scored 14 goals, the highest in the division, which led to him being noticed by Cesena, and transferring up a division to Serie B aged 25.
Dario Hübner’s time with Cesena would prove incredibly important for the player, where he would score 11 in his first season, 16 in his second season and 16 again in his third season. By now Hübner’s lifestyle would be questioned less, as he proved that he could still perform on the pitch regularly despite his habits, a fact that would be reinforced in the 1995/96 season, his fourth with Cesena, where he was the Serie B top scorer with an impressive 22 goals, not even including the goal he scored against Roma in the second round of the Coppa Italia, helping the Serie B side upset one of the giants of Italian football. Hübner would score 18 in his final season at the club, not enough to save the failing Cesena from relegation to Serie C.
Finally, we return to that fateful Sunday afternoon in Milan. After 10 years bouncing around the lower divisions, the now 30-year-old Dario Hübner stepped onto the pitch of the San Siro for the first time, a wonderful moment for the self-admitted Inter fan. Having arrived to newly promoted Brescia, he was not expected to perform as well in Italy’s top league as he had before, with many critics noting his slower speed and his poor work rate as negatives for the player.
After a quiet first half from Hübner, and Inter dominating the game, it looked like his debut would be nothing memorable. That was until the 73rd minute, when an 18-year-old Andrea Pirlo floated a trademark stunning ball into the box. It was as if, for a moment, time slowed down. Hübner, with his back to goal and a defender, deftly controlled the ball as it flew to him, turned away from the defender and toward goal as it bounced and shot a ridiculous half volley into the top left corner, leaving Inter keeper Gianluca Pagliuca rooted to the spot. Suddenly, the deadlock was broken, and not only was it not scored by il fenomeno, Ronaldo, but not even by the dominant team Inter.
Whilst Brescia would go on to lose to an Álvaro Recoba brace in the last 10 minutes, Hübner had already shown his critics that it only took one moment for him to go from the chain smoking, grappa drinking, low work rate 30-year-old Italian to a clinical and skilled center-forward. In his next game for Brescia, he scored a hattrick against Sampdoria, helping the team to a 3-3 draw, and would finish his debut Serie A season with 16 goals, an impressive tally considering the team was relegated to Serie B the same season.
Whilst it might have looked like Hübner’s Serie A career was simply a flash in the pan, as Brescia failed to get promoted back in the following season, he stayed and helped the club return to Serie A for the 2000/01 season, which coincided with the arrival of Italy legend Roberto Baggio to the club. His final season for Brescia produced 24 goals, an incredible amount for a 33-year-old. His time at Brescia was noted for how he used to smoke cigarettes whilst sitting on the bench during Brescia’s matches, but his eye for goal proved that it didn’t affect his play on the pitch.
The following season would show Hübner at his best with Piacenza, where he would score 24 times to become the oldest Capocannoniere in Italian history at 35 years old (a record that he held until 2015, when Luca Toni would score 22 goals with Verona aged 38). Considering he shared that title with Juventus star striker David Trezeguet, it was a wonderful achievement. After that season, he would begin to rapidly decline until his retirement in 2005, never again reaching the heights of that wonderous season with Piacenza.
In his unusual career, Dario Hübner scored over 300 goals in professional play, become the oldest ever Capocannoniere, become one of two players (the other being Igor Protti) to have won the top scorer title in Italy’s top three divisions, become Piacenza’s top Serie A goal scorer and all of this whilst living a lifestyle unlike most of his fellow professionals. Hübner shocked the world by showing that being young or living a traditional footballer lifestyle was not required to perform at the highest level, and that makes him one of Italian footballs true enigmas.