The speed, flair and drugs of Claudio Caniggia, an icon who lived on the edge of greatness

The speed, flair and drugs of Claudio Caniggia, an icon who lived on the edge of greatness

The first stanza of the Argentine national anthem had barely concluded on a balmy summer night in Rome when the camera panned to Diego Maradona. “Hijos de puta,” Argentina’s captain uttered in disdain, deliberately spelling out the words so that the message wouldn’t be lost on TV audiences across the globe that had tuned in to watch the 1990 World Cup final.

A look of disdain for the cacophony of boos that had accompanied his country’s anthem, Maradona then repeated the line a second time to dispel any lingering doubts of what he thought of the Italians who had packed the Stadio Olimpico.

The fact that Maradona was idolised in Naples, with whom he had won a second Scudetto just months earlier, did little to endear him to the rest of the country, which has often treated Neapolitans with suspicion – a largely mutual feeling. That Argentina knocked Italy out in the semi-finals – in Naples, of all places – only fuelled the anti-Maradona sentiment.

However, while Napoli’s maestro was the designated enemy, had it not been for another mercurial Argentine plying his trade in Serie A, it could have been Italy taking on West Germany in the final instead. Footballer, chain-smoker, icon and bon vivant par excellence – not necessarily in that order – during his six-year spell in calcio, Claudio Caniggia’s star shone as bright as any of those of the other glamorous imports who graced the peninsula in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In a remarkable coincidence, Caniggia and Maradona had first met when the former made his international debut in a friendly against Italy in Switzerland in 1987, and subsequently grew into very close friends.

In Naples, with Italy leading Argentina 1-0 in the semi-final thanks to a typical Salvatore Schillaci goal, Caniggia seized on a rare mistake from Walter Zenga to head the defending champions level. La Albiceleste would go on to win on penalties as Italy began sowing the seeds of the curse that would afflict them from the spot for the next two tournaments, but Caniggia was forced to watch the final from the stands.

A yellow card in the last-four coupled with a booking he had received earlier in the tournament ruled him out of the showdown against West Germany. While Paul Gascoigne broke down in tears after enduring the same fate in the other semi, Caniggia got on with the job and was scheduled to take Argentina’s fifth penalty, although he never did as Italy missed twice.

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Understandably, his enforced absence from the final is something which still irks the Argentine 28 years later. “I was so good and I felt to so confident,” he told broadcaster TyC Sports in April 2018. “I saw the Germans as being easier than the Italians or Brazilians. They would have brought me down and resulted in a penalty or someone would have kicked me. I’m sure that we would have defeated the Germans.”

Justified confidence or misplaced arrogance? Perhaps a combination of both. Certainly, with Caniggia in their team, Argentina would have had a better chance to retain the trophy.

Aside from the equaliser that broke Italy’s heart, they had already scored a crucial goal in the World Cup, rounding off a mesmerising run by Maradona to net a late winner against Brazil in the round of 16. He later described the goal as “the most important goal of my career, because we were really on the back foot and because of the rivalry we have with them”.

Up until the goal against the Seleção, Caniggia’s name had only risen attention at the World Cup for all the wrong reasons, none of which he could be blamed for. 

It is rare for the opening game of a World Cup to provide one of the tournament’s iconic moments but that’s exactly what Benjamin Massing’s infamous assault on the forward proved to be. The picture of Caniggia flying after being scythed by Massing’s hopelessly late tackle immediately became one of the pictures of Italia 90, and the incident has been replayed ad nauseam ever since.

While there could be no doubts that Massing was intent to perform a hatchet job on Caniggia – “The general intention seemed to be not so much to break Caniggia’s legs, as actually to separate them from the rest of his body,” wrote Pete Davies in his book, All Played Out – the incident gave Cameroon a reputation for thuggery they didn’t deserve and that they would dispel with some brilliant football in the tournament.

Shortly before Massing’s intervention, spectators had been treated to a sight very common to Serie A fans; that of Caniggia in full flow, his blond flocks waving behind as he left defenders in his wake. Unsurprisingly for a man known as El Hijo del Viento (The Son of the Wind) speed was one of Caniggia’s best assets, which allowed him to tear through defences and, crucially, to change direction with the swiftness that would make a rugby full-back proud.

Born in Henderson, in the province of Buenos Aires, approximately 400km from the Argentine capital, as a youngster Caniggia’s blistering pace had seen him excel as a sprinter, and he regularly took part in the 100m at regional level with impressive results. Long jump, 200m and 400m also often featured in his repertoire, but eventually the allure of the pitch usurped Caniggia’s passion for the running track. Just a few months after his 15th birthday he joined the River Plate academy.

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Within three years he burst onto the scene as he made his debut for Los Millonarios and a year later, still only 19, he was part of the River team that secured a historic treble by winning the league, Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana.

In 1988, Caniggia crossed the Atlantic to begin his adventure in Serie A with Verona. Now a regular at either the wrong end of the top=flight or languishing in Serie B, Caniggia arrived in the city of Romeo and Juliet only three years after Osvaldo Bagnoli had guided the Gialloblu to the title in what remains one of calcio‘s greatest fairy tales.

There was, however, precious little fabled about Caniggia’s first season in Serie A. A broken leg limited him to only 21 appearances and three goals as Verona secured a modest 11th-place finish, already showing the signs of the worrying decline that would lead to relegation the following season. By then, however, Caniggia had left them behind and moved just over 70 miles to the west, to Bergamo, where he signed for Atalanta, with Swedish international Robert Prytz – who would later enjoy a curiously peripatetic spell across Scottish football – going the other way. 

For a man who had fleetingly experienced the febrile atmosphere of the Superclasico, playing for another provinciale – as teams from provincial towns are described in Italy – might have seemed a step back. However, if the steep learning curve did trouble Caniggia, he didn’t let it show. 

Under Emiliano Mondonico, Atalanta had been promoted to Serie A and reached the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup – which they entered by virtue of having lost the Coppa Italia final to league winners Napoli the previous year – in the 1987/88 season and had secured a sixth-place finish and UEFA Cup qualification the following campaign.

Caniggia’s first campaign in Bergamo saw him score 10 goals in 36 appearances in all competitions as La Dea finished seventh and secured European football for a third consecutive year. Following the World Cup heartbreak, Caniggia returned to Bergamo, again netting 10 goals in all competitions before helping Argentina clinch their 13th Copa América in the summer. Despite Maradona’s absence, La Albiceleste won all four of their group games, with Caniggia scoring twice, before topping the four-team group that decided the tournament. 

His performances in Chile and a solid third season in Bergamo put Caniggia firmly on the radar of some of Europe’s most prestigious clubs, including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Marseille, then bankrolled by Bernard Tapie. Caniggia, however, shunned the interest of the two Spanish giants and opted to remain in Italy, embarking on a 370-mile southbound trip on the A1 motorway that would take him to Rome.

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If Atalanta had repeatedly punched above their weight, Roma looked like a team ready to establish themselves among the crowded heavyweight division that dominated Serie A. In the two seasons before Caniggia’s arrival, the Giallorossi had won the Coppa Italia, lost the UEFA Cup and the Italian Super Cup final and reached the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup, finishing fifth in the league.

If Caniggia felt the Giallorossi were the first team he had played for since his River Plate days that could compete for silverware, then Roma felt a man of the Argentine’s calibre would be the catalyst to make the final leap and challenge for the Scudetto.

Even without Rudi Völler, who had swapped the Eternal City for Marseille, new Roma coach Vujadin Boškov could count on 1990 World Cup winner Thomas Hassler, former European Cup winner Siniša Mihajlović and the likes of Giuseppe Giannini – the Prince of Roman football – Ruggiero Rizzitelli and Brazil international Aldair. 

However, a difficult first half of the season – 15 points in 17 games, in an era when wins were still worth two points in Italy – swiftly put paid to Roma’s lofty ambitions and much worse to come for their Argentine striker.

Caniggia was a man who lived his life like he ran past defenders on the pitch – at a hundred miles an hour. His rockstar lifestyle – and, as some were quick to suggest, his close friendship with Maradona – saw him venture off the path professional footballers are supposed to walk and into the world of illicit substances.

Traces of cocaine were found in the urine sample Caniggia provided after a 1-1 draw against Napoli on 21 March – ironically the team that had lost Maradona to the same problem two years earlier – and, after a month-long investigation, he was banned for 13 months by Serie A’s Disciplinary Commission.

While athletes who find themselves on the wrong side of the law today are almost routinely afforded a second chance, Italian football was a very different landscape in 1993 and Caniggia’s 12-month enforced absence brought down the curtain on his days in Rome.

Following a prolific season in Portugal with Benfica, Caniggia returned to Buenos Aires, this time on the blue and gold side of the divide as he joined forces with Maradona at Boca Juniors. Despite the visceral hate between Boca and River, it is not uncommon for players to represent both clubs and the Bombonera faithful quickly warmed to Caniggia, who scored 12 goals in 29 league games in his first season with the club.

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At Boca, however, as was the case at any other club he’s ever played for, the main story was Maradona. After fleeting spells with Sevilla and Newell’s Old Boys, El Pibe de Oro had joined Los Xeneizes in a bid to restore his reputation, which had been tarnished after he failed a drug test at the 1994 World Cup.

Caniggia and Maradona were meant to be the icons heralding the beginning of the Mauricio Macri era and publicity followed at every corner in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately for the newly-appointed Boca Juniors president, trophies did not. In the first half of the 1990s, Boca had brought an 11-year wait for a league title to an end by winning the 1992 Apertura and lifted three cups, but they finished 11th in Carlos Bilardo’s only season in charge, despite a stellar squad including Juan Sebastián Verón and Kily González, as well as Caniggia and Maradona.

After managing 24 appearances in his first year back with Boca, the latter played only a combined six games in the following two seasons as his glittering career came to a self-destructive end, while Caniggia racked up almost half a century of Primera División games before leaving Argentina for a second time in 1999.

As had been the case over a decade earlier, El Hijo del Viento sailed towards Italy yet again. Bergamo, the city where Caniggia had arguably reached the pinnacle of his career, welcomed him back with open arms, but his second spell in Lombardy was far from the fairytale Atalanta fans were hoping for. A solitary goal in 17 Serie B games soon convinced Caniggia and the club that they would be best served if they parted ways again, a decision which certainly didn’t tarnish the Argentine’s legacy. “Bergamo and its people are always a fantastic memory,” Caniggia said a few years later.

“From the moment I arrived right until when I left I’ve always found myself at home with the club, my teammates and with the whole environment surrounding me. The fans were brilliant and I think I’ve enjoyed the best years of my career in Bergamo. I’m always happy to go back. From a professional point of view I didn’t make the right decision when I went to Atalanta in Serie B in 1999. The league was very different from Serie A and harder. I didn’t enjoy it, but I was happy to go back to Bergamo and I would it all over again for the fans.”

Neither Atalanta nor Caniggia lived to regret their decision to go separate ways as La Dea were promoted to Serie A at the end of the season, while the Argentine moved to Scotland and unexpectedly revived his career with seven goals in 21 appearances in his first season for Dundee. 

Rangers manager Dick Advocaat saw enough of Caniggia with the Dark Blues to be convinced the 35-year-old would still do a job for a top club and signed him in the summer of 2001. Two domestic cups followed in his first season at Ibrox, followed by a surprising call-up for the World Cup in Korea and Japan, where Caniggia managed to get himself sent off without playing a single minute as Argentina crashed out in the group stages.

His second season in Glasgow brought Caniggia only his second ever league title, before fleeting spells in Qatar and with semi-professional side Wembley FC wrote the last chapter of a thrilling career lived largely with the foot on the gas. It’s exactly as the Son of the Wind would have liked. 

By Dan Cancian @mufc_dan87

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