It is perhaps disrespectful to the career of Giuseppe Colucci to deem his most important moment being running onto the pitch as a substitute. A reliable central midfielder, he played a total of over 300 games for the likes of Catania, Livorno and Verona. There was nothing uncommon with the way he entered the field at the San Siro in May 2004, with the significance rather resting on the man he replaced.
One of the greatest Italian footballers of all time, Roberto Baggio exited the pitch he had occupied so masterfully throughout his career to a standing ovation from the opposing AC Milan fans. Receiving an emotional embrace from Paolo Maldini with tears in his eyes, this was to be his final act a professional player, bringing down the curtain on a glittering 22-year career.
The final four seasons of this had been played at Brescia, an unfashionable club from an industrial town in Lombardy. Until Baggio’s arrival in 2000, they had been a typical yo-yo side; often too good for Serie B, but not quite able to perform to the heightened standards of the top flight. All that was to change, however, with the arrival of Il Divin Codino.
The move came off the back of a falling out at Inter, where things got so desperate that Marcello Lippi had eventually frozen Baggio out of the side. Despite having offers from other European nations, alongside Japan where he was idolised for his Buddhist beliefs, Baggio decided to stay in Italy. A desire to atone for his infamous penalty miss in the 1994 World Cup final fuelled this fire, with Baggio desperate to appear at international football’s premier tournament for a fourth time.
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Offers came from Barcelona, Napoli and Udinese, although all broke down for various reasons. It appeared he was on his way to Reggina but, having read about the impending move in the newspaper, Brescia coach Carlo Mazzone sought to hijack the deal. A few phone calls and a personal visit to the player swung matters, with Baggio signing a two-year contract at the newly promoted side shortly afterwards.
Initially the move looked like a failure. Brescia continued in their trademark fashion, battling against relegation for the majority of the season as the injuries that had blighted Baggio’s career persisted. He failed to find the net until the end of February 2001, although made a significant impact by scoring both goals in a 2-2 draw with Fiorentina. The second of these was a trademark free-kick, crashing in off the bar with around 20 minutes left to leave Francesco Toldo rooted.
Nevertheless, three straight loses left Brescia in danger of the drop again. As if his quality needed any underlining, Baggio would prove the catalyst to carry his new side to safety. He would combine with a young Andrea Pirlo on his return to Juventus to score a majestic 86th-minute equaliser. Playing a ball over the top for which he would become known, Pirlo found Baggio who, in one touch, brought it down majestically and rounded Edwin van der Sar before rolling into an empty net.
He would score in his next five games to yield 13 points from a possible 15, including a hat-trick at Lecce and a satisfying winner against Inter. Brescia ended the campaign in eighth, their best ever league finish, qualifying for the Intertoto Cup after Atalanta declined to take part. Baggio also guided Brescia to the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia, where they lost to eventual winners Fiorentina, and recorded 10 assists in his trademark number 10 role.
On a personal level, he would go on to win the 2001 Guerin d’Oro for Serie A’s best player, alongside a nomination for the Ballon D’or, in which he finished a respectable 25th, ahead of the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Pavel Nedvěd.
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This form continued over into the following campaign, one which was played with Pep Guardiola, who came in to replace an Inter-bound Pirlo. Such was the impact Baggio made on the Spaniard, Guardiola would later go on to describe him as the best he ever played with. Such a statement was justified as he started the 2001/02 season in fine form, hitting eight goals in nine matches, including all three in a 3-3 draw with Atalanta.
This season was, however, later marred by injury troubles, with Baggio playing just 72 minutes between November and mid-April after an ACL tear. There was also tragedy at Brescia, with defender Vittorio Mero dying in a car accident in late January. This hit the club hard – results dropped and players started to flag. Step forward Baggio, returning once more to guide Brescia to safety.
In the final weeks of the season he would come off the bench to score twice in a 3-0 win over doomed Fiorentina, as well as in the final game of the season with Bologna. This game featured a chilling sense of déjà-vu, as Gianluca Pagliuca saved a penalty with 20 minutes left that would have sealed Brescia’s safety. Unlike in the Rose Bowl, however, Baggio was able to slot home the rebound to make it 3-0, running off deliriously towards the stands in celebration.
He had intended to retire following the 2002 World Cup, although decided to stay on after being overlooked for the squad by Giovanni Trapattoni. His decision to remain on the peninsula two years before may have been questioned by some, but the Azzurri’s loss was Brescia’s gain. Undeterred by this snubbing, Baggio would again register double figures for goals in 2002/03, with Brescia ending in ninth. One of these strikes is described by the man himself as the finest goal he ever scored.
Receiving the ball in the centre of the pitch after a run by Stephen Appiah, Baggio flicked it into the path of a chasing Luca Toni. The strapping centre-forward managed to hold the ball up, poking back for Baggio on the edge of the box. Without so much as breaking stride, the 36-year-old proceeded to lift a quite ridiculous chip over Massimo Taibi, the ball arcing under the crossbar in a moment of beauty. An artist was at work.
The final campaign of Baggio’s Indian Summer in Lombardy was to end with Brescia in mid-table. During this season he would score his 200th Serie A goal, a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw at Parma. Managing to jink his way through four defenders, Baggio rolled it in with his left foot past the outstretched arms of Sébastien Frey. The rest of his teammates removed their shirts in tribute, while the entirety of the Stadio Ennio Tardini arose in appreciation.
His final strike for i Rondinelle came a few weeks later, in his last match at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti. The winner in a 2-1 victory over Lazio, Baggio received a cutback before selling Fernando Couto a dummy and curling inside Angelo Peruzzi’s far post. In a celebration reminiscent of Eric Cantona, Baggio simply stood with his arms aloft, saluting the crowd who for the past four years had given so much back to him.
The significance of Baggio to residents of the industrial town cannot be overstated. Despite only playing for four seasons at Brescia, he is the club’s all-time leading scorer in Serie A, with 45 strikes to his name. A testament to his significance, the number 10 shirt he vacated upon leaving the San Siro pitch in May 2004 has remained unoccupied, retired in tribute to his monumental impact.
This could be clearly seen during his absence the following season. Brescia failed to last one year in Serie A without their Divine Ponytail, being relegated back to a Serie B in which they have remained ever since. That time has featured several further relegation scares, with only the complicated off-field calcio cocktail of bankruptcy and scandal saving them.
In the career of Roberto Baggio, Brescia stands as one of his highlights. Unlike during his spells with Le Sette Sorelle – the seven sisters of Italian football – he was given the unrestrained respect his talent deserved. He might have arrived with his hair greying from his 1990s heyday, but with the talent still there, Baggio was to prove age is no obstacle to legend.
By James Kelly @jkell403