The date is 5 December 2011 at the historic headquarters of the FIGC, nestled in the south-eastern district of Florence. There is a ceremony in progress inside the Italian football history museum that has become an annual occurrence, but this is the inaugural event. The Italian Football Hall of Fame is conducting an evening celebrating the very best in calcio’s distinguished history.
There are six figures standing side by side posing for photographs. Visible are the unmistakable bald domes of Adriano Galliani, Pierluigi Collina and Arrigo Sacchi, and at the end of the row is the former UEFA president Michel Platini. All four are smiling as Collina and Galliani share a laugh together, yet your gaze is directed towards the two individuals sandwiched between Collina and Platini, Marcello Lippi and Roberto Baggio. The pair gaze ahead and awkwardly smile, with not even a cursory glance afforded to each other. No jovial laughter here.
One of Italy’s greatest coaches and players have a rivalry that is infamous in the annals of the game. It’s a feud that transcends the usual arguments that ensue between coaches, a wholly personal one. How did it come to this? To find out we have to go back to the summer of 1994 and Baggio’s darkest hour.
The feud didn’t begin that summer – that was to come later – but it was in Turin that they first got acquainted. Roberto Baggio had spent the summer being lambasted by the Italian media for missing that penalty in the World Cup final in Pasadena. “They wanted a lamb to slaughter and they chose me,” he would remark about the events of that torturous summer.
The Italian media seemingly contracted a collective dose of amnesia in overlooking that it was he who dragged an excruciatingly mediocre Azzurri side to the final in what was the greatest one-man display the tournament had seen since Diego Maradona eight years prior.
Marcello Lippi arrived as the new Juventus manager in the same summer from Napoli. Giovanni Trapattoni’s second spell in charge of La Vecchia Signora, up against the Terminator-like efficiency of Fabio Capello’s Milan, didn’t yield the same success as his first spell and after three years was replaced by the Paul Newman doppelgänger. Lippi promised to make Juve less “Baggio dependent” ahead of the 1994/95 season.
Lippi needn’t have worried. Baggio struggled to recover from his post-Pasadena hangover and injured himself in the process of scoring a brilliant free-kick away at Padova and would miss large chunks of the season. As is well-known by now, Baggio’s absence gave rise to a bushy-haired youngster named Alessandro Del Piero, who grabbed the proverbial brass ring with both hands and played an instrumental role in Juve’s first league title in nine years, and very nearly completed a treble, beating Parma in the Coppa Italia final before losing to the same opponents in the final of the UEFA Cup.
Baggio started when fit, and towards the end of the season slowly regained something close to his best form. He scored a stunning free-kick against Borussia Dortmund in the semi-final second leg of the UEFA Cup – arguably his finest – and single-handedly tore Parma to shreds in the league encounter that clinched the long-awaited scudetto.
Baggio’s old enemy – injuries – had played into Lippi’s hands. Del Piero’s ascension in the midst of his absence had proven not only to Lippi but also to the newly appointed Juve boardroom, the infamous triade of Luciano Moggi, Roberto Bettega and Antonio Giraudo that they could live without Il Divin Codino.
At the end of the season Baggio was told the club could no longer guarantee him an automatic place in the starting line-up and, with mounting debt, he would have to take a pay cut if he wanted to stay. Knowing full well his value as one of the best players in the world, and still only 28, Baggio baulked at their demands. Separation was inevitable.
Despite interest from heavyweights such as Real Madrid, Manchester United and other clubs like Roma and Blackburn, he signed for Milan in July 1995 after the perseverance of Silvio Berlusconi. Despite his exit from Turin, Baggio harboured no grudges against Lippi; he knew it boiled down to sporting and economic issues with the club. They even shared a hug after his sublime goal in Dortmund. Over the course of the next four years, however, the pair had little interaction.
The intervening years were not kind to Baggio. His time at Milan was mixed – he won a second consecutive Scudetto in his first season under Capello but much like in his last season at Juve, he wasn’t the main protagonist of the side. The following campaign was nothing short of disastrous, as old foe Sacchi, who only picked him two more times for Italy post-Pasadena, returned to manage the club after the sacking of Óscar Tabárez in the middle of the season. Baggio endured a miserable end to 1996/97 as he watched from the sidelines as Milan finished 11th.
Lippi’s fortunes couldn’t have contrasted more: he won the Champions League in 1996 with a fast flowing and interchangeable trident of Del Piero, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli. He recaptured and then retained the Serie A title in the following two seasons and also reached the Champions League final in both campaigns. The club’s gamble to replace Baggio with Del Piero had paid off as the latter had blossomed into a forward who struck the fear of God into every defender he came up against.
II Divin Codino meanwhile, in the summer of 1997, decided to leave Milan and again declined offers from big clubs abroad. Once more, Sir Alex Ferguson, looking for an Eric Cantona replacement, came calling and once again he was rebuffed. Barcelona also made enquiries that were similarly rejected.
Baggio, who perhaps more than any other Italian player was defined by the Azzurri shirt, knew that leaving the peninsula amounted to a death sentence in regards to playing for the national side again. He needed to be on the plane to France 98, for redemption as much as pride and prestige, and so was restricted to staying within Italy.
After Carlo Ancelotti put the brakes on a potential move to Parma – a move he later regretted – Baggio signed for Bologna where he would go on to have one of the best seasons of his career and did indeed earn his seat on the plane for the World Cup.
Following France 98, in which Baggio got his shot at redemption and regained his status as an Italian hero, he signed a two-year deal with Inter. At 31 he knew this was his last shot at a big club. The previous season had seen Inter narrowly lose out on the scudetto to Lippi’s Juve and had in its ranks one Ronaldo, who Massimo Moratti hoped would form a “dream pairing” with Baggio.
The 1998/99 season wouldn’t go down as the most memorable for Baggio or Lippi. The former picked up a series of niggling injuries that hampered his first few months at Inter but, as ever, this was mixed with moments of genius, namely his 25-minute destruction of Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage and four assists in a thrilling 5-4 classic against Roma.
Lippi, meanwhile, was on a collision course with the Juventus hierarchy. He had informed the board he wanted to leave in the summer of 1998, feeling that his cycle was over. The board refused his resignation and forced him to stay until the end of his contract in the summer of 1999. Juve started the season brightly but the injury of Del Piero in November was the beginning of the end as Lippi’s men capitulated without their star player. Lippi once again handed in his resignation letter in the aftermath of a 4-2 mauling at the hands of Parma, and this time Moggi and co. did accept.
Both clubs, who had battled it out for league supremacy in the previous campaign, would unbelievably finish seventh and eighth. Lippi agreed to take over at Inter in April ’99 ahead of the new season after a series of meetings with the Inter president.
One of Lippi’s first requirements from Moratti was the purchase of Christian Vieri from Lazio. One of his many disagreements with Juventus towards the end of his tenure was the sale of Vieri to Atlético Madrid against his wishes. Now, at a club where money was no object, he wanted the striker at all costs.
Álvaro Recoba was also brought back from his successful loan stint at Venezia, where he single-handedly kept them in the top flight. Lippi would have at his disposal arguably the finest attacking department in the history of the Italian game in the shape of Ronaldo, Baggio, Vieri, Iván Zamorano and Recoba. A quintet filled with a mixture of ingenuity, pace, power, aggression and panache. Surely he would capture the title and put the suffering of the Nerazzurri fans to rest?
According to Baggio, he and Lippi had a meeting before the season started in which Lippi made promises that there would be room for Baggio in the starting line-up – it would be he and Recoba fighting it out for the no 10 position – with Vieri and Ronaldo as the strikers. “I didn’t ask him for any special treatment in the future but only that I would have the same chance as others. At least starting out. I wanted to play and be a starter,” Baggio said. Lippi’s promise didn’t last very long.
Lippi had heard of the treacherous atmosphere inside the Inter dressing room in the months before his arrival. Moratti, who was the most trigger-happy president in Serie A at the time, cycled through four managers in 1998/99. Lippi, the newcomer, wanted to know who the influential figures were and what was being said – if anything – behind his back.
In Baggio’s 2001 autobiography A Goal in the Sky, he says that Lippi asked him to report anything he heard in the dressing room directly to him, effectively to become a mole behind the scenes. Baggio, who was always a players’ player, immediately refused, stating: “Coach, I’ll help you in all ways but don’t ask me to name any names.”
Lippi, now desperately backtracking, accused Baggio of misinterpreting what he said. “I didn’t ask you to be a spy, you misunderstood me,” Lippi quipped back, but it was too late. Baggio asserts that it was from this moment that Lippi declared war on him, and set about trying to humiliate the number 10.
Soon after the meeting, Baggio got a taste of what Lippi had in store for him. He speaks of an incident that happened during a practice match in a summer camp weeks before the season was about to commence; Baggio played an outrageous 40-yard pass into space for Vieri, who scored. Vieri then turned around and, along with Christian Panucci, applauded Baggio for the assist. Upon seeing this, Lippi exploded with rage “Vieri, Panucci, what the fuck are you doing? We’re not here to congratulate one another. We are here to work. Nobody applauds anyone here and that also applies to Mr Baggio.”
Baggio was flabbergasted: “He said it with unbelievable venom too. He was completely over the top.” The line in the sand had been drawn.
As the season started, Baggio was either in the stands or on the bench. He didn’t get onto the pitch until the end of September, and only played 111 minutes of competitive football by the winter break. He irked the ire of Lippi yet further by stating that he hadn’t “kept his promises” by giving him a chance. Lippi retorted that Baggio was indeed correct in his statement, only due to Baggio being in “poor physical condition” thus not deserving playing time.
The consequence of Baggio’s remarks would see an attempt by Lippi to further demean him. He gathered the squad around in a training session and belittled Baggio by declaring he was no longer good enough to play for Inter. The players, however, all knew that wasn’t the case, with new signing Iván Córdoba telling the Italian media: “I told him [Baggio], I don’t know why you aren’t playing, in training you are always good.”
Lippi was now going all out to provoke Baggio. In the Inter cafeteria at Appiano Gentile, the club’s training ground, he asked a waitress for some pepperoni to add flavour to his salad. The next day he again asked for the pepperoni, only this time he was denied it. “I’m sorry, I can’t give it to you, you’ll need to see the medical director,” the waitress told Baggio.
He sought out Dr. Volpi, who confirmed that from this point onwards he couldn’t eat anything at all without Lippi’s permission. Baggio laments that someone tipped Lippi off about the pepperoni and so he banned the use of the flavour. Baggio compared it to being in the marines.
Inter, at the adherence of Lippi, tried to offload him to any willing club in the January transfer window. Liverpool, Arsenal, Rangers, Spurs and Galatasaray were all interested, but Baggio stubbornly remained. Still, the desire of representing his country at Euro 2000 burned bright and he wasn’t going to give it up. Moreover, he wasn’t going to let Lippi win. It was now a matter of dignity.
“I could only get a game if an epidemic hit the team,” Baggio later wrote in his book, and an epidemic of sorts did hit the Inter locker room, particularly up front. Ronaldo injured his knee against Lecce in November, Zamorano was also on the treatment table and Vieri was suspended after getting sent off against Fiorentina.
If further evidence was needed on how much Lippi didn’t want to rely on Baggio, it could be found in the away game against Verona on 23 January 2000. Inter had signed a young Adrian Mutu at the opening of the winter window, and he got the nod up front alongside Recoba. Verona started the game strongly and took the lead through Martin Laursen in the 35th minute.
With Inter on the periphery of the title challenge and desperately trying to hang on to the coattails of Juve, Lazio and Roma, Lippi, in sheer desperation, replaced Javier Zanetti for Baggio. Recoba equalised two minutes into the second half from a Baggio assist before Recoba returned the favour, setting up Baggio for a goal as he nipped in front of his marker to turn the Uruguayan’s cross into the net. Baggio wheeled away in celebration and ferociously kicked an advertising board in frustration. It was his first goal of the season and had turned the game around. “Baggio; like a fairytale,” La Gazzetta dello Sport bellowed the following day.
In the post-game interview, Baggio denied that he had any physical ailments, clearly contradicting Lippi’s claims. “It bothers me that you say one does not play for physical problems. It’s somewhat cowardly to justify something that is not true.”
Lippi reluctantly started him in the next league game against Roma and once again the number 10 was instrumental, playing a gorgeous through ball for Vieri’s opener and later netting a sumptuous lofted chip from just inside the box.
After beating rivals Milan in the derby in early March, Inter were now within seven points of Juve in third place. Baggio was then restored to his now regular place on the bench as Inter’s title aspirations crumbled as they went on a six-game winless run and with it the recognition that Lippi’s first season had been a failure. It was almost an act of criminality to see Lippi purposely leave a genius like Baggio to rot on the bench purely out of personal spite. Now the best hope was Champions League qualification.
The last four games of the season saw Baggio start due to all of Lippi’s preferred players out injured. Ronaldo was rushed back and suffered a relapse of his knee injury in the infamous Coppa Italia final tie against Lazio and wouldn’t play again for nearly two years, while Vieri was out with a thigh injury and would miss Euro 2000 as a result.
Like all great sporting rivalries, Baggio and Lippi’s tumultuous feud reached a gripping crescendo as Inter and Parma finished the season level on points for the last Champions League spot. For Ali and Frazier it was Manilla; for Baggio and Lippi, it was Verona. A playoff was scheduled nine days later in the Stadio Bentegodi.
Before the game, Baggio and Moratti had a meeting in which the latter, who always had a soft spot for Baggio and tried to sign him when he left Juventus five years earlier, asked him to renew his contract. Baggio in no uncertain terms replied that for as long as Lippi remained at the football club, he wouldn’t. He couldn’t possibly endure another season under him. Moratti responded that if Inter lost the playoff against Parma, his adversary would be gone.
The match will live long in the memory of anyone who was fortunate enough to be present in the stadium or watched it on television. It was yet another reminder of the permanent genius that was contained within that slender frame. Lippi gave Baggio, once again sporting the games’ most distinct hairstyle, the nod up front and in the 35th minute Inter were awarded a free-kick after Lilian Thuram hacked down Benoît Cauet down on the left-hand side of the Parma half, just outside the penalty area.
The angle was tight and most imagined that Baggio would cross the ball into the box. As was mostly the case in his glittering career, he operated on a rarified level to ordinary mortals; instead of crossing it, he bent the ball over the wall and past Gianluigi Buffon, who, like the rest of us, probably expected a cross. It was pure Baggio, producing another astonishing masterpiece for the scrapbook.
Mario Stanić equalised, heading home from a corner before Baggio again took centre stage. Recoba ran towards the left side of Parma’s box, chipped a high ball into the area for Zamorano, and the Chilean headed it back out to the edge of the box where Baggio stood. The ball bounced once before he pulled back his left foot and unleashed a venomous volley that flew past the Parma stopper.
The goalscorer and creator ran away with arms around each other in a collective sense of euphoria. Never before, or arguably since, has Buffon been made to look distinctly average in a single game. Seventeen minutes after Baggio’s second it was Zamorano who added a third and coincidentally put the final nail in the coffin of the last great Parma side.
As the full-time whistle went, a mixture of players, photographers and media all swamped Baggio. It was a bittersweet moment because he knew his sublime performance had just saved Lippi’s job and sealed his own exit from Inter, but it was a show of professionalism of the highest standard from Baggio, professionalism that his manager had lacked all season. It drew parallels with the Liam Brady-Juventus situation in 1982 and a sense of irony could be found in the fact that in the most important match of the season Lippi turned to the one person he used the least – when he had other options available – because he knew Baggio would ensure his best chance of victory.
Upon their return to the dressing room, Baggio was congratulated by all of his teammates. Lippi came over to do the same but he was ignored – it was too late, the damage had already been done. Never again would they share a dressing room.
The next day, La Gazzetta dello Sport gave him a 10/10 rating, a rarity for the paper, describing his performance as “further proof of his timeless class”. In his last game for Inter, he left a hero. His contract expired five weeks later and he didn’t make Dino Zoff’s Euro 2000 squad.
Roberto Baggio was, and remains, a complex man; a Buddhist living in the most staunchly Catholic country on earth, one who hunts, a deep thinker who hated the very thought of tactical systems and is perhaps only one of two players who starred for all of the “big three” in the Italian game and is revered by all sets of supporters (Andrea Pirlo being the other).
He appeared so unrelatable yet you wallowed in his pain at Pasadena and you celebrated in his redemption in Bordeaux in 1998. He was the most famous sportsman in Italy yet was introverted and shunned the limelight. He was awarded a Peace Summit award in 2010 at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates for his endless dedication to charity work; past recipients of the award include George Clooney, Annie Lennox, Sean Penn and Bob Geldof. He wasn’t your typical footballer.
Reflecting on his feud with Lippi and disagreements with numerous coaches throughout the course of his career years later, he believed that he always had the love of the people on his side, and in an era where coaches began to think of themselves as being just as famous as their players, they couldn’t stand it. “I’ve often wondered why they really wouldn’t consider me, but I never found the real answer. Perhaps they were a bit jealous as everybody used to love me, even opposing fans. Was I stealing the show, denying them the role of protagonists they were desperately claiming for themselves? Modern football is increasingly dominated by the coaches and their narcissism.” You can’t help but feel his words were directed at Sacchi and Lippi, and to a lesser extent, Capello and Ulvieri.
In time, Baggio would patch things up with Sacchi, conceding that he was just a rigid coach who was stuck in his own methods. Upon the release of Baggio’s autobiography, Lippi denied the “mole” allegation, saying: “During my career, I’ve worked with many great players. I’ve asked them for help in handling the team because they were authentic leaders. Players of great charisma, people like Gianluca Vialli, Angelo Peruzzi, Ciro Ferrara, Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc, and Christian Vieri etc. I didn’t look to Baggio for that sort of help because I didn’t and don’t hold him in the same esteem as the players I’ve just mentioned.”
While his battles with Sacchi, Capello and Ulivieri were all on a tactical level, his feud with Lippi was personal to the core.
Karma would catch up with Lippi and he wouldn’t be long in following Baggio out of the Inter exit door. They astonishingly lost to Helsingborg in the Champions League qualifying round, with all of Baggio’s brilliance undone, and after an opening day defeat to lowly Reggina, Moratti wielded the axe on Lippi. Just three months after that wondrous night in Verona, both men were gone, and Inter wouldn’t win the Scudetto for another seven years.
By Emmet Gates @EmmetGates
With thanks to Steve Amoia (@worldfootballcm) for translating the relevant excerpts of Baggio’s autobiography