Remembering Dino, the other Baggio

Remembering Dino, the other Baggio

As featured on Guardian Sport

It is 23 June and USA 94 is nearly a week old. If you happened to miss the Italy versus Norway match and, as one did in those days, checked Ceefax to see the headline ‘Baggio heads winner’, you might reasonably have assumed that Roberto Baggio had saved Italy from a surprising early exit from the World Cup. Italy’s talisman and creator-in-chief was the planet’s finest player, having won the Ballon d’Or the previous December and scored 17 league goals for Juventus in the season before the tournament.

Ray Houghton’s winner for the Republic of Ireland in the opening match of Group E meant Arrigo Sacchi’s team had no alternative but to win their second game against the dull but resolute Norway. In the 68th minute, Italy, who had been reduced to ten men earlier in the match, were awarded a free-kick on the left-hand side of the pitch. Beppe Signori, with his pint-sized left foot, whipped a glorious ball into the box and onto the head of the onrushing Baggio. He guided the ball past Erik Thorstvedt to give Italy the lead and eventually the victory.

Yet it wasn’t the ponytailed genius who took the headlines this time. It was the other Baggio; the unheralded yet gifted central midfielder, Dino.

Born in July 1971 in Camposampiero, a small town in the province of Padova, Dino had the misfortune to be born in the same generation as Roberto; only four years separate the pair. They played in different positions and their physical statures couldn’t have been more contrasting – Dino was a tall, robust midfielder with short, cropped hair while Roberto was a small, timid, tortured-genius that sported a ponytail with beads at the tip – but Dino would spend a career playing in the shade of the trequartista, purely because they shared a surname.

Search for Dino Baggio in Google and one of the results that crops up is “Dino Baggio, Roberto Baggio’s brother”. Mention the name Baggio to most football fans and Dino will not be the player who comes to mind.

Dino and Gianluigi Lentini were products of the Torino primavera system in the 1980s, with Baggio making his debut for the newly-promoted club against Lazio in September 1990 at the tender age of 19. Under the guidance of Emiliano Mondonico, who had just arrived at the club after a successful stint with Atalanta, the club and Baggio would enjoy a fruitful season. Torino finished in fifth in Serie A, qualifying for the UEFA Cup, with Baggio playing in 25 games and scoring two goals. In a league that did not always give young players a chance, Dino’s first season in Serie A was a resounding success.

It was to be his only season with Toro as city neighbours Juventus recognised his talent and bought him in the summer of 1991, only for the midfielder to be immediately sent out on loan to Internazionale for the 1991/92 season. He produced another solid season, playing 27 times and gaining valuable experience playing alongside Lothar Matthäus and Nicola Berti.

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In 1992, Baggio returned to the black and white half of Turin, where he was to compete for a starting place alongside new signings David Platt and Andreas Möller. Juventus, now hailing two Baggios in their starting XI, had a stellar season. Dino, particularly, was a revelation in central midfield. Not initially accepted by the fans due to his Torino past, he won over the sceptics with some fine performances, especially in the UEFA Cup.

In six European appearances he scored five times, including three goals over the course of the two-legged final against Borussia Dortmund. With Roberto scoring twice, the Baggio boys annihilated the Germans 6-1, the highest ever aggregate scoreline in the final. Dino picked up the first winner’s medal of his career. The less famous Baggio was still largely unknown outside of the peninsula, especially in those pre-internet, pre-every-league-is-on-TV days. USA 94 would change all that.

Having made his debut for the national team in 1991 under Arrigo Sacchi, Baggio had become a regular fixture in the Azzurri setup, however as the 1994 World Cup loomed, many felt he did not deserve a place in the squad. He was injured for portions of the 1993/94 campaign and couldn’t replicate his form of the previous season.

Sacchi always cherished players with Dino’s qualities – a strong work ethic combined with a keen sense of collective solidarity – and had no doubts that he deserved to be in the starting XI. Baggio had scored three times during the qualifying campaign, including the crucial goal against Portugal that guaranteed Italy safe passage to the tournament as group winners. “People didn’t believe in Dino Baggio,” said Sacchi. “He has silenced a lot of them. Now, he has become a major weapon for us.”

Italy’s World Cup could almost be divided into two parts, each named after a Baggio, with each player claiming a section. The passing of time has dictated that Roberto carried Italy to the final from the start, but that isn’t true. The group stages firmly belonged to Dino as Roberto struggled to overcome an Achilles injury. Who can forget the infamous scene against Norway when Sacchi decided to substitute the number 10 when Gianluca Pagliuca was dismissed in the 19th minute? “He’s gone mad!” said Roberto in disbelief as he trudged off the pitch. The World Player of the Year was not performing, but Dino was, and Italy made it into the last 16. Just.

The knockout stages belonged to Roberto as he almost single-handedly won Italy the World Cup with a series of virtuoso displays in what surely would have gone down as the best one-man show since Diego Maradona at Mexico 86. Dino also made vital contributions, clearing the ball off the line against Nigeria with the Africans 1–0 ahead, and scoring a stunning, dipping 25-yard piledriver against Spain in the quarter-finals. The Baggios had guided Italy to another World Cup final.

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Despite his glowing performances throughout the tournament, Dino was still referred to as “the other Baggio” or “Baggio II” by the media. In an interview on the eve of the final he showed rumblings of discontent about sharing a surname with one of the world’s most famous footballers: “For years, no one knows who I am, and then after few World Cup games, everyone says I am the other Baggio. By the end, maybe I’ll show everyone I have a first name and last name.”

When Italy returned home after the heartbreaking loss against Brazil, being the lesser-known Baggio had its benefits. Roberto was the sacrificial lamb for the Italian media, while Dino returned home as one of Italy’s standout performers and his stock raised considerably.

During the early stages of USA 94, Parma entered talks with Juventus over signing Baggio. Dino initially refused to entertain the idea of moving. As a result, in a move that could have radically altered the history of both clubs, Parma turned their attention to a promising youngster called Alessandro Del Piero, who was just a bushy-haired 19-year-old at the time.

With club and player both in agreement over the move and the deal going so far as the paperwork being submitted to the league, Baggio suddenly had a change of heart. He had held talks with the new Juventus regime and soon understood that the move to Parma would be beneficial for his career: “Going to Parma is good for me, because I want to play more,” he said. Del Piero stayed in Turin and would remain at Juventus for the next 18 years.

Over the next six years, Parma saw the best of Baggio as he seamlessly blended into a team that already contained seasoned internationals such as Néstor Sensini, Tomas Brolin, Gianfranco Zola and Faustino Asprilla. Placed in the heart of Nevio Scala’s 5-3-2 formation, Baggio hit the ground running and played a pivotal role in what ultimately be the club’s finest season.

Parma and Juventus, now with one Baggio on either side, embarked on a duel for domestic and European supremacy. The Old Lady secured a domestic double by winning the league with a 10-point margin over Parma, and then beating Dino’s side in the final of the Coppa Italia, but the two teams did battle once more in the final of the UEFA Cup, playing each other an incredible five times over May and June of 1995.

Just as he had done two years before, Dino played an instrumental part in the European competition. He scored three goals en route to the final and then scored two more in the two-legged final, scoring the only goal in the first leg and then the equaliser in the return leg that secured a 2-1 aggregate win and Parma’s second European trophy in three years. Dino had once more proven his aptitude for scoring on the big occasion, and in the process he had upstaged Roberto. Nobody has scored more goals in the history of UEFA Cup finals.

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Dino was now regarded as one of the best central midfielders in Italy, excelling in every facet of his game. He would continue his excellent form over the next few seasons in Parma’s golden era. He helped the club qualify for the Champions League after they agonisingly missed out on a historic league title by a mere two points to Juventus in 1997.

During Parma’s run to another UEFA Cup triumph in 1999, he made international headlines after being struck on the head with a knife thrown by a fan in the stands during a game against Wisła Kraków in Poland. Baggio played on for the remaining 10 minutes of the match but required five stitches after. He maintained that he was very fortunate to escape serious injury: “I turned my head a second before I was hit. If I hadn’t, I could have been struck in the face or the knife could have gone in my eye.” Parma would go on to overwhelm Marseille 3-0 in the final in Moscow, with Baggio picking up his third winner’s medal in the competition.

His continued excellence at club level transferred itself to the national side where he was a permanent fixture in midfield for the rest of the decade. Coincidentally, both Baggios’ careers would end in 1999 (if you discard Roberto’s swansong friendly against Spain in 2004). Italy’s Euro 2000 squad contained neither man for the first time since Euro 88; Dino made the provisional squad but was eventually cut by Dino Zoff.

Injuries were beginning to hamper the midfielder’s dynamism and his love affair with Parma ended in 2000, when he was sold to Lazio. He was used sparingly in Rome and found it difficult to hold down a first-team place in a squad that contained Juan Sebastián Verón, Diego Simeone and Dejan Stanković.

As he entered his early 30s, his career petered out with loan spells at Blackburn Rovers, Ancona and Triestina. He retired in 2005 at the age of 34. Roberto, meanwhile, retired a year earlier at the San Siro with 80,000 people chanting his name as he walked off into the sunset.

Their friendship was never affected; they hunted, skied and roomed together while team-mates at Juventus. It’s a case of bad timing for Dino when you consider that there had never been a player christened Baggio in Serie A’s long history until they both arrived on the scene. Only 1,500 of Italy’s 59 million population has the surname. That two star players rose to prominence within the same period inevitably meant that one would always live in the shadow of the other.

When discussing great Italian midfielders, even within the confines of the 1990s, Dino Baggio is frequently overlooked, yet when evaluating his career and achievements, he clearly warrants a consideration. Had he been born a decade later perhaps his talents would have gained more appreciation and, even though he won more caps for his country than his namesake, he will forever live in the ponytailed shadow of Roberto and be known as “the other Baggio”.

By Emmet Gates @EmmetGates

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