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The scarf landed at Roberto Baggio’s feet, stopping him in his tracks. The new star of Juventus glanced down at the purple cloth as he made his way off the pitch. To him, the scarf represented the journey he had taken to get to this point: the adversity, the challenges, the doctor saying he will never play again.
Fiorentina honoured the deal struck days before he tore his cruciate ligament, ensuring he received the best treatment when he relapsed and needed 220 stitches to repair his decimated knee. He raised the scarf in the air towards the Curva Fiesole that housed the Fiorentina tifosi, but any hope of appeasing their fury fell on deaf ears. To them, he had committed the ultimate betrayal by turning his back on a club that had believed in him, given him the opportunity to play in Serie A, and to represent his country. This was the grand return to the city he never wanted to leave and now his game was over.
He left the pitch with abuse raining down all around him, socks rolled down, shirt untucked. Tensions were high, the city was on lockdown, with the Juventus team bus receiving a police escort on their arrival at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. When the news broke that cash-strapped owner Flavio Pontello had accepted a record £8m bid from hated rivals Juventus for La Viola’s star player, riots erupted. Fifty people were injured and nine arrested.
Diego Fuser had given Fiorentina a one-goal lead much to the jubilation of the home fans, and when the opportunity arose for Juventus to get back into the game with a penalty, Baggio refused it. Normally ruthlessly efficient from the spot, Baggio suggested the goalkeeper knew him too well and would surely know where he would put the penalty. The onus fell on Gigi De Agostini to take responsibility – and he subsequently missed. Ten minutes later, Baggio was substituted, the Juventus tifosi questioning the act of refusing the penalty. He had some way to go to win over the fervent Bianconeri support.
The rift between both clubs stemmed from a head-to-head battle for the Scudetto in 1982 when dubious refereeing decisions had contributed towards the Turin side’s 20th title. They later met in the UEFA Cup final of 1990 where, once again, Juventus got the better of Fiorentina, Baggio ineffective in two of his last games in the distinct purple shirt.
Read | Baggio vs Lippi: the anatomy of an unforgettable feud between two legends at Inter
His performances on the peninsula for the national team during the home World Cup of 1990 seemingly backed up the Bianconeri’s plan to rebuild their struggling side around the man known as Il Divin Codino. Yet he was far from a guaranteed starter, his performances forcing coach Azeglio Vicini to play him. It was a recurring theme in his career.
This wasn’t the first time that a scarf had caused him problems since his arrival in Turin. At his introductory press conference there were Juventus scarves draped over the chairs and, despite much insistence from the gaggle of photographers, Baggio refused to put one around his neck. It was a gesture that didn’t go down well with the hordes of Juventini watching on as their club made Baggio the most expensive signing in world football.
Baggio was born in the small town of Caldogno, near Venice. He eschewed a career in accounting to make his debut for local side Venezia in Serie C1 when he was only 15 years old. In only his second season he netted an impressive 12 times in 29 appearances, drawing the interest of several top-flight clubs along the way. The crushing nature of a knee injury before his departure to Florence gave the softly spoken, reserved young man time to reflect. It was around this time that he converted to Buddhism, a rarity in a devoutly Catholic country such as Italy, yet this new-found faith gave him the strength to get through the most testing of times.
Juventus were in a state of flux, as a rare barren period for the Bianconeri had seen them go eight years without winning a Scudetto. Coach Luigi Maifredi had been given the task of restoring the Turin giants to their former glory after an impressive stint with Bologna, replacing club legend Dino Zoff in the dugout. Any hopes of a change in fortune were quashed in the Supercoppa Italiana, however, when a Diego Maradona-inspired Napoli destroyed Juve 5-1.
Six straight defeats resulted in a less-than-inspired seventh-place finish in Serie A alongside exits to Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup and Roma in the Coppa Italia. It left the owners with little choice. Baggio had recovered from his inauspicious start to score 14 goals in Serie A and 27 in total for the season. The fans caught a glimpse of his complete repertoire in that first season with goals coming from all over the pitch, a whipped, dipping free-kick during the game at the Camp Nou a definite highlight.
Juventus president Vittorio Chiusano fired Maifredi after only one season and La Vecchia Signora turned to a familiar face to replace him: Giovanni Trapattoni, who had previously served in the role between 1976 and 1986, where he emphatically scooped up six Scudetti, two Coppa Italia and three European Cups. During his previous spell at the club, Il Trap had the likes of Michel Platini at his disposal and his tactical approach of utilising space to the maximum was legendary.
Baggio was to be the centrepiece of his team yet there was a major obstacle in Trapattoni’s way if he was hoping to replicate his previous success. Fabio Capello’s AC Milan was a juggernaut of a side crushing anything and everything standing in their way. The Dutch triumvirate of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten was underpinned by the defensive solidity of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Mauro Tassotti.
Read | Roberto Baggio: the Brescia diaries
Any other year, 48 points from 34 games would have been enough to give you a genuine shot at the title, but this time, Juventus still managed to finish eight points behind Milan in second place as the Rossoneri went unbeaten and scored a mammoth 74 goals in a time of defensive frugality in Italy. Baggio had registered an impressive 18 goals but if Milan were to be caught, help was needed.
To challenge Capello’s behemoth, the Agnelli family splashed out on a raft of new signings. Gianluca Vialli arrived from Sampdoria for £12m along with German international Andreas Möller who joined his compatriot Jurgen Kohler at the Stadio delle Alpi. English midfielder David Platt turned down other offers to move to Turin while youngster Fabrizio Ravanelli joined from Reggiana to provide fresh impetus in attack. Baggio had been the top scorer in his previous two seasons but would be deployed deeper in response to the new arrivals.
However, Milan had resisted resting on their laurels and, with question marks over the fitness of Van Basten, they drafted in the brilliant Jean-Pierre Papin from Marseille. They also smashed the transfer record to prise Gianluigi Lentini away from Torino after a protracted chase that summer. The creative midfielder, one of calcio’s most sought-after talents, chose the Rossoneri ahead of Juve.
Baggio’s third season in Turin ended with Juventus finishing a disappointing fourth as Milan beat their city rivals to retain the title. It was Europe that would provide Il Divin Codino with his first piece of serious silverware as he inspired Juventus in the UEFA Cup – but it wasn’t enough for the passionate tifosi. The European Cup was where they demanded the club challenge but in the days of only the champions qualifying, the Milan obstacle was proving too steep to overcome.
The final of the UEFA Cup pitted Juventus against Borussia Dortmund, a club they would face consistently in European competition over the next four years. The first game of the two-legged final took place at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, where both sides were all too aware of still being in the tie when the second leg came around two weeks later.
Despite taking a second-minute lead through Michael Rummenigge – the younger brother of Karl-Heinz – Dortmund were soon pegged back when Dino Baggio worked the ball out of his feet and slotted a left-footed shot past Stefan Klos into the far corner. Four minutes later, the Bianconeri were in the lead. A deep cross found the other, unrelated, Baggio, who controlled the ball on his chest before rolling a volley past the approaching goalkeeper.
On 73 minutes, Italy’s golden boy put the tie to bed. With the ball pushed in front of him, he somehow managed at full stretch to send it across his body and into the opposite corner of the Dortmund goal, leaving Klos rooted to the spot. He jumped to his feet and roared towards the pocket of Juventus fans crammed into the capacity crowd. The return leg in Turin was a 3-0 formality, Baggio contributing two superb assists, both via the heel of his right foot. His incredible spatial awareness and panoramic view of everything going on around him was no more evident than during this game.
European glory for Juventus and 21 goals for Baggio helped furnish the now 26-year-old with the prestigious Ballon d’Or, a truly astonishing achievement as, only seven years earlier, his blossoming career was in the balance following that first knee injury. While there was no doubt that with Baggio captaining the team under the tutelage of Trapattoni the Bianconeri had improved exponentially, Milan were still unstoppable. The UEFA Cup had bought Trap time, but the pressure was mounting.
An emerging talent arrived at Juventus that year in the shape of Alessandro Del Piero. Signed from Padova, he was soon part of the first-team squad and scored a hat-trick on his full debut against Parma. He seemed to be the heir apparent to Baggio in the strict days of two strikers, so surely something would have to give if the young man from Conegliano was to continue this form.
Any season leading up to a World Cup is an important one as players aim to be in both the perfect shape and form heading into the planet’s biggest football tournament. Juventus had finished second to Milan, a 1-0 defeat at the Delle Alpi a bitter pill to swallow. The return of Trapattoni had yielded some success but the Scudetto and European Cup had eluded them. Baggio set off with the Azzurri for the USA on the back of another season as his club’s top scorer and now looked to take this form onto the world stage.
It was an unfitting end to a tournament where Baggio had dragged his country kicking and screaming into the final. Following a 1-0 defeat to Ireland in the tournament opener, Italy managed to defeat Norway in the second game with only ten men. When goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off, coach Arrigo Sacchi opted to substitute Baggio and left Giuseppe Signori to beaver away up front on his own, much to the Juventus man’s bemusement.
The knockout stages brought Baggio into his own as he singlehandedly rescued the Azzurri from exiting the competition at the hands of Nigeria and then Bulgaria. A hamstring strain left him doubtful for the final but there was no way he would miss out on the chance to lift the illustrious trophy.
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The injury plagued him in the final and, along with the searing California heat, Baggio had little left in the tank as he stepped up to take his penalty in the shootout. Usually calmness personified from the spot, this time he mustered what little strength he had left in his legs and smashed the ball over the bar. Cláudio Taffarel sank to his knees in the Brazil goal: the trophy was theirs. The picture of a forlorn Baggio, head down and hands on hips, beamed around the world.
Despite being one of three to miss spot-kicks for the Azzurri in the final, Baggio was singled out as the fall guy. Back home he looked to put his woes behind him by leading Juventus to the title, the ageing Milan side now not so imperious. A stumbling block arrived in the shape of Marcello Lippi as the club’s new coach, who immediately set about making Juventus less Baggio-dependent. The legendary tactician would be utilising the young Del Piero, and with Vialli, Ravanelli and Baggio all vying for places, the competition for the two starting spots would be red hot.
Lippi’s plans to diversify the Juventus attack away from Baggio was accelerated when, upon scoring a trademark free-kick against Padova, he succumbed to another injury. He turned to Del Piero and slowly the Bianconeri’s talisman was phased out of the side. After years of seeing his efforts come to nothing in the face of AC Milan’s domination, the shared responsibility within Lippi’s side brought the Scudetto back to Turin. It was a fitting farewell for Baggio who, upon season’s end, was offered a significant pay cut to extend his stay at the Stadio delle Alpi.
He baulked at the offer and headed for pastures new, to AC Milan no less, where, although he would win another Scudetto, injuries would begin to blight his career once more. Carlo Ancelotti declined the option of taking Baggio to Parma after a spell with Bologna so his and Lippi’s paths crossed again at Internazionale where, soon enough, Il Divin Codino was on his way out of the club. He stated he was at his most happy playing for Brescia at the end of his career, to be able to perform without the shackles of pressure at one of the top three clubs.
Baggio was seemingly the right player at the wrong time for Italian football. At his most comfortable with the ball at his feet, the 1990s were no time for individualists and the lack of trust from such managerial luminaries as Lippi, Sacchi, Ancelotti and Capello was astonishing. While they may not have fully understood the quiet, family man, whose game oozed perfectly timed passes, exquisite free-kicks, incredible movement, and a touch from the heavens, the fans appreciated his genius.
He may have ended his career with only a handful of medals but Roberto Baggio is about more than that. His ability is not measured by silverware but by moments. His time at Juventus saw a player who ruled between the lines in an era of rigid formality and an oft-misunderstood fantasista at the peak of his powers.
By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met