After an incredible ’97-’98 season with Bologna which saw him bag 22 goals in Serie A, Baggio was back in demand with football’s big boys. His quality and inspiration during that campaign left it basically impossible for the then Azzurri coach, Cesare Maldini, to ignore him when selecting the squad to represent Italy at the 1998 World Cup finals in France.
It was during this summer that Baggio agreed to move on from being the main man at provincial Bologna, choosing instead to become another member of the star-studded cast already assembled at Inter Milan, as they, and amiable club president Massimo Moratti, chased major honours which had eluded them since their Serie A triumph in 1989.
Fresh after being handed the Inter number 10 shirt by its previous incumbent, Ronaldo (who in turn chose to don 9), this classic interview which was first published in October 1998’s Football Italia magazine sees Baggio looking forward to partnering O Fenomeno and Youri Djorkaeff, whilst revealing what his aims are, why he hadn’t chose to join Inter in the past, and his thoughts on his Azzurri future.
Orignally titled: Baggio – Head-to-head.
Interview taken by Dominique Antognoni.
Q: You are 32, you lived the same pressures in your career, can you give your new teammate Ronaldo some advice?
It’s not easy to give advice. Firstly, everyone reacts in his own way. Secondly, he’s very young, he’s only 22. I had great pressures, but I was older than him, more mature. He never had a holiday in the last four years. From when he was 18 he goes on without stopping. What can I say? I never collapsed because I live in a different way, you know, I’m Buddhist, I think in a different way.
Q: Ronaldo-Baggio, a fabulous couple.
Yes, but we have to demonstrate on the pitch what we’re able to do.
Q: Baggio and Djorkaeff. Can you play together?
From when I began to play football people ask such questions. Before there was Del Piero, then Savicevic, now Youri. There aren’t and there won’t be problems, I’m not here to shock Inter’s balance or to take Youri’s place. It’s important he knows that.
Q: What can Roberto Baggio give to this Inter?
More offensive play, I will have to set up chances for my teammates.
Q: Inter has not won Lo Scudetto for a long time and you’ve never won the Champions League?
It’s one of the reasons I’m here. I’m an obstinate man. If I want something I do everything I can to obtain it. I promise great dedication in everything I do and will work very hard to achieve it.
Q: What does it mean for you to be with Inter at 32?
It’s a personal fantastic conquest. A year ago, when I went to Bologna, everyone said it was a nice place to close my career. At the end I scored 22 times and I went to the World Cup. Coming here means I played well, otherwise I don’t think Moratti would have called me. Inter is the last great opportunity of my football life, at least it’s what I’m thinking now.
Q: You had the chance to arrive at Inter three years ago, but you preferred Berlusconi’s Milan?
When a person chooses something he is convinced he is acting in the best way.
Q: Then the same thing happened last winter – why didn’t you come in January?
I couldn’t leave the 25,000 Bologna supporters. I respected them too much.
Q: People are always on your side, they all love you. Why?
They’re all on my side because they know what I had to bear during my career, how many injuries I had. People are with me because I had to struggle against a lot of difficulties. That was my destiny from the beginning.
Q: The same day Inter welcomed you, in Rome the Football Federation introduced the next national team trainer, Dino Zoff. He called you up for the first game against Wales. What about your international future?
Well, I have never been to the European Championships. I hope to go to Holland and Belgium.
Q: Cesare Maldini doesn’t know how to explain the reasons for his dismissal. What do you think about it?
I can only say that I am a football player and if he can’t explain the reasons how can I?
Q: What did the World Cup mean to you?
Really a great personal victory. I deeply believed in my possibility of returning to the national team. At the end I was the only one who still believed in this fact and I managed it. I arrived in France without any intention of creating problems. I knew the place among the first eleven was Del Piero’s. Then there was a chain of favourable episodes for me and negative for Alex.
Q: There’s always talk about a rivalry between you and Alex.
Not true. Nobody was able to put us one against the other. Between us there’s only respect not rivalry.
Q: When you scored that penalty kick [against Chile] did you think people forgave you for the one you missed in the USA?
I forgave myself, surely. I hope supporters did the same.
Q: What about your link-up with Christian Vieri?
People think that Vieri is great only because he is very strong. But he has fantastic feet and he’s tactically very intelligent.
Q: When you scored in France, against Chile and Austria, you became the first Italian to score in three World Cup finals – twice in 1990, five times in 1994 and twice more in France.
I would have liked to have overtaken Paolo Rossi who also scored nine times in world championships like me. Now I hope to overcome Gigi Riva’s record of 35 Italy goals – I’ve scored 26 times going into this season.
Q: You lost at the quarter-final stage to the hosts so your dreams broke into pieces.
It’s the third time we’ve lost on penalties, I won’t go to the next world championships even if they call me. Anyway, life goes on. And when you give your maximum you cannot have regrets.
Q: Everyone is convinced that if you had gone on earlier against France the result would have been different.
After the match everyone can say what they want. What would have happened if Del Piero had scored? Then they all would talk about Del Piero, the hero.
Q: Del Piero failed.
Del Piero needed only one goal in order to open up himself. It was the same for me in the USA four years ago. Everything seemed very difficult to me, then I scored against Nigeria. His career won’t stop in Paris, he can go on.
Q: Del Piero never plays very well with the national team. How can you explain this?
A world championship is a unique event, there are so many pressures, it’s not easy to realise you have so many eyes on you.
Q: Alex failed in the Champions League final for Juventus too.
You can’t always reach everything.
Q: What did you say to Luigi Di Biaggio at the end of the match after his penalty miss?
I’m really sorry for him, I think he’s feeling exactly like me when I missed against Brazil four years ago. The difference was that my miss came in the final. I told him: ‘You must be proud for having the courage to take kick after 120 minutes of struggle.’ He’s a great man.
Q: It was hard to see a great player like you to accept being a reserve.
When they called me back into the national team in the summer I knew that was a possibility. I prepared myself as if I was one of the first eleven players. This is the secret – to be ready when they call you and say it’s your moment to play.
At the same time, Ronaldo was asked how he felt about the prospects of playing alongside Baggio for Inter. Here’s what the Brazilian had to say on his new teammate.
Q: There will be Baggio near you [on the pitch], are you happy?
How can it be otherwise? He’s fantastic. You know that I have always played with many great footballers, but nobody is like him, so clever, such a good person and such strong player.
Q: So you like the way he plays, even though you wanted De La Pena near you?
Yes, I would have liked to have my old Barcelona teammate, but now there is Baggio, the greatest of all players. He not only makes assists but he also scores – wonderful..