Remembering when Italy’s premier fantasista, Roberto Baggio, gave two defining 88th minute salutes to the crowd when facing Spain during his inspirational career.
Italy versus Spain; red versus blue; the Azzurri versus la Roja; aggression versus aesthetics. And for the Euro 2016 knock-out clash, it’s very much a case of perspiration versus inspiration as Spain’s team of artistic talents look to overcome Italy’s blue-collar (literally) workers.
Much was made of the Italian squad which coach Antonio Conte chose to take to France, particularly due its lack of creativity and genuine flair. The concerns reached its crescendo when Thiago Motta was inexplicably handed the revered No.10 shirt as the country’s lack of talent in that particular department was laid bare.
It wasn’t always like this for the Azzurri. Particularly when it came to facing their Iberian cousins in 1994, when a moment of inspiration by their premier player, wearing 10 on his back, defeated la roja furia.
Exhausted, battered, and almost humiliated on multiple occasions, Italy were finally on a high. They had arrived in the USA for the 1994 World Cup finals with a squad containing seven newly crowned European Cup winners from an all-conquering AC Milan side, and the current World and European Player of the Year – Roberto Baggio, yet had struggled beyond belief to make it to this stage: the quarter-finals of the tournament and facing off against perennial dark-horses, Spain.
They had come through the previous round because of one man: Baggio. The best player in the world had finally woken from his slumber just in the nick of time to become Italy’s saviour against the mightily impressive Nigeria, with the West African’s a goal up and man up in the 89th minute.
Baggio’s precision finish sent the game into extra-time, where the weight of expectation seemed to visibly lift from his shoulders. Released from his invisible shackles, Italy’s playmaker began to create with freedom, producing a delicious scoop-pass over the Nigerian defence and into the path of the onrushing Antonio Benarrivo, who was bundled over for the penalty which the No.10 dispatched. Baggio was catching fire.
It was a far cry from the player who’d arrived to fanfare, yet was anonymous in Italy’s shock defeat at the hands of the Irish in the first group game. Worse was to follow when Baggio was substituted after just 20 minutes of Italy’s next match after goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was sent-off. The decision made by coach Arrigo Sacchi left a visibly shocked No.10 mouthing “He’s gone mad!” as he trotted off the pitch.
Italy somehow survived the group stage with a healthy dose of perspiration, but when they needed it most, inspiration guided them further.
Baggio’s heroics against Nigeria also gave Italy something they hadn’t yet attained: momentum – and they continued to ride its wave as they dominated Spain during the first-half of the quarter-final, deservedly taking the lead through the other Baggio, Dino.
However, at half-time, Sacchi inexplicably chose to shuffle his pack with his team on top, removing midfield controller Demetrio Albertini in place of striker Giuseppe Signori, but deploying the substitute as a wide midfielder.
The change left Baggio isolated upfield and Italy struggling, eventually succumbing to an equaliser, courtesy of a deflected effort by the impressive Jose Luis Caminero. With Spain in the ascendency and smelling blood, all of Italy’s exhausting travails were catching up with them. They were on the ropes once more.
Cue Baggio, and another moment of inspiration ‘in the clutch’. With the Red Fury pushing for victory, Italy mustered a final counter as Signori latched onto a long pass after making a surging run from deep in midfield. Taking one for the team, the striker was clattered by on onrushing Spanish defender but managed to toe the ball into the path of Baggio, whom had peeled away unmarked. It was the one man Spain would have feared being in such a position. The man known to have ‘ice in his veins’ when through on goal.
Controlling the bouncing ball in his stride, the deftest of first touches with the outside of his right boot took him past the onrushing goalkeeper, Andoni Zubizarreta. A quick second touch pushed him wider than necessary however, making the angle to goal more difficult, particularly with a panicked Spanish defence rushing back to guard the goal line.
No matter for Baggio, or those who knew him well enough to know he’d converted from similar situations many a time in Serie A. Swiping his right leg on the run he drilled the ball home, tumbling into a backwards roll in the process. As he rose to his feet, Baggio nonchalantly blew a kiss to the delirious Italian fans in the crowd. It was the 88th minute and proved to be a match-winning salute; a farewell to Spain as they left the competition whilst Italy progressed to the final in style after an exquisite Baggio double in the semi-final.
Fast-forward 10 years and Baggio was saluting the crowd against Spain under very different circumstances but in the same minute of the match: it was a farewell salute; his farewell to international football; his farewell to the Azzurri.
In the previous 10 years, Italy had not been so kind to its most gifted son. Vilified and blamed after the penalty loss to Brazil in the ’94 final, il Divin Codino was discarded by Sacchi’s Azzurri, missing out on Euro ’96 before a change in coach and a resurgence in domestic form led to a recall just in time for World Cup ’98. Despite outperforming Alessandro Del Piero however, Baggio was overlooked for much of the tournament, and was once again left at home for Euro 2000.
2002 saw yet another resurgence and colossal public demand for the playmaker to be chosen to represent Italy for one final World Cup. Yet Giovanni Trapattoni remained steadfast in his own opinion that the aged and injury prone Baggio was too much of a risk, killing the romantic notion and breaking the nation’s heart in the process.
The old coach was not entirely made of stone however. With another Euros on the horizon in 2004 and Baggio still scoring at creating goals domestically, the public again called for his inclusion. Trapattoni resisted huge pressure once more but gave an alternative option planned for Italy’s pre-tournament friendly versus the much-fancied Spain.
I’ll tell him that if he would like to, if he feels the desire, I would call him up for one match. I would like it to be an award for an incredible career. Baggio has left a mark on an era, not only in Italy.
Agree he did – despite carrying a thigh strain – so Baggio lined up for the first time in five years wearing his iconic blue No.10 shirt as Il Canto degli Italiani belted out, one final time. The reality was Italy had decided that they could do without Baggio years ago, but in truth, those who’d since worn his 10 had merely proved to be poor imitations on the international stage.
The match held in Genoa was a sell-out, with all eyes fixed on one man. His every touch greeted by those who knew they were seeing the last of his kind; a true great from another era whose talents and full potential had never been allowed to fully flourish because of injury and resentful coaches. Yet still he’d managed to secure a place in the heart of every Azzurri fan – and beyond. A giant ‘Baggio – 10’ shirt was passed around the crowd, whilst homemade banners read ‘Grazie Roby!’, ‘No Baggio, No Party!’ and, more pertinently ‘Italy loved you, Baggino, but it also obscured and humiliated you.’
Baggio was nothing more than neat and tidy during the first-half against Spain, though one moment of brilliance earned a free-kick which resulted in the Divine Ponytail heading wide, much to the crowd’s disappointment.
For the second-half Baggio was given the captain’s armband. However a young Fernando Torres gave the visitor’s, who were clearly not interested in being a sideshow to the occasion, the lead. Italy soon levelled though, through a powerful Christian Vieri header. The main attraction coped well with his injury but was unable to conjure something special one final time to send his worshippers delirious. In an almost identical scenario to his ’94 match-winning strike, Baggio beat Spain’s keeper, Canizares, to a through-ball, but the pace and angle proved just too much this time around on his weaker left-hand side. With seven minutes to go, a trademark free-kick found the top-corner – but so did Canizares.
As the clock struck 88 minutes a signal was given: ‘Come in Number 10, your time has come.’ Walking off to a rapturous standing ovation, Baggio saluted the Azzurri crowd one final time, leaving nothing but tears, magic, memories – and true inspiration.