“During my career I won the World Cup, was top scorer in Serie A, won the golden boot and was the top scorer in the Bundesliga. But the real privilege was playing next to Roberto Baggio,” said Luca Toni, the lanky striker having played with The Divine Ponytail for two seasons in the earliest part of his career.
The Rondinelle were a peculiar attraction in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 1992 they famously signed a peak Gheorghe Hagi from Real Madrid, whose magical left foot graced the Stadio Mario Rigamonti for two years before he departed for Barcelona after his USA ’94 exploits.
The following years saw a heady mix of either talented youngsters (Andrea Pirlo, Daniele Bonera, Marek Hamsik) or ageing stars of yesteryear (Pep Guardiola, Florin Râducioiu, Luigi Di Biagio) line out for the Lombardy club, who have spent much of the last quarter-century yo-yoing between Serie A and B. And the 1999-00 season saw them promoted to the top division once again after a third-place finish. Several months after their promotion, they made front-page news across the country with the signing of Baggio.
Baggio was without a club following a nightmarish 1999-00 that saw his relationship with Inter manager Marcello Lippi completely dissipate. The toxic atmosphere at the club turned nasty, with public mudslinging coming from both player and manager. Baggio ironically kept Lippi in a job for the 2000-01 season after his two acts of genius in the Champions League play off-tie against Parma in Verona, yet there was little gratitude from the former Juventus coach.
Surveying the domestic scene, Baggio realised he didn’t have a lot of options. At 33 years of age he recognised Inter was probably his last big club; Lazio had stockpiled strikers over that summer and didn’t play with a conventional number ten; while Roma had bought Gabriel Batistuta, and Baggio had previous grievances with Giallorossi boss Fabio Capello. On top of all that, a return to Fiorentina was ruled out with the magnificent Rui Costa at the peak of his powers.
There were offers on the table from teams in England and Japan, where Baggio enjoyed immense popularity, however these held little consideration. His burning desire was to play in a fourth World Cup and there was an outright refusal to uproot his family for what would likely be at most a couple of years. Baggio knew he had to play regularly and stay in Serie A; leaving the peninsula during that era usually amounted to a death sentence for your international career.
Talks with Napoli broke down over wage issues before it looked like he was Reggina-bound, with their president Lillo Foti offering a deal in which Baggio could train in his hometown, Caldogno, from Monday to Wednesday and then join up with the rest of the squad on Thursdays. However one man would derail the deal: Carlo Mazzone.
The wily veteran coach confessed to flicking through a newspaper one day that summer and, upon reading that Baggio was in talks with Reggina, picking up the phone instantly to ask whether he would like to join Brescia. According to Mazzone, “Roberto’s response was ‘maybe’, so I jumped in the car and went into the office of president (Gino) Corioni and suggested that we bring Baggio to Brescia.”
Baggio signed a two-year contract, including a clause that allowed him to leave the club should Mazzone ever get sacked; such was the impression the 63 year-old made on him. “I wish I had come across Mazzone earlier in my career,” the icon would later reflect.
Baggio’s first season didn’t begin as planned, hampered as it was by niggling injuries. He didn’t register a goal for his new club until the second half of the season, scoring a trademark free kick against former side Fiorentina in a 2-2 draw.
It was a game against Juventus on April Fools’ Day that was to permanently shift not only Brescia’s season but the course of one man’s career, and it wasn’t Baggio’s. Andrea Pirlo had been brought back to his native Brescia on a six-month loan from Inter, unsurprisingly having not been utilised to the best of his talent. Up to that point in his career he’d always been deployed as a trequartista, and Baggio was one of his childhood heroes. Baggio was Brescia’s number ten in a physical and metaphoric sense, but Mazzone had an ace up his sleeve.
He decided to push Pirlo back into midfield, deciding that his slower pace and vision would be best served by becoming a regista, a role that typically requires a player to receive the ball in front of their defence and orchestrate attacks. The player was initially finding it difficult to adapt to the role and Brescia had lost their previous three games, but one moment in the match against the Bianconeri signalled his rebirth, and one of the silkiest goals you’ll ever see.
With four minutes left in the game and Juve 1-0 ahead through a Gianluca Zambrotta strike, Pirlo receives the ball inside his own half and begins to jog towards the Juve half – in that casual manner that would become so recognisable – and just as he passes the halfway line lofts a glorious ball over the top of the Juve defence. The camera naturally follows the flight of the ball and so on first viewing you can’t see what he’s seen, which is Baggio making a darting run through bewildered defenders.
“Baggio started his run behind the Juve defence and showed me where he wanted the ball to go,” said Pirlo.
The ball lands on Baggio’s foot and rather than instinctively hitting it first time, he caresses the ball with one glorious, velvet-like touch – instantly killing the pace off the ball and changing its direction simultaneously – before rounding the hapless Edwin van der Sar and slotting the ball home with his left foot. With two touches. Two.
It was vintage Baggio, creating a moment of standalone genius few footballers could even visualise, let alone perform. It was his 167th goal in Serie A and he hadn’t and wouldn’t score many better. The strike usually places high among the greatest in his vast collection, and it completed Pirlo’s transformation. “That was the day Pirlo the regista blossomed,” Mazzone said years later. “He made the ball sing.”
It’s a goal that only gets better on every viewing. To appreciate its full beauty one must witness it from the overhead angle. From Pirlo’s lofted pass to Baggio’s timely run and then the first touch. It really is all about that outrageous touch. Baggio was a painter who just so happened to be a footballer; the pitch was his blank canvas, and he painted the game with masterpieces time and again.
“It’s a goal built by Pirlo and Baggio together,” said Luigi Garlando, journalist for La Gazzetta dello Sport. “And it’s a goal you have to see time and again because it has a beautiful history behind it.” “Pirlo and Baggio are the two greatest talents Italian football has produced in the past 25 years,” Gianluigi Buffon said in an interview in 2014. It’s hard to argue against the goalkeeping great.
It was a measure of revenge for Baggio. He’d endured a tough time with the Juventus fans, who never fully embraced him after the Fiorentina scarf incident in April 1991. When he departed the club four years later some supporters protested his sale, yet he was roundly booed whenever he returned with Milan, Bologna or Inter. However, their stance has thawed over the subsequent years, acknowledging that the best period of his career came in Turin and appreciating the endless talent that was confined in those fragile legs.
Juve had been chasing Capello’s Roma for the duration of the season and this game, which ended a draw, was a serious setback in their title challenge. Under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti, the Bianconeri finished second for a consecutive season, this time by two points. Ancelotti, who famously rejected Baggio in 1997, would get sacked in the summer. Finishing second simply wasn’t an option for Juventus.
Baggio would net a further seven strikes as the season wound down, including a hat-trick away at Lecce that involved a goal straight from a corner kick. Brescia wouldn’t lose another match for the remainder of the season and would qualify for Europe via the Intertoto Cup.
“He’s the best player I ever played with,” Pep Guardiola said to Lionel Messi about his guest in April 2010, just moments after the Argentine maestro had demolished Arsenal in the Champions League with four goals. Messi enters the room to say hello, wrapped only in a towel. The guest Pep was referring to wasn’t Romário, or Ronaldo, or Rivaldo, or Hristo Stoichkov, or any of the litany of stars he shared a locker room with in his ten years at Camp Nou.
Guardiola glanced towards his guest, Baggio, and Messi nodded in approval. One genius appreciating another.
Words by Emmet Gates @EmmetGates
Emmet is a freelance football writer based in Italy. As well as The Gentleman Ultra, he has written for FourFourTwo, These Football Times and InBedWithMaradona