Roberto Baggio: Owner of the greatest body feint in football history?

Football is a collective sport. However, since the inception of the Golden Ball award in 1956, football circles have started to take a greater interest in individual awards – those that celebrate the prestige of the player rather than the team.

Over the last 20 years, this interest has become an obsession, with honours at almost every level for players who have distinguished themselves. In the World Cup, you have a special Golden Ball for best performing player in the tournament, Golden Boot for top scorer and Golden Glove for the best keeper.

At the pinnacle of these individual accolades sits the title FIFA Ballon d’Or, awarded to a player deemed to be the best in the world over the previous year. Meanwhile, coaches are recognised by the FIFA World Coach of the Year.

Along with these official awards, pundits and fans now tend to create their own categories, usually designed to recognise more specific attributes or achievements, which often lead to heated debate. One such example is ‘the greatest goal scored in World Cup history’, with Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in 1986 widely cited as a prime contender. Maradona’s goal is a remarkable feat of dribbling, but interestingly, in this world of ‘made-up’ awards, no one has really paid much attention to a more specific and spectacular aspect of dribbling: the body feint.

A feint is a tricky movement made by a player in order to use his body to throw defenders off balance. A feint and a dribble are usually paired together and though both are individual skills, they constitute a key part of the collective game. In fact, beating a defender in a 1-on-1 situation is a pivotal way of creating numerical superiority for an attacking team, dismantling the opposition’s defensive compactness.

But with the modern game’s tactical trends increasingly shifting towards passing and possession-based football, feints and dribbling have become a somewhat underappreciated facet of the game. Today, truly world-class dribblers are still cherished, yet harder to come by. In the world of Italian football, they have arguably been even sparser and most have played on the flanks, such as Luigi Meroni, Franco Causio, Bruno Conti and Gianluigi Lentini.

But producing the perfect body feint to shimmy past an opponent remains one of football’s purest art forms, a kind of magic. And Italian football’s best magician was undoubtedly Roberto Baggio. His body feint was unparalleled – I would argue one of the best modern football has ever seen. And there is one particular exhibition of this skill which remains etched in the memory. I am referring to Baggio’s dribble and feint against AC Milan at San Siro back on April 17, 1993.

During that 1992/93 campaign, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus met Fabio Capello’s great Milan side, who would win three consecutive Scudetti between 1992 and 1994. But, on that day in 1993, Juventus beat the Rossoneri 3-1 and Juve’s third goal was a showstopper scored by Roby Baggio.

The goal itself involved two feints, each as devastatingly effective as the other. It was late in the game and as Milan pressed forward for an equalizer, Juve’s Andreas Moller (who had already scored two brilliant goals himself in the game) launched a counter-attack, playing a ball forward to Baggio. The Bianconeri’s no.10 received the pass on the half-way line, isolated and with his back to Milan’s goal. However, with the presence of mind that few other players possessed, Il Divin Codino identified that the pace of the pass was such that he needn’t even touch the ball to deceive an onrushing Alessandro Costacurta.

Baggio’s initial movement was towards the ball, drawing Costacurta close, only for the attacker to fake an attempt to control the ball and instead step over it, allowing the ball to run through his legs. By the time Costacurta realized he had been duped it was too late. The defender slid to the ground, but Baggio had already spun him and was now haring off towards goal.

Following this initial feint, Baggio carried the ball unopposed into the penalty box where he was met by Sebastiano Rossi and a desperate recovery run by Paolo Maldini. Calm and composed, Baggio shimmied again, this time feigning to shoot with his right foot and dragging the ball across to his left foot. Rossi was ungraciously left on his backside whilst Maldini desperately twisted and turned, never truly knowing the whereabouts of Baggio or the ball. Juve’s fantasista then completed the simplest task of them all, rolling the ball past the desperate lunge of Maldini. Magic in motion.

Baggio’s first feint, where he stepped over the ball to deceive his opponent, called to mind the body feint used by Pelé against Uruguay in 1970 World Cup. It really was an incredible piece of invention, but the difference was, Pele rounded the keeper and missed. Instead, Baggio’s feint led to a goal.

Some would also argue that the famous Johann Cruyff turn deserves the title of best feint ever. Certainly, the fact that the piece of trickery was named after Cruyff himself speaks to its popularity and fame. But, in my opinion, Baggio’s step over feint was made more impressive by the fact that he flummoxed a great defender like Costacurta without even touching the ball.

Thus, whilst the debates about individual awards will rage on and we will never find widespread consensus, my argument is this: Baggio was one of the greatest dribblers of all time and his feint against Milan on 17 April 1993 deserves to be labelled as one of the greatest ever performed.

Words by Michele Tossani: @MicheleTossani