It’s two weeks before the start of the 2000/01 Serie A season, and Roberto Baggio is club-less and training alone in Caldogno, his quaint home-town to the north of Vicenza.
Baggio, then 33-years-old, had left Inter at the end of the previous season following a bitter, and very public, feud with coach Marcello Lippi. As the humid Venetian summer gave way to a more palatable autumn breeze, there was a very real chance that the season would start without the 1993 Ballon d’Or winner; a misunderstood genius pushed to the margins of the Italian game. Then his phone rang.
“Hello Roberto, I’m Mazzone,” said the voice on the other side of the phone. The Mazzone of course being Carlo Mazzone, the wily old sage of Italian coaches who had just taken over at Brescia following their promotion to Serie A.
Mazzone had a daily ritual of reading the Italian sports papers from cover to cover, and was incredulous to learn that, according to Il Corriere dello Sport, Baggio was considering a move to Reggina. Mazzone sprang into action. According to his autobiography, Mazzone and Baggio had a friend in common; Mazzone rang the friend and wasted no time in demanding Baggio’s number. “I dialled the number faster than it took him to say it,” recalled Mazzone.
Baggio was taken by surprise. According to Mazzone, he hesitated. “Hello mister, but is it really you?” Came the response. “Yes, it’s really me, Carlo Mazzone. I’ve read in the newspaper that you are going to Reggina, is this true?” Quizzed Mazzone. “There is some truth,” replied Baggio.
Mazzone, never one to mince words, got straight to the point: “why don’t you come to Brescia, and you can stay closer to your home?” He then got in his car and drove over to the house of club owner Luigi Corioni to sell him on the idea. The turning point came when Corioni’s wife, Annamaria Bottazzi, overheard the conversation. “Baggio? Yes, sign him, immediately. Finally a champion after so many failures” said Bottazzi. “Now, she understands football,” added Mazzone. The deal was finalised by the end of the day.
Despite Baggio’s presence giving Brescia considerably more profile, the season didn’t get off to a good start. Brescia registered three points in their opening seven games, and didn’t earn their first win until match-day eight, when they – ironically enough – beat Reggina. Baggio had yet to score and, just before Christmas, was forced to come off in a league match against Lecce after jarring his knee whilst putting full force into a volley. He was ruled out for two months.
He returned in late February in an away game against one of his now-many former clubs, Fiorentina, scoring twice. If his first goal for Brescia was so un-Baggio like, a scruffy toe-poke from a yard out, then his second was more in synch with his back catalogue. Fiorentina were 2-1 ahead by the time Baggio stepped up in the 66th minute to crash a trademark free-kick off the underside of Francesco Toldo’s crossbar to rescue a point.
The position switch that changed history
Brescia’s hopes of survival had been boosted by the January loan signing of a floppy-haired 21-year-old midfielder called Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo, a son of the city, had made his debut for the club at the end of the 1994/95 season at the tender age of 16. He subsequently won a move to Inter in the summer of 1998, but found playing time at a premium due the presence of Baggio, Youri Djorkaeff and Alvaro Recoba.
After a productive season on loan at Reggina in 1999/00, Inter recalled him. Once again he found minutes hard to come by in the general mad-house that was early ‘00s Inter, and there was a real danger of Pirlo – touted as the next in the long lineage of great Italian No.10s – becoming another unfulfilled talent.
Due to the absence of Baggio, Pirlo was utilised in his usual trequartista position, operating just behind Dario ‘Il Bisonte’ Hubner. However with Baggio returning, Mazzone wasn’t going to play with two No.10s. So he devised an ingenious solution.
“I took Pirlo aside one day in training and said: ‘Andrea, I want to improve the quality of our play, and I need you to help me. You have a good tactical sense, good feet and you know how to move. I want to change your position, you will be a playmaker in front of the defence,’” said Mazzone.
Pirlo was sceptical of the switch, according to Mazzone. “He looked at me, perplexed, before saying ‘mister, but I won’t score many goals’”. Mazzone however was convinced that the idea could work, telling Pirlo: “You are like someone who has perfect vision, but wants to cover their eyes. You must direct the play, and not play with your back to goal like an attacker.”
The switch didn’t pay immediate dividends, as even with both Baggio and Pirlo on the pitch, Brescia lost to Lazio, Roma and Atalanta, conceding seven and scoring only once. Brescia were third from bottom in the table.
Then came Juventus at the Stadio delle Alpi on April Fools’ Day.
Even without the subplots, the match sold itself: Baggio and protégé Pirlo, against Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane? Box-office. Juve, then coached by Carlo Ancelotti, were slugging it out with Roma for the Scudetto. Such was the Giallorossi’s commanding lead at the top of the table that Ancelotti knew there was no room for error.
Juve started brightly, and Del Piero rattled the post with a curling free kick. Baggio, not wanting to be upstaged by his former understudy, then tested Edwin van der Sar from distance. Zidane, having one of his better games in what would be his final few months in Italy, was being typically Zidane – probing and prodding at the Brescia defence in order to find an opening.
Gianluca Zambrotta fired Juve into the lead at the half-hour mark with a crisp volley from the edge of the area after a corner fell kindly. After the interval, Del Piero went close to a second with an impressive overhead kick that just went over the bar; Baggio, now with speckles of grey running through that iconic ponytail, then fed Pirlo down the left, who floated a cross that narrowly missed the head of Hubner. Yet as the clock ticked down, the score remained 1-0.
With four minutes left, Pirlo picked up the ball just inside his own half.
“I used to take the ball from my teammates and immediately look for Roberto, either behind or between the line of the defence,” recalled Pirlo in a 2010 interview. As Pirlo steadily encroached into the Juve half, he took the slightest of glances to see where Baggio was.
Baggio seized upon a half-hearted offside trap, ghosting in behind centre backs Ciro Ferrara and Igor Tudor. Pirlo, in his archetypical languid manner, launched a 40-yard pass in Baggio’s direction. There was now just van der Sar standing between Baggio and the goal.
“I have never really been satisfied with the easily scored goal,” Baggio told the now defunct, and much missed, official UEFA Champions League magazine in 2011. As Pirlo’s pass was dropping from the Piedmont sky, Baggio decided to elevate the difficulty level to 100. Most players, even those who operated in the same rarefied air as Baggio, would’ve likely hit the ball first time on the volley. Another probable scenario would’ve been to control the ball with the first touch, take another couple to steady themselves, and shoot.
Baggio doesn’t go for any of the above: he contorts his ankle like an elastic band in order to control and direct the ball in one ludicrously velvet touch, sending van der Sar’s 6ft 6in frame sprawling to the ground in a desperate attempt to save the ball.
The entire sequence is so fluid, so extraordinary, so flawless. There isn’t a trace of panic in Baggio’s movement as he glides past van der Sar: no hurried attempt to smash the ball home once he’s out of the equation. With calculating calm, Baggio waits and picks the right moment, gently stroking the ball into the net with his left foot to such a degree that it seems like Juve defender Michele Paramatti might just get to it before crossing the line. He doesn’t, of course.
Van der Sar stands motionless, hands on hips, no doubt trying to process what he’s just witnessed. There’s an argument that it’s the greatest first touch in the history of the game.
Dubbed Raffaello – after the great 16th century Renaissance artist – by legendary Juve patron Gianni Agnelli, Baggio – like all of football’s artists – imagined every pitch as a blank canvas. In a career that delivered precious little in the way of trophies, his goals became works of art: masterpieces to be rediscovered, rejoiced and dissected – in articles like this – for generations. “Whenever I see the goal again, even now, I stand up and applaud him,” wrote Mazzone in his 2014 book, Un Vita in Campo (A Life on the Pitch). In an already-bulging portfolio of astonishing goals, this was something truly special; uniquely Baggio.
Whilst Baggio wasn’t fuelled by the anger that drove athletes like Diego Maradona, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Michael Jordan, he must’ve felt a huge measure of satisfaction, for two reasons: firstly, Ancelotti rejected the chance to sign him in the summer of 1997 whilst coach of Parma, believing that there was no room for Baggio in his strict 4-4-2 system (a decision Ancelotti later admitted he seriously regretted).
Secondly, despite being loved at every side he played for, Juventus were the exception. Feelings have thawed with the passage of time for Juve fans of a certain vintage, who have – rather begrudgingly – learned to appreciate him. However, there are many who’ve never forgiven Baggio for his refusal to take a penalty against Fiorentina in April 1991, and subsequently putting a Viola scarf around his neck after being thrown one by a supporter. He was whistled incessantly every time he returned to the delle Alpi for years after his departure from the club in 1995.
The match finished 1-1. The draw, combined with Roma’s 3-1 win against Verona, meant the Giallorossi’s lead at the top of the table was extended to nine points. Whilst Juve would later claw the deficit back to five, and later two, the gap always seemed insurmountable. Their confidence was gone. Mazzone believes Baggio’s act of genius cost Juve the title.
This was Pirlo’s eureka moment, and Mazzone felt vindicated in changing his position. “I knew that afternoon that I found a phenomenon of Italian football,” he later said. Pirlo would define the regista role over the next decade, and would become Italy’s best outfield player at international level since Baggio. History has been bizarrely rewritten to associate Pirlo’s repositioning occurring under Ancelotti at Milan, where he would go after his loan spell at Brescia finished, but the credit belongs solely to Mazzone.
Buoyed by their draw in Turin, Baggio and Brescia went on a tremendous run in the final stretch: Baggio scored seven goals in the next five games (including a hat trick against Lecce, with one directly from a corner). Brescia went unbeaten for the remaining 10 games of the season, winning six, and in the process skyrocketed up the table, going from 16th to 8th, the club’s highest ever finish.
They qualified for the Intertoto Cup, eventually losing in the final to Paris Saint-Germain. Baggio was later nominated for the 2001 Ballon d’Or, three years after his last entry and at 34, the oldest player shortlisted. He gained more votes than the likes of Gigi Buffon, Patrick Vieira, Paul Scholes, Lilian Thuram and Del Piero.
For a player that repeatedly clashed with coaches, the relationship between Baggio and Mazzone was key to Brescia’s success. Such was the instant alchemy and level of trust between the pair, that when Baggio initially signed for the club, a clause was inserted stipulating that if Mazzone was ever sacked, he would be allowed to follow suit. Mazzone stayed for three years; Baggio a year longer, before retiring in May 2004 inside an emotionally-wrought San Siro in front of 80,000 fans, which included one of Serie A’s most iconic images: the embrace with Paolo Maldini as he took his final steps as a player.
“He was the manager I had always dreamed of,” Baggio wrote in his autobiography. “Mazzone was sincere, far away from hypocrisy and the fascination with authoritarian power. He let me rediscover the joy of playing, of dribbling, to try the spectacular. My only regret is that I didn’t meet him earlier in my career.”
Mazzone returned the compliment in kind, saying: “Baggio was one of the greatest Italian players of all time. He was quiet, polite, respectful, humble. He never let his great talent weigh on anyone else. He was a friend who helped me win games on a Sunday. But as a man, he was three times greater.”
Words by: Emmet Gates. @EmmetGates