World Football

1990 – A Career Defining Year in Italy For Roberto Baggio

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The ’80s were an exciting time across many parts of the world and Italy had its share of fun, excess and luxury. With the designers and styles drawn to Milan, the museums and art galleries full and the country was now one based on modern industry and as well as style and panache. What seemed from the outside as being an unlimited period of economic growth was brought back to reality in the early ’90s.

The Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”) was a nationwide judicial investigation into political corruption that uncovered a vast network of deep-rooted corruption in the countries politics which led to a rather depressing decade for many Italians.

The 1990 World Cup gave a brief and exciting distraction to the issues surrounding Italian politics. For Roberto Baggio, the start of the decade was also an intense and exciting period of his career. There were 2 major landmarks in Baggio’s career in 1990, his first World Cup, and his world-record move to Juventus.

From Florence to Turin

As the 1989/90 season was coming to an end, Roberto Baggio was nearing his final moments in a Fiorentina shirt. Las Violas were battling relegation in Serie A though Baggio managed to convert 17 goals for his side, finishing second-highest scorer in the league behind Marco Van Basten of AC Milan and one more than Napoli’s Diego Maradona.  All this while his side finished just one point clear of relegation, though with Baggio’s help were the seventh-highest goal scorers in Serie A. 

As the season closed, Baggio was to break the world transfer record by joining the Turin based club who Fiorentina had been defeated by in the UEFA Cup Final. Signed for £8 million he was given the number 10 shirt, formerly of Michel Platini. His departure from Fiorentina caused outrage and public order incidents from jilted Las Violas supporters who surrounded the Fiorentina club offices in protest. 

Having honoured the deal they struck days before Baggio tore his cruciate ligament, Fiorentina had ensured he received the best treatment available. He even relapsed and needed 220 stitches to repair his knee. But to the Fiorentina supporters, he has committed the ultimate betrayal by turning his back on the club that had given him everything. Baggio’s only response to them was that he was compelled to accept the transfer. With Fiorentina struggling financially, Baggio had to leave when they received such an offer, knowing he did what he could for the club, even if the fans did not see it the same way.

As the summer approached Italia 90 brought us Gazza’s tears, Roger Milla dancing in the corner, Pavarotti bringing our emotions to boiling point with Nessun Dorma while Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillachi took the headlines for the Italian side who eventually lost out in the semi-final to Argentina on penalties. For Baggio, this was his first experience of a World Cup having broken into the national team in 1988.  The curly-haired 23-year-old was the subject of mass debate amongst Italians as to whether the young starlet was the player to bring the Azzurri success.

Italia ’90

Azeglio Vicini was the man with the weight of the nation on his shoulders and when it came to his starting 11, he went with experience over the football romantics. Gianluca Vialli and Andrea Carnevale were the forwards selected for the first match with Austria, a 1-0 victory for the host nation in which Baggio was left to watch from the sidelines.

A further 1-0 victory over the USA saw Italy take two wins from two and saw Baggio once again take his place on the sidelines. Without a minute on the field, Vicini seemed reluctant to use the 8 million pound man and using Toto Schillaci from the bench instead.

Defensively, as was expected going into the competition, the Italians were performing splendidly. Zenga was a time merely a spectator, with his teammates controlling possession but struggling to find the cutting edge required of a team aiming to be champions.

It was the third group match with gave Baggio his moment. Having already sealed qualification with their 1-0 victories, they had failed to excite and entertain their fans, especially given the expectation of Italy to have come away with more convincing wins. Italy faced Czechoslovakia in the third match in a game which would decide which nation would go through as group winners and group runners up. Knowing that the runner up would face either Germany or Netherlands in the quarter-finals, it was important for Italy to ensure they topped the group. This was on top of a nation expecting a strong and exciting performance from its side.

Vialli was injured and Carnevalle had failed to shine, leaving changes to be made in the front line for Vicini. Schillachi had shown his value from the bench and was deserving of a start, he would be partnered by Baggio, with a nation brimming with excitement to see if he would be the man to kick start Italy’s attack. All of which meant that the pressure would rest heavily on the young man’s shoulders, stepping out at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. 

Italy started brightly and Baggio would be found in pockets of space, bringing teammates in to play and causing confusion in the Czechoslovakian defence, not knowing whether to follow him or maintain their positions.

After 10 minutes Schilachi got the Azzurri an important early lead, reacting quickest from a Guiseppe Giannini volley from outside the box and heading in past the Czechoslovakian goalkeeper from within the six-yard box.  The pressure eased and the Italians were able to move the ball quickly and cleverly and take control of the game in these early stages. Baggio linking well with Nicola Berti moments after the first goal, with a quick one-two pass he put Berti though into the box although his cross was agonisingly out of the reach of Schillachi in the middle.

Baggio had opportunities in the first half, bringing down a cross in on the edge of the box, his left foot strike was saved well by Jan Stejskal, he later went through one on one with the Stejskal but his shot was too close to keeper’s body.   He was heavily involved in most of the Italian attacks, being found in and around the box, his link up play showed why Italian fans had been eager to see him on the field. Creating opportunities for others, he was a thorn in the side to the Czechoslovakian defence and was bringing the best out of his teammates around him. This was the Italy the fans wanted to see, though they needed to start converting their chances.

Czechoslovakia had a free kick on the edge of the box in the final stages of the first half, which thankfully for the Azzurri was staright in to the arms of Walter Zenga. They continued their forays forward in the second half, Jozef Chovanec testing Zenga from range and the Italian stopper was forced to tip the ball over while retreating backwards.

Italy went on the attack again and Schillachi could have won his side a penalty, before being harshly adjudged to have dived, and then going through one on one with Stejskal he again was unable to convert. Baggio then started to grow in to the second half, starting an attack which led to a goal line clearance from an incisive break and shot from Giannini.

20 minutes into the second half the Czechoslovakians thought they had levelled the game and Italian supporters sunk to their seats as substitute Stanislav Griga headed in from close range only to see the linesman’s flag raised, though replays showed him to be perfectly on side; a real gift from gods to the Azzurri.

Nerves filled the Stadio Olimpico as players, Vicini and every Italian watching knew a one goal lead was not enough, they needed their stars to take control of the game.

Schillachi’s busy energy was a continual threat and his cross was met by an acrobatic volley from Baggio which was then turned in by Berti, though the officials saw the use of a hand and Berti was shown the yellow card. Desperation and frustration could be seen on the faces of the men in blue, with the pressure and expectation coming through from the crowd they needed to find a second goal.

Then stepped forward the Baggio, as the game entered the 78th-minute Giannni collected the ball in the Italian half and immediately looked for Baggio on the halfway line on the left side of the pitch. Baggio returned the pass and moves past his marker, he can now see a route to the goal and begins to carry the ball forward. Baggio glided towards Stejskal’s goal, weaving past the lunging Ivan Hasek and approaching the edge of the penalty box.

Miroslav Kadlec looked to close him down as he entered the eighteen-yard box, but the shimmy and the faint from Baggio sent Kadlec spinning and Baggio had the ball on his right foot, stroking the ball into the bottom corner after sending Stejskal the wrong way.

It was a beautiful goal that sparked the emotions of everyone, minus any Czechoslovakian supports, a goal that truly set the completion alight. Finished with such class and grace, Baggio showed the qualities which made him adored by Fiorentina and why Juventus had done everything they could to sign him.

His celebration almost depicted the pressure leaving his shoulders as he goes to slide to his knees, only to collapse on his back, arms wide across the grass, breathing in every moment and emotion. The goal the nation wanted from the man they wanted in the side, the crowd screamed and cheered uncontrollably. As Baggio scored it felt like Italy had finally arrived, the hard work was now partnered by individual brilliance that could beat anyone.

Sadly, Baggio did not have another moment like this and was replaced in a one sided second-round match against Uruguay, where once again Schillachi was the hero. He had a goal disallowed against Ireland in the quarter-finals and was then back to the bench for the semi-final. After coming on in the semi-final against Argentina Baggio did convert his spot-kick but the Azzurri were eliminated from their World Cup on penalties by Diego Maradona’s side.

Italy forward Baggio
Sport, Football, 1990 World Cup Finals, Rome, 30th June 1990, Quarter Final, Italy 1 v Republic of Ireland 0, Italy’s Roberto Baggio (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

As the World Cup ended, Baggio would go on to join his new side, Juventus, in preparations for the 1990/91 season. Having failed to make a consistent impression on his Vicini while with the national side, now was the time for him to show the consistency and quality he showed during his last season in Fiorentina. His debut certainly gave him the lift he needed and the pressure eased slightly from his record-breaking price tag.

New Surroundings with Familiar Faces

Juventus travelled to Parma for the opening fixture of 1990/91 Serie A season and came away with all three points. Baggio delivered the corner which was headed against the crossbar by Schillachi, with the rebound turned in by Nicolo Napoli for the lead in the 23rd minute. In the second half, Baggio registered his first goal for the Old Lady from the penalty spot. Parma pulled a goal back in the 88th minute but were unable to stop Baggio and Juventus from starting the season with a win.

Baggio managed to score in each of the first three games of the season, all from the penalty spot as Juventus drew their next two matches 1-1, firstly at home to Atalanta, then away at Cesana. Juve started the season unbeaten after nine matches, with five winners and four draws but it wasn’t until that ninth match that Baggio finally registered a goal from open play.

Juve went on to only lose twice in 14 games as 1990 came to a close and Baggio was still to face the journey back to Florence that awaited him the following April. Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail) had begun a new chapter as the centrepiece of the Juventus side and would continue to charm and excite football fans around the world.


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