Roberto Baggio endured a largely frustrating two-year spell at Inter Milan, but for one magical night, everything was perfect.
On a balmy, barmy Tuesday night in May 2000, the Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi in Verona played host to winner-takes-all Champions League qualification play-off between Inter and Parma after the two teams finished level on points.
It was already a night of mixed emotions for Baggio. Before the game, he had met with club president and confidant Massimo Moratti, who urged him to renew a contract that was close to expiring.
But the Divine Ponytail was adamant that Moratti would have to make a choice: he could have Baggio or Marcelo Lippi but he couldn’t have both. Lippi may have enjoyed unparalleled success as manager of Juventus and with the Italian national team but the simple truth is that he never saw eye to eye with Baggio.
At Juve, it was Lippi who pushed for the admittedly injury-prone Baggio to be ushered out the door, a decision vindicated by the emergence of Alessandro Del Piero and the club’s subsequent success both domestically and in Europe. Baggio, by contrast, endured yet more inconsistency at AC Milan.
But things were different by the time the two reunited in the summer of 1999. By then, Baggio was back to something approaching his best.
A year-long stint at Bologna had seen him rediscover his scoring touch with 23 goals in 33 games to earn an Italy recall for the 1998 World Cup. Italy may not have lifted the trophy but Baggio left the tournament having exorcised the demons of his penalty miss at USA 94, scoring twice, including a crucial spot-kick against Chile.
Inter came calling later that summer with the offer that was simply too good to refuse. At 31, Baggio would be joining his childhood club and playing in the Champions League alongside the most exciting striker in the world at the time, Ronaldo.
It was the stuff of dreams. Yet the reality would prove a nightmare. In a single season, Inter fired four different managers while both Baggio and Ronaldo struggled with injuries.
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But Baggio still delivered moments of magic, including a brace in a 3-1 win against holders Real Madrid in the Champions League and four assists in a topsy-turvy 5-4 victory over Roma in the league.
By then Lippi had already agreed to take over the following summer, having parted ways with Juventus earlier that year. His only stipulation for joining was that Inter signed Christian Vieri in a deal that must have delighted Baggio, who had struck up a great partnership with his compatriot at the World Cup.
Yet as the season began, Baggio found himself either sitting in the stands or watching on as an unused substitute. He didn’t make an appearance until late September and by the end of December, had played just 111 minutes of competitive football.
Years later, Baggio would claim in his autobiography that Lippi excluded him after he refused to be a dressing room mole.
“He asked me to be his spy, but I refused and became the substitute of substitutes. Everything I did was wrong,” Baggio said. “He started a war with me at Inter. He criticised me for everything, even simple dribbles. He used all his power to destroy me, but he didn’t succeed.”
Though Baggio vented his frustrations to the Italian press, Lippi insisted his absence was not down to any personal grudge, but rather the Divine Ponytail’s “poor physical condition.”
Attempts were made to offload Baggio in January, but he resisted, eager not to see Lippi win.
By then Inter were already having to make do without Ronaldo, who was sidelined with a ruptured knee tendon. Still, it was only when Inter found themselves 1-0 down to lowly Verona that Lippi turned to Baggio, having preferred the inexperienced pairing of Adrian Mutu and Alvaro Recoba.
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Baggio proceeded to turn the game in Inter’s favour, setting up Recoba for the equaliser before the Uruguayan played Baggio in for his first goal of the season.
A furious celebration followed, and Baggio made his feelings abundantly clear in the post-match interview.
“It bothers me that you say one does not play for physical problems,” he said. “It’s somewhat cowardly to justify something that is not true.”
Baggio proved his point once again a week later. Picked to start against Roma, fans finally got to see a glimpse of his potent partnership with Vieri with the Divine Ponytail setting up Vieri for the opener before bagging what proved to be the winner with an inspired chip.
Most managers would have probably caved at this point and sought reconciliation with Baggio, but Lippi was not most managers. Instead, Baggio returned to the bench with Inter’s season quickly unravelling in his absence.
By the time he earned a recall down the final stretch of the season, Inter were in crisis mode. Ronaldo had been rushed back from injury and managed just six minutes before he suffered a complete rupture of the kneecap tendons that would leave him sidelined for almost two years.
Vieri, meanwhile, was laid out with a thigh injury, leaving Recoba and Mutu to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring Inter’s already disastrous season did not end in total failure.
Once again, Baggio was brought back into the fold. Once again the Divine Ponytail delivered, scoring or assisting in crucial wins over Bari, Perugia and Cagliari to set up the Champions League qualification showdown with Parma.
A team at something close to the peak of their powers, the Parma side that lined up at the Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi featured Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram and the ever-dependable duo of Dino Baggio and Diego Fuser, not to mention Hernan Crespo up front.
Before the game, when Baggio had put it to Moratti that he would leave if Lippi remained, the Inter owner made no bones about the fact the manager would be sacked if Parma won the game.
But Baggio had no intention of downing tools, even if it did suit his future at the club. Perhaps there was more to it than that. Parma had had the opportunity to sign the Divine Ponytail in the summer of 1997 but then-manager Carlo Ancelotti had blocked the deal. This game must have felt like an opportunity to show both Parma and Lippi what they had been missing.
From minute one, Baggio played like a man possessed, battling for the ball in midfield, launching pinpoint passes forward for his foil Vieri and generally dictating Inter’s attacking play.
Even so, it was the other Baggio, Dino, who came closest to opening the scoring, cutting in from the left before unleashing a strike that rattled the post on 26 minutes.
Four minutes later Inter were further rattled when Vieri collapsed clutching at the injured thigh which had kept him out of action for the preceding few weeks. His game was over but Baggio’s was just getting started.
Three minutes after Vieri went off, Inter won a free kick on the left-hand side of the pitch just outside the Parma penalty area. Positionally speaking, it appeared primed for a cross into the box. However, Baggio had other ideas.
Sensing his opportunity to seize the initiative, he curled a shot over the wall, from the tightest of angles, catching Buffon cold to give Inter the lead. A moment of inspired deception, the goal suddenly had Parma reeling and Inter on the front foot.
Parma would eventually regain their composure though, and on 70 minutes drew level through Mario Stanic, the future Chelsea misfit nodding a corner past the hapless Angelo Peruzzi.
While Baggio continued to run the show for Inter, Parma searched for a winner. In reaction, Lippi – perhaps sensing that his ageing Nerazzurri team needed to get the job done in normal time – threw on Recoba.
That proved the catalyst for Baggio’s final Inter curtain call. Running onto a ball on the left of the Parma box with just six minutes remaining, Recoba played a lofted pass into the penalty area for Vieri’s replacement, Ivan Zamorano.
The Chilean strained every sinew in his neck to nod the ball to the edge of the area where Baggio was waiting. The Divine Ponytail let it bounce once before showing breathtaking technical precision and composure to arrow a shot past Buffon.
A minute later, Baggio was subbed off, earning a standing ovation from the Inter supporters for his superhuman efforts in his farewell game.
There was still time for Zamorano, the night’s other big hero, to get in on the act with a third goal which sealed victory and some level of immortality for Baggio among Nerazzurri fans.
Baggio’s performance was also enshrined into memory by La Gazzetta dello Sport, who awarded him a 10/10 rating describing Baggio as “absolutely perfect all game.”
To put that in perspective, not even Michel Platini, Diego Maradona or Francesco Totti ever received a perfect 10 from La Gazzetta with the only previous recipient being Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Scarpi when came to the rescue of Udinese defender Gianluca Grassadonia after he suffered a heart attack.
Baggio didn’t save a life. In fact, he didn’t even save Inter’s Champions League campaign with the Nerazzurri dumped out in qualifying by Helsingborg.
Lippi lasted just one more league game, with an opening-day defeat to Reggina proving the final straw for Moratti. Unfortunately, by then Baggio had moved to Brescia after missing out on a place in Italy’s squad for Euro 2000.
Still, for 90 magical minutes, everything was perfect.