Category Archives: AC Milan

Ronaldo – A season with Barcelona.

When setting out on a path of a nascent career, it’s often sage advice to listen to the sage counsel offered by elders, those who have travelled that journey before you, meaning that following in their footsteps can become a less tortuous trek. The 1994 Brazil squad that travelled to compete in, and ultimately, lift the World Cup in the USA contained two of the finest strikers the South American country has ever produced. Carlos Alberto Parreira’s squad had the established star quality of Romário de Souza Faria, known merely as Romário, and the, as yet untapped, talent of a 17-year-old forward who would grow to outshine the squad’s star striker. His name was Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, known to the footballing world simply as Ronaldo, or O Fenômeno (“The Phenomenon”).

Six years earlier, a 19-year-old Romário had left his native country, and moved to PSV Eindhoven, enjoying five successful years in the Netherlands before Barcelona took him to Catalunya to join the Johan Cruyff ‘Dream Team’ in exchange for a £2million cheque. Now in the middle of his two-season term at the Camp Nou, legend has it that Romário advised the tyro forward, who was being courted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe to take a step into the relatively shallow end of the big pool and join PSV for a couple of seasons to establish himself before considering a dive into the deep end with one of the continent’s behemoth cubs.
The teenager followed the advice and, in the footsteps of Romário, joined the Dutch club, building a fearsome reputation in two seasons full of pulsating performances and goals galore. Despite suffering the first of what would become a series of knee injuries, a tally of 54 goals in just 58 games was evidence of a burgeoning talent.
At the end of the 1996 season, it was clear that Ronaldo’s reputation had outgrown the relatively restrictive environments of the Eredivisie. It was time to hold his nose and jump into the deep end, and there were plenty of suitors seeking his services. Leaked rumours from agents to newspapers fed the feeding frenzy as the giants of the European game circled around, and seductive whispers to the player hinted at the riches that could be garnered by this or that move. For some, the concern over that knee injury cautioned at discretion, but the incandescent light of the teenager’s talent glared brightly. Both Milan clubs and Juventus were interested, as were Manchester United, but they would be disappointed.
After leaving England following the 1990 World Cup, Bobby Robson had coached Romário for two years at PSV before moving to Portugal for a successful four-year period first with Sporting CP and then Porto, collecting trophies and developing his own reputation as an experienced and successful coach. When Cruyff’s notoriously short fuse caused a divorce between coach and club that made Kramer v Kramer appear like a love-in, Barcelona decided that they wanted fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal, to take over. The problem was that Van Gaal’s contract with Ajax prevented him taking up the post until the summer of 1997. Barça needed someone to step in for a season and keep things on the straight and narrow until Van Gaal could take over, and approached the Englishman.
Seduced by the opportunity to coach one of the greatest cubs in the world, Robson swopped Porto for Barcelona, and became the man who convinced the Blaugrana hierarchy to break the transfer world record with a £19.5million move to ensure that Ronaldo would continue to track the moves of Romário and exchange the quieter backwaters of Dutch football for the goldfish bowl experience of playing for Barcelona. With Cruyff now gone, and what was considered by many to be a low-key appointment to replace him, Barcelona were keenly aware that they needed to reassure their fans, as Robson recalled. ‘The President [Josep Lluís Núñez] said to me “’we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.’ Still a teenager and with just two seasons of European club football behind him – and suffering an injury that meant he missed all but 20 games of his second season, that risk was clear, but so was the talent, and Robson’s assessment delivered great dividends.
On 17 July 1996, in Miami, where the Brazilian squad were preparing for the Atlanta Olympic Games, accompanied by Barcelona vice President Joan Gaspart, a beaming Ronaldo with the toothy smile that would become his trademark together with the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ arms outspread goal celebration, held up a Blaugrana shirt and was presented to the Barcelona fans as their latest acquisition. Robson was delighted. As he later recalled, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player at that age have so much’. Under the Englishman, still only 19 at the time of entering the Camp Nou, Ronaldo would deliver a legendary season that no Cule, who experienced his time there, would ever forget.
Om 20 August 1996, Ronaldo first trotted into action on the Camp Nou pitch in a Trofeu Joan Gamper game against the Argentine club San Lorenzo, for a 30-minute introduction to the fans from the substitutes’ bench. The following day, another brief cameo saw him play for 20-odd minutes against Internazionale – twelve months later Ronaldo would be wearing the Nerazzurri colours of the Italian club. Barça would win both games, but the Brazilian failed to find the net in either appearance. When the at least semi-serious stuff got under way on 25 August however, and Atlético Madrid visited the Camp Nou for the first leg of the Supercopa de España, it took him just five minutes to open his goalscoring account. A second goal a minute before time ensured the club had a healthy 5-2 lead to take back to the capital for the return.
Had it been a bit of a false dawn though? Before the return, Barcelona played their first two La Liga games, away to Oviedo and then in the ‘Derby’ game at the Camp Nou against Espanyol. Again, Ronaldo drew blanks, and then missed the return game at the Vicente Calderón, where Barça locked out the aggregate win to collect their first trophy of the season. Some fans began to wonder if the hype around the new arrival had been mere promotional hubris. If goals were needed to dismiss such concerns, Ronaldo would deliver.
Across the next nine games, the first a Cup Winners Cup encounter against the Cypriots of AEK Larnaca and then eight La Liga fixtures, the Brazilian would find the back of the net 14 times, only failing to score in the home game against Tenerife and on the visit to Andalusia to face Sevilla.
In the first game following the draw with Tenerife, Ronaldo would score what was surely the goal of the season, and for many, one of the greatest goals ever seen in Spanish domestic football when the Blaugrana travelled to Galicia to face Sociedad Deportiva Compostela on 12 October. The home club is based in the city of Santiago de Compostela, where the reported tomb of Saint James provides the culmination of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James), a testing journey for Catholic pilgrims stretching from France. In this game, Ronaldo would lead the home defence on a Camino of their own, burying them with a goal worthy of adulation.
Barcelona were already two goals clear when the Brazilian bullied one of the home players out of possession around the halfway line and, despite having his shirt pulled, set off towards goal. From there, with a combination of power, determination and no little skill, he beat six more players before placing the ball into the net. As he rolled the ball home, Robson rose from the bench holding his arms in the air, then placed his hands on his head in sheer disbelief at what he had just been privileged to witness.
It was one of the Ronaldo’s two goals in that game, but a strike of rare quality and Nike, the player’s sponsors, took full advantage. Interspersed with flashes and dramatic backing track of clashing noises, the American sportswear giant produced an advert opening with the words, ‘What if you asked God to make you the best soccer player in the world? And he was listening?’ the film of Ronaldo’s goal then runs and ends simply with his name. It’s unknown how many more of the company’s items were sold on the back of the promotion, but it left an indelible mark on football, promoting the Brazilian as the image of Nike and a star of the game.
A further two goals were added the following week in the eight-goal romp against Logroñés and, on 25 October, a 3-2 win against Valencia saw Ronaldo net his first hat-trick for the club. The first goal was a herald of what so many of the striker’s goals would look like. Pace and power bursting through the Valencia back line, he closed on former Barça goalkeeper Zubizarreta ‘giving him the eyes’ left, before clipping the ball past him into the opposite corner with nonchalant confidence. Peeling away to receive the adulation of the crowd, the outstretched arms celebration was now becoming a regular feature of Barcelona games.
His second strike followed a counterattack from a Valencia corner. A headed clearance fell to Figo who controlled before drilling a 50-metre pass that found Ronaldo sprinting clear. Exquisite control, and a driving run. that denied any meaningful challenge. was finished by a drilled left-foot shot into the corner of the net. Ten minutes later, the Camp Nou rose to applaud their team and star striker from the field with a 2-0 lead and the game surely won.
Within a dozen minutes of the restart however, the scores were all square again as Valencia plundered two early goals. It was left to Ronaldo to win the game again for his team, with the best goal of the game. Barcelona had pressed for the third goal, but returning to the Camp Nou, with a combination of agility, good fortune and belligerent defiance, Zubizarreta had denied them. With 15 minutes to play, Valencia looked likely to escape with a draw, but as Ronaldo gained possession on the edge of the centre circle, such aspirations were about to be cast aside. There were four defenders between the Brazilian and Zubizarreta as he advanced with the ball at his feet. It was nowhere near enough. Striding forward, he dismissed a couple of challenges as swotting away a fly, entered the penalty area, he then opened his body and coolly slotted the winner home. Great players score great goals. Great players score important goals. Great players win games for their club. Ronaldo was, without doubt a great player. Barcelona were top of the league and numbered among their squad, La Liga’s nearest thing to a nuclear deterrent. Ronaldo’s season in Catalunya was going like a bomb.
Injury had denied Ronaldo the chance to play against Red Star in the first leg of next round of the Cup Winners Cup, but a 3-1 win had set things up nicely for the return leg six days after the victory over Valencia. A visit to Belgrade’s Rajko Mitic Stadium with a lead to protect is hardly the sort of game for an all action attacking display, and Robson would have been well content with a 1-1 draw to see the club through to the last of the competition, even with Ronaldo drawing a rare blank.
Across the next nine La Liga games though, what had looked like a mere blip, perhaps caused by sensibly defensive orientation for a difficult away leg, seemed to develop into something more serious. Ronaldo was absent for drawn games at home to Sporting de Gijón, and then away to Atleti, before returning against Real Valladolid and scoring in a 6-1 win. It would be his last goal for half-a-dozen games, including the first Clásico of the season where Robson’s team lost out 2-0 Real Madrid in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. The result would carry great significance at the end of the season, as would the game when Ronaldo finally found his shooting boots again in the home game against Hércules CF on 13 January 1997.
The Alicante-based club would be relegated at the end of the season, with a goal difference of -52, far and away the worst in the entire division, and yet were the only club to beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the entire season. Ronaldo got back on the goal trail after 15 minutes, adding to Luis Enrique’s opening goal. Defeat over one of the weakest clubs in the division looked assured with plenty more goal to come. Remarkably however, Barcelona conceded three times without reply and were beaten. Hércules were far from finished with raining on Barcelona’s parade though and would inflict even more damage later in the season. By then though, the dream of Ronaldo at Barcelona was turning into something entirely different. The defeats had damaged Barça’s league standing and they were now in third place, their lowest mark of the season. The club needed their Brazilian to start firing again. Fortunately, the goal against Hércules breached the dam.
A goal in the 2-4 win away to Real Betis was followed up by a brace in the six-goal triumph over Rayo Vallecano. It set things up nicely for a Copa del Rey tie against Real Madrid. On 30 January, the Camp Nou was packed with more than 95,000 fans as the cup competition offered an opportunity for a quick riposte to the reverse suffered against Los Blancos a few weeks earlier.
Ronaldo had already seen one shot evade visiting German goalkeeper Illgner’s stretching right hand but also slide past the far post after a driving run, when he opened the scoring on 13 minutes. A delicately placed through ball caught the Real Madrid defence square and, once clear of the back line, there was no catching the Brazilian as he easily converted to give Barcelona the lead, turning away with arms outstretched and sending the Cules into raptures of delight. After that, the game would swing this way and that as the teams struggled for the advantage. At the full-time whistle however, a tenuous 3-2 lead was all the Catalans had to take to the capital.
Before the return, a 2-2 draw against Real Oviedo saw Ronaldo score again, but the result did little to eat into the lead that Los Blancos had created at the top of the league. At least there was the satisfaction however, of completing the Copa del Rey elimination of Barcelona’s bitter rivals with a 1-1 draw at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on 6 February. That month however would prove to be a decisive period in the league season for the club.
Beginning with the draw with Oviedo on 2 February, Barcelona would play seven games up to including a shocking 4-0 defeat away to Tenerife on 1 March. In that time, they would only win twice and lose three times. Ronaldo would only score in one of those, netting a hat-trick in the 4-1 trouncing of Real Zaragoza.
The Cup Winners Cup returned after that defeat in the Canary Islands, and Ronaldo netted in the 3-1 home first leg win over the Swedish club AIK Solna. The victory heralded an uplift in for the club that would see them only lose two more games until the end of the season. It also saw the beginning of a rich vein of goals from Ronaldo.
A 3-0 victory over Compostela, victims of his ‘wonder goal’ earlier in the season, saw him score again, topping out a 3-0 win in the next La Liga game. Ronaldo had missed the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final but a 2-2 draw, away to Atlético Madrid had left Barcelona with every chance of passage to the last four of the competition. The return leg however would be one of the games of the season, and the Brazilian striker would figure prominently.
Any confidence garnered from the draw in the capital had evaporated by the 30 minutes mark, with Atléti scoring three times without reply and apparently coasting to victory. With Ronaldo in your team however, the cause is hardly ever lost. Robson took off two defenders, gambling with extra forwards and following a half-time rallying call, the comeback of the season was on track. Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored the first goal and, four minutes later the visitors’ lead was hanging by a thread when he netted again.
Milinko Pantić had scored all three of Atléti’s first-half goals and he restored a measure of the advantage just past the hour mark, to make the score 2-4. Barcelona and Ronaldo were far from done though. Figo scored their third goal on 67 minutes and the Brazilian completed his hat-trick, four minutes later to square the tie before Pizzi scored the decisive goal inside the final ten minutes to send Barcelona into the semi-finals and the Camp Nou into delirium. Robson’s substitutions and inspiring half-time talk was doubtless a key factor, but it’s doubtful if such a resurrection could have been achieved without the stunning play of Ronaldo. Any team who decided to stand toe-to-toe in a goals slugfest against a side featuring Ronaldo were always likely to end up on the wrong end of the result.
Four days after the pulsating victory, Barcelona travelled to UD Logroñés for a La Liga fixture. They would win 0-1 but, despite playing the 90 minutes of the game, Ronaldo wouldn’t score. The next run of games would show that to be a particularly unusual statistic. A Ronaldo goal on 12 minutes in the return leg against Solna in the club’s next game was enough to ease Barcelona into the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup, where they would face the Serie A club Fiorentina the following month.
Back in domestic matters another goal contributed to a 4-0 victory over Sevilla on 23 March to keep the club’s league title aspirations alive and, three days later, a brace in the 0-4 demolition of Las Palmas in the first leg of the last four encounter of the Cops del Rey all but rendered the return leg redundant. Impressively, in one of Europe’s top leagues, Ronaldo was now almost guaranteeing at least one goal per game at this crucial stage of the season. At the end of the month another strike earned a 1-1 draw in Valencia as Ronaldo’s 69th minute goal equalised Machado’s first-half goal.
Moving into April, Sporting de Gijón were given short shrift at the Camp Nou as Barcelona rattled in another four goals without reply. Ronaldo, of course, getting his regular goal per game strike. Three days later, the forward was rested as Barcelona cruised into the Copa del Rey Final firing a further three goals past a hapless Las Palmas team. The ‘rest’ was understandable as the key fixtures of the season were on the horizon. The final wouldn’t happen until the end of June. Although few suspected it at as the teams left the field after the semi-final, when the destination of the trophy was decided, Ronaldo wouldn’t be there.
The home leg against Fiorentina was closely contested and the Italians’ defence became one of the very few to deny Ronaldo a goal in a 1-1 draw. The return leg in Italy would be a severe test for the team in pursuit of European glory, with a win likely to be needed if progression to the final was to be achieved. Before the return leg though, Barcelona played out another three league fixtures. A 2-5 win over Atléti at the at the Vicente Calderón confirmed not only Barcelona’s apparent superiority over the home team, but also Ronaldo’s propensity to score against them at will as he rattled in another hat-trick. A 3-2 defeat away to Real Valladolid, the club that Ronaldo would later take over many years later, seriously dented Barcelona’s drive towards the league title, as Ronaldo scored the only goal in the 3-2 reverse. Finally, the second goal in a 2-0 home victory over Sporting de Gijón set the team up for the visit to Italy. In a game where defence was key for the Catalan club, it was of little surprise that the Brazilian’s chances to add to his fearsome tally were few and far between, but a tactical masterclass by Robson masterclass saw Barcelona over the line with a 0-2 win and passage to the Cup Winners Cup Final.
Success, of course, especially of the level that Ronaldo was delivering, can be a two-edged sword and, despite a reportedly long-term contract being agreed after the move from PSV, those clubs who had hesitated twelve months ago, where now casting envious eyes at the most valuable property in world football. Understandably, Barcelona sought to agree a new deal with the player that would tie him to the club. Negotiations began but, following the triumph in Florence, the striker would play just five more games for the club. Barcelona would win them all and, of course, he scored in a goal in each one.
A 1-3 victory over CD Extremadura began May’s fixtures, but the next game, the return Clásico was much more important, especially given the club’s league defeat in the capital earlier in the season. In a closely contested game that may have eliminated Barcelona’s title hopes had they been defeated, Ronaldo was the man to deliver at the decisive moment. Just ahead of the break, a run into the box from Figo was halted by Roberto Carlos’ crude challenge. Ronaldo’s low shot from the spot was blocked by Illgner, but when the rebound was squared back to the Brazilian, he tapped the ball into the unguarded net, before delivering his customary celebration. Surely there was no way that the cub would allow him to leave now.
Four days later, a confident Barcelona team travelled to Rotterdam to face Paris Saint-Germain in the Cup Winners Cup Final. As with so many European finals, the game was disappointing as a spectacle but, on this occasion, when presented with an opportunity from 12 yards, Ronaldo despatched the penalty and the trophy went to Catalunya.
There would be just two games remaining in Ronaldo’s season with Barça, although the club had a greater number to complete. Goals in each of a 1-3 win away to Celta Vigo and then at home to Deportivo La Coruna saw his Camp Nou race run. Contract talks that originally looked on the way to a happy conclusion had broken down and for the following season, Ronaldo would take his goals to Intetrnazionale.
Another record transfer fee, making Ronaldo only the second player in history to twice break the world transfer record, alongside Maradona, boosted Barcelona’s bank balance, but that was scant compensation to the Cules and coach Robson who also would only serve one season before Van Gaal moved in, and the Englishman was promoted upstairs.
Reflecting on his time with Ronaldo, Robson would remark that he “was marvellous …. out of this world. He was a god, absolutely fantastic. He had amazing ability, was a great young athlete … The year he had with us you could see he was going to be phenomenal. He was so strong, would go past people, come deep to get the ball, turn and whatever you put in front of him there was a chance he could always go through you. Power and skill.” From someone who knew the player better than most, it’s an apt summary of Ronaldo’s season at Barcelona.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times – Ronaldo’ magazine).

Baggio and AC Milan – The star-crossed relationship doomed to fail.

There comes a time in most players’ careers when their club sees them as surplus to requirements. Sometimes that can occur when there’s a perception that age has blunted their skills and a younger player seems to offer a better return on investment, or when there’s an apparent mismatch between the coach’s vision for the squad and the talents the player can offer. At other times, it can simply follow a fall out between player and club. On some rare occasions, it’s a combination of all three – with a little extra spice thrown in as well.

At the end of the 1994-95 season Roberto Baggio had reached that precise situation with Juventus. It had been Baggio’s fifth season living with Turin’s Old Lady, and the most decorated. He had joined Juve from Fiorentina in 1990 and collected a UEFA Cup winner’s medal in 1993, as I Bianconeri comfortably overcame Borussia Dortmund 6-1 on aggregate with Baggio netting one of the half-dozen goals. In 1994-95 however, Juve surpassed that achievement with something to spare, establishing domestic domination by securing the Italian domestic double of winning the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia. Sadly, for Baggio, despite collecting a couple of winner’s medals, his on the field contribution to the triumphs had been restricted, featuring in only 17 of the club’s Serie A games and not featuring at all in Copa Italia Final.

By now, it had become increasingly clear to Baggio that he would be unlikely to significantly figure in any success the club enjoyed moving forwards. Coach Marcello Lippi had transferred his affections to the prodigious young talent of Alessandro Del Piero, now in his major breakthrough season at the club. Across each of the previous four seasons, Baggio had featured in more than 40 of the club’s games, but the emergence of Del Piero had flattened that off to a mere 29 in the 1994-95 term, with the youngster playing in 50. At 28 years of age, Baggio was probably still in his peak years, but Del Piero was seven years younger and, from the club’s point of view, held greater long-term value. If not exactly willingly passed on, the baton had been removed from Baggio’s hand, and given to Del Piero, and the club’s domination of Italian football only emphasised the accepted wisdom of the move.

The Juventus management had already informed Baggio that the only way they would consider a new contract for him was if he agreed to a 50% cut in his salary, and a reduced role within the squad. It hardly led to cordial relations between Baggio on one side and Lippi, Luciano Moggi and Umberto Agnelli on the other. A parting of the ways was inevitable and, with the announcement from the club that the number ten shirt would be worn by Del Piero for the new season, the final nail was driven home.

If being shown the door by Juventus was inevitably an unwelcome turn in Baggio’s career, there were plenty of other suitors lined up and willing to pay the required fee to secure his services. In England, as ever, Manchester United were among the club’s linked with one of the established stars of European football. After all, this was just one season after Baggio had starred for the Azzurri on the football world’s biggest stage at the World Cup in the USA and, as the BBC’s  Stefano Bozzi stated, “single-handedly hauled Italy to the final.”

Blackburn Rovers had just secured their first league title for more than 80 years and, funded by the largesse of Jack Walker, sought to bring the Italian maestro to Ewood Park to cement their arrival in the big time.

In Spain, La Liga champions Real Madrid looked to take the player to the Bernabeu, adding Baggio to a squad already boasting the talents of Butragueño, Zamorano, Fernando Redondo, Michael Laudrup and Raul. President Ramón Mendoza was entering the final few months of his decade heading the club and delivering Baggio would have been an ideal parting gift to the Madridistas, but it wasn’t to be. Both Milan clubs were also interested and, eventually it was the persuasive pressure of Silvio Berlusconi and manager Fabio Capello that won out, with the Rossoneri agreeing a reported £6.8 million fee to take Baggio to the San Siro.

After initially struggling with early season injuries – a propensity to injury was a stick that his critics repeatedly used to beat him with as his career progressed – Baggio enjoyed a successful first period with the Milanese club and it fell to him to strike a penalty to win the game against his former team Fiorentina in the game that decided the Scudetto would be adorned with red and black ribbons for that season. Securing the title by a clear eight points from Juventus in the runners-up spot must have carried an extra level of satisfaction of Baggio. For much of the season, with George Weah as the lone striker supported by Baggio and Savićević, Milan were a potent attacking force.

In raw statistics, his seven goals in Serie A games netted during his first term in Milan hardly speak of a huge influence, but the contribution of players such as Baggio transcend mere statistics. His influence on the field and perceptive play created numerous chances for his team-mates, as is suggested by the 12 ‘official’ assists he recorded in that season. It was the highest in Serie A. Much as with the fans at Juventus, the tifosi on the Curva Sud took Baggio, their new fantasista, snaffled away from rivals in Turin, who had brought the Scudetto with him, to their hearts. As the fans in Turin must have lamented losing Baggio, he was acclaimed in Milan as the fans voted him their player of the season.

Even before the season was out however, cracks in the relationship between Baggio and Capello began to develop. The coach, who was in his last season at the San Siro before briefly moving on to Spain and Real Madrid, was the hardest of taskmasters and his strict patterns of play left little room for the flamboyant skills and ‘street football’ talents of Baggio. The Curva Sud adored him but, for a time, Capello merely tolerated him.

In such a relationship the coach, especially one with such a list of achievements with the club, would always win. As the season wore on, Baggio’s playing time became increasingly curtailed. Capello cited the old chestnut of the player having fitness issues, and being unable to perform at the required level for a full 90 minutes. It was something that Baggio contested, but without being able to change the coach’s stance. In his 28 Serie A appearances during the season, he would only play the complete 90 minutes on seven occasions. He was substituted in the second period on 16 occasions, and took to the field from the bench twice. As with Juve’s successful season when integrating Del Piero into their team ahead of Baggio, titles talk, and Capello delivering the Serie A title left little room for Baggio’s disappointments to gain ground with the club’s hierarchy.

The following season, Uruguayan coach Óscar Tabárez replaced Capello as Milan sought to build on their title success. For both club and Baggio however, the appointment heralded a difficult time. If Capello’s authoritarian ways had rubbed painfully up against Baggio’s style, the pragmatism of the new man on Milan’s bench hardly saw an improvement. The coach’s oft-referenced statement that “There is no place for poets in modern football,” hardly suggested a meeting of minds between coach and player, a situation that was played out a Baggio began the new season occupying the bench more often than not, a scenario that a perplexed Zinedine Zidane described as “something that I will never understand in my lifetime.”

Through dedication and applied determination when granted playing time however, Baggio’s ability eventually won over the coach and as the season progressed, he was increasingly deployed, either in his favoured position playing behind Wear, or less effectively shunted out to a wide position on the left flank.

In September, following their league title win the previous season, and with Baggio now settled into the starting eleven, Milan began their Champions League campaign placed in a group also comprising Porto and the Scandinavian pair of Rosenborg from Norway and Sweden’s IFK Göteborg. Strongly fancied to fill one of the top two places alongside Porto, Milan opened their campaign on 11 September at home to the Portuguese club. Despite twice taking the lead however, a late goal by Jardel gave the visitors a 2-3 win, and Milan suddenly had a mountain to climb.

Two weeks later, things looked to have improved with a 1-4 win in Norway, but Baggio had been relegated to the bench and didn’t feature. By the middle of October, when Milan lost 2-1 in Göteborg despite leading from a Weah goal, he didn’t even make the bench. Two weeks later, he came off the bench to face the same opponents with Milan holding a narrow 3-2 lead and scored the fourth goal – his first in European club football’s premier competition to steer Milan safely over the line. 

With two games remaining, away to Porto and then home to Rosenborg, avoiding defeat in Portugal and then winning against the Norwegians in the San Siro offered a surely achievable passage into the quarter-finals. A 1-1 draw against Porto, on 20 November with Baggio starting but replaced for the final dozen minutes or so looked to have seen the more difficult of the two tasks achieved. Less than two weeks later though, with domestic form falling away, the Berlusconi axe fell. In the early days of December 1996, with the club only having won eight of their first 22 games, the president decided that the Uruguayan was not up to the task of replacing Capello, and moved to secure the services of previous coach, and the man who led the Azzurri into the World Cup in 1994, Arrigo Sacchi.

To outsiders, the prospect of reuniting Baggio with the coach of the Italian team that he had starred in during the tournament in the USA looked an exciting proposition. As with so many of his coaches however, Baggio had experienced an uneasy relationship with the national team’s coach, and their relationship had been often tepid, and occasionally frosty.

The situation at the San Siro however, demanded a reconciliation for the good of all concerned and the new coach sought to exploit the potential of Baggio offering him both encouragement and playing time. The ploy faltered however. Perhaps due to the inconsistent and differing coaching and tactical requirements of playing under three different coaches in eight months or so, a loss of form, or the general malaise sweeping through the squad, the magic in Baggio’s boots dimmed and Milan’s season deteriorated.

Sacchi’s first game was the decisive group encounter against Rosenborg. Strong favourites to win and qualify, the new coach started with Baggio in the team. At half-time however, with only a last-minute equaliser from Dugarry getting Milan into the dressing room on level terms, Sacchi withdrew Baggio in favour of Marco Simeone. It was to little avail however as a 70th minute strike by Vergard Heggem condemned the Rossoneri to a humiliating defeat, and elimination.

After winning the Scudetto the previous season, a mid-table eleventh position, elimination in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia – ironically at the hands of Baggio’s former club Fiorentina as the player sat frustratingly on the bench – and a chastening experience in Europe was a shuddering disappointment, and something not to be tolerated by the eternally demanding and impatient Berlusconi. 

The summer saw not only the end of Sacchi’s brief return spell and Capello’s return to the San Siro, but also the exit of Baggio. Never truly convinced of Baggio’s worth to any squad organised along the lines that he insisted his team’s follow, Capello declared that the player would not be part of his plans for the new season. It was time to move on.

Baggio’s initial choice was a move to Parma but, as was becoming a recurring theme in his career, the Parma coach, Carlo Ancelotti persuaded the club not to pursue the transfer as he felt the player would not fit into his tactical planning, then set as a rigid 4-4-2. It was a decision he would later admit to regretting, but at the time, it eliminated Parma from Baggio’s options and instead he moved to Bologna.

In his two seasons at the San Siro Roberto Baggio would feature in 67 games for the Rossoneri, 61 of them in Serie A. He would score 19 goals, of which a dozen came in the league. He would also contribute numerous unrecorded assists and apply a creative touch to the club’s attacking play often only best appreciated by the fans on the Curva Sud, rather than the coaches sat on the bench. He collected a Serie A winner’s medal and played Champions League football for the first time in his career, and yet there remains a sense of unfulfilled destiny.

Leaving Juventus to join Milan hardly looked like a step down, something illustrated by the club’s league success during in his first season, but there surely should have been so much more to follow. So many players of outrageous talent have fallen foul of a coach’s lack of ability to integrate such magical talents into their team. Throughout his career, this scenario blighted the career of Roberto Baggio, but perhaps never more so than during his time with Milan.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Baggio’ magazine issue from These Football Times).

Bobby Robson and the almost perfect season at Barcelona.

In May 1996, Robson was enjoying the fruits of his work at Porto when he took a phone call the president of FC Barcelona. Ostensibly it was to discuss a potential transfer target from the Portuguese club, but the conversation moved on to another target that the Catalans had focused on.

At the time, the Blaugrana were a club in turmoil. A messy divorce from Johan Cruyff had left the club rudderless. The board had decided on Louis van Gaal as the man they wanted to put all the pieces back together again. At the time however, the coach was contracted to Ajax, and wouldn’t be available for another twelve months. Barcelona, a ship perilously holed and taking in water needed an experienced hand at the tiller to guide the club into safer and calmer waters before handing over to Van Gaal. They had settled on Robson as the ideal candidate. As things transpired though, the Englishman would deliver a season that bordered on being the very best in the club’s history, and convinced them to maintain his services, even after Van Gaal’s appointment, as a lifebelt that the club could use if the Dutch coach came up short.

Robson was content at Porto and, with the club’s future looking bright, there were very few jobs that could tempt him away. One would be a return to his beloved north-east and Newcastle United. That chance would arrive later. The other was to take charge of one of the continent’s iconic clubs, FC Barcelona. It was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities that he simply could not ignore. He would also take José Mourinho with him.

Many coaches, even the most experienced, would have blanched had been offered such a poisoned chalice to quench their ambitious thirst. Cruyff had achieved legendary status at the Camp Nou and was worshipped by the Cules, delivering four La Liga titles, three Supercopa de España successes, and a Copa del Rey, domestically. In Europe, he had added a Cup Winners Cup and led the club to achieve their Holy Grail of a European Cup win as well as lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup. It was the hardest of acts to follow.

Robson had no doubts however and, in his first press conference was in no mood to apologise for sitting in the seat previously occupied by the Dutchman. In firm tones, he insisted that there would be no shadow of Cruyff haunting his time as coach. ‘I am not afraid to follow him,’ he confirmed. ‘When the President of the United States leaves, they have to get another President of the United States.’ It was typical Robson, calm, honest and reassuring, but sustained by the confident belief that he would deliver.

Cruyff’s final season had been a disappointment, and one that convinced the Dutchman that the time to leave had arrived. Rows with the club’s hierarchy may have been the trigger causing the split, but the deterioration of the teams’ performances were a strong underlying cause. Third place in the league, seven points adrift of champions Atlético Madrid was hugely disappointing, although it did offer a place in the upcoming season’s Cup Winners Cup competition, an opening that Robson would seize upon. It had followed a season where second place to Real Madrid had felt so much worse. Barcelona had also fared poorly in cup competitions, losing out in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey to Radomir Antić’s Atléti as Los Colchoneros completed the domestic double, and in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The club’s squad was packed with talented players but needed a renaissance. Robson would deliver that, and bring in a player who would achieve a God-like adoration at the club.

Despite only being seen as a stop-gap appointment, Robson was not shy in venturing his opinion when the president asked about how the squad could be improved. ‘The President said to me “we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.’ He was, but it was a risk worth taking. Barcelona sent $19.5million to PSV Eindhoven and, in return, received the services of the player who earned the nickname of “El Fenomeno” – Ronaldo.  Eight months, and 47 goals in 49 games later, when Van Gaal took over from Robson, the Brazilian would also move on, joining Inter Milan. The fee of $27million also delivered a handsome profit on the club’s investment.

With the services of the Brazilian prodigy added to the Blaugrana squad, Robson got to work rebuilding the belief in the squad he inherited that had fallen short across the previous two seasons. Early evidence of the transformative effect of Robson was illustrated in August of the same year when his team hammered the previous season’s double winners 5-2 in the first leg of the Supercopa de España with the goals coming from Giovani, Pizzi, plus El Pequeño Buda, Iván de la Peña and, inevitably setting the tone for the coming season, a brace from Ronaldo. Atléti would fightback in the home leg, but their 3-1 victory was short of hauling back the deficit and Robson had his first trophy.

Cruyff had bequeathed Robson a European qualification and, in September, Barcelona set off in pursuit of the Cup Winners Cup. A hesitant opening encounter with AEK Larnaca was safely, if less than wildly convincingly, passed thanks to another two goals from Ronaldo. It took the Catalans into a meeting with Red Stat Belgrade. By now the club were delivering convincing performances and a 4-2 home win followed by a goalless draw in Belgrade was encouraging, sending the club into the last eight and a tie with Swedish club AIK.

The home leg came first and, when the visitors took an early lead inside two minutes, a test was looming for Robson’s charges. With assured serenity however, they struck back through Popescu to equalise and further strikes by Ronaldo and Pizzi meant that the goalless draw achieved in Stockholm was more than enough for a place in the semi-finals.

Alongside Barcelona, Liverpool, Fiorentina and Paris Saint-Germain made up the final four. Robson’s team were paired with the Italians, the first leg again being played at the Camp Nou. This was a much sterner test, and despite Nadal giving the Blaugrana the lead, a goal from Batistuta squared things up and gave I Viola the advantage heading to the Stadio Artemio Franchi for the return leg. To turn matters in Barcelona’s favour, facing such an uphill struggle, would require a coaching and tactical masterclass. Robson delivered one.

On 24 April, the Blaugrana produced the perfect disciplined performance to return with a 0-2 victory and progress to the final in in Rotterdam’s Feyenoord Stadion against PSG who had defeated Liverpool 3-2 on aggregate. As so often is the case in showpiece finals, the game itself failed to live up to the billing, but a penalty from Ronaldo was sufficient to take the trophy to Catalunya. Robson had two trophies out of two. After the fallow period of the last days of Cruyff’s tenure, Robson had turned Barcelona back into a strutting powerhouse of a team hungry for trophies.  

At the same time, as well as improving their league performances, things were developing nicely in the Copa del Rey. A round of Sixteen encounter had brought the club an extra El Clásico meeting with Real Madrid. The ties are played over two legs and the first game, at the Camp Nou promised success when Ronaldo gave the Blaugrana the lead. Goals by Šuker and Hierro though put a different complexion on the game before Nadal and Giovanni gave Robson’s team a fig leaf of cover to take to the Spanish capital for the return leg. It demanded another ‘Fiorentina’ performance and Robson’s team delivered with a 1-1 draw.

The next round saw a titanic battle with cup holders and reigning Spanish champions Atlético Madrid. A 2-2 draw at the Estadio Vicente Calderón appeared to give the Barcelona the edge, but the return game would go down in history as a goal glut decided the tie. With 30 minutes on the clock, the Camp Nou was subdued into stunned silence as a hat-trick from Milinko Pantić had Atléti three goals clear and apparently coasting to victory, but Robson had drilled his team well and given them an almost unshakeable belief in themselves. At the break he delivered his words of wisdom and the team responded with vigour. Five minutes before half-time, Robson had made his intentions clear. Laurent Blanc and Popescu were taken off with forwards Pizzi and Stoickov replacing them. The response was immediate.

Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored and then repeated the feat three minutes later. Inside the opening five minutes of the second period, a declaration of intent had been made. Atléti were hardly happy to roll over though and, a minute after the Brazilin had cut the gap to a single goal, Pantić hit his fourth of the night to double it again. Figo struck back on 67 minutes, and the Catalan cauldron of a stadium was at fever pitch with 20 minutes to play, as Ronaldo squared things on the night. In a basketball -like game inside the final ten minutes it was Pizzi who notched the winner. As well as his team being able to deliver disciplined away performances, Robson had shown that they could also indulge in a slug-fest with the best that Spain had to offer and still prevail.

Having defeated the previous two seasons’ champions, the Copa del Rey was now surely there for the taking, and so it proved. Las Palmas were buried under a seven-goal aggregate thumping and, in the final, 83,000 fans would see the Blaugrana twice fight back from falling behind against Real Betis with Figo hitting the winner in extra-time. It was a third trophy garnered by Robson. Strangely however, it would have been somewhat of cold comfort for the Cules. Weeks earlier, their dream of a complete whitewash of all available trophies had disappeared with a freak league defeat against a club who were already relegated at the time.

With three games left to play, Barcelona had been in pole position to become league champions and put the club in position for a clean sweep of titles. A visit to the Costa Blanca and Alicante-based club Hércules looked a fairly straightforward task. There was however a measure of discontent in the club with rumours of Ronaldo moving on to Inter becoming increasingly difficult to ignore and, the Brazilian was unavailable to Robson for the game, along with Pizzi and Giovanni. Even then though, with depleted forces, there seemed little danger – or was there?

Despite their troubled season, Hércules had already upset the Bluagrana, being the only club to visit the Camp Nou and come away with a victory. Robson was also reading the runes as despite his tremendous success the possibility of him being retained instead of Van Gaal was seemingly a lost cause. The dark clouds were gathering, although few people outside of the club recognised it.

The game itself was a bewildering occasion. After just three minutes, it seemed that form was playing out as Guardiola put Barcelona ahead and, although they couldn’t add to the lead, there seemed little danger from a team with nothing to play for. Perhaps that freedom from the weight of relegation, now a mathematical certainty however, released the Hércules players to perform and offer one last moment of glory. Shortly before the break Paquito Escudero equalised and six minutes after the restart, the unthinkable happened as Hércules went ahead, with Serbian defender Dubravko Pavlicic sliding in to divert the ball past Vítor Baía.

Robson’s team now needed two goals to maintain their advantage in the league over Real Madrid. In the following 40 minutes they laid siege to the home goal but, despite dominating the game and firing shots in from all angles and distances, the goals that had come so easily to them throughout the season – they would score 102 times in 42 league games, by far the best in the division – were now beyond their reach. At the end of the game, the club that would finish one spot from the foot of the table had completed a league double over Barcelona, and destroyed their hopes of league glory.

Real Madrid overcame Extremadura by five goals in their corresponding fixture. Barcelona’s doom was set, as Robson recognised. ‘Mathematically, we’ve still got a chance, but realistically it’s very difficult now.,’ he lamented. It was. Los Blancos efficiently wrapped up the required points and a season that offered a clean sweep of trophies had been scuppered by a relegated club whose wins over Barcelona had denied them the best season in their history.

At the end of the season, Van Gaal arrived and, in gratitude – with a thought as to whether his services may be needed again – Robson was offered an emeritus post as ‘Technical Director’. Van Gaal did well in the early years of his tenure at the Camp Nou, delivering successive league titles, but was it any better than Robson would have done? Statistics can be made to support any argument, but by the time Van Gaal left the Camp Nou, his win percentage was 55%. Robson’s had been 65%.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).

Giuseppe and Franco Baresi.

When two brothers play their home games in the same stadium, it’s probably safe to assume that any sibling rivalry is sacrificed for the greater common good of the team they represent. For Franco and Giuseppe Baresi however, such niceties are hardly applicable. The more celebrated sibling, Franco, was the iconic defender and long-time captain of AC Milan, the Rossoneri. Meanwhile, older brother Giuseppe wore the blue and black stripes of Internazionale, as a midfielder and captain for the Nerazzurri. 

Born in Travagliato, near Brescia around 80 kilometres from Milan, in February 1958, the elder brother always had a head start on Franco, who entered the world two years later. It meant that, in their footballing career, by the time that the younger brother turned up at the San Siro to trial for Inter, Giuseppe was already settled in the club’s Primavera system. Having a brother already established at the club may have made it easier for Franco to obtain a chance to impress the club, but when the Inter coaching staff decided that he was too small and not sufficiently physically developed to join the club, any advantage was irrelevant. They sent him away with advice to build himself up, come back next year and try again. At that moment, any hopes of the two siblings being brothers in stripes of the same shade were dismissed.

At such moments in a nascent career it’s always tempting to speculate how the history of the player and clubs may have turned out differently had Inter decided to take a punt on the skinny kid looking to emulate his brother, but there is no doubt at all that it was fellow occupiers of the San Siro, AC Milan who profited from the decision. Following a further rebuttal after a trial, this time by Atalanta, Franco Baresi eventually convinced Rossoneri coach Guido Settembrino that he was worth taking a chance on and he joined the AC Milan, guaranteeing that, after another five years or so, the brothers would be facing each other each time the Milan derby, the Derby della Madonnina, was played, and as captains of their respective clubs, to boot.

Although split between blue and red, one thing the brothers did share, was an early tragedy in their lives. Whilst still in their teenage years, both their parents died, but the event fired the dedication and commitment of the brothers to succeed. Giuseppe would make his first team debut in 1977, once again heading his brother, but this time, Franco had closed the gap, as he followed along into the top tier of Italian football just a season later. Both would enjoy successful careers, and whilst the masterful Franco would achieve the greater honours, it would be naive to ignore those of Giuseppe, who would play almost 500 league games for Inter across a 16-year career and represent Italy 18 times.

Most of Giuseppe’s triumphs came in the early years of the eighties. The first silverware arrived in the 1977-78 Coppa Italia. By now he had been elevated to captain of the team and developed a versatility that allowed the coach to deploy him either as a central defender or a defensive midfielder, and it was in the former role that he led his team to victory over Napoli at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Two years later, the Scudetto was landed by Inter and Giuseppe, finishing three points clear of Juventus. This time, Giuseppe was following Franco, as Milan had secured the domestic title the years before, only then to suffer s precipitous fall of fortunes. The same season that Inter were champions, would see a low for his younger brother as AC Milan were relegated for the first time in the club’s history following a match-fixing scandal. Contrary emotions for the brothers.

The Rossoneri would bounce straight back up to the top tier, but endure another relegation in 1981-82, before again returning at the first time of asking. Whilst Franco was struggling with Milan’s yo-yo fortune however, Giuseppe was prospering. Another Coppa Italia victory in 1981-82, this time beating Torino over two legs, brought another winners medal and a trophy lift for the elder brother. Half-a-dozen fallow years then passed before a second Serie A title in 1988-89 and a UEFA Cup success three years later. 

If Giuseppe’s mot prosperous yeas were the early 1980s, Franco would enjoy the latter part of that decade and the early years of the following one. After the miseries of relegation, Milan forged forward to build a dynasty of success with Franco Baresi as captain of the team that came to conquer and dominate European football. Serie A titles in 1987–88, 1991–92, 1992–93, 1993–94 and 1995–96 were enough to illustrate the club’s premier position in Italy, but it was the European Cup successes in 1988–89, 1989–90 and 1993–94, plus triumphs in the Intercontinental Cup in 1989 and 1990, that meant Franco’s achievements would offer him the fraternal bragging rights, were he ever in the mood to use them. Add in his 81 appearances for the Azzurri and the case is unanswerable

Together, the brothers achieved eight Scudetti in a period of 16 years at the height of Serie A football, and no less than 23 major honours in total. They also accumulated 99 caps between them, and yet strangely were only ever selected in a squad for a major international tournament on one occasion, during the 1980 European Championships played on home soil. Even then, the brothers were kept apart as only Giuseppe enjoyed any playing time as Italy finished in fourth place after losing out to Czechoslovakia for the bronze medal in a penalty shootout that went to no less than 17 attempts before the unfortunate Fulvio Collovati became the only failing to find the back of the net.  

There’s a certain symmetry to appreciate when considering the equity of the Baresi brothers sharing their skills across both clubs who shared the San Siro, not quite equals perhaps, but certainly more than merely significant elements in their individual clubs’ successes. That lingering thought remains though. How would the fates have played out differently had Franco not been refused the chance to join his brother at Inter. How much more successful would they have been as Brothers in Arms?

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Brothers in arms’ series for These Football Times).

Papin!

papin

“If we had had Jean-Pierre Papin  up front, we would have won the World Cup in 1982!” It was a plaintive lament from, Michel Hidalgo, a frustrated coach, looking back. He had seen his team entertain and entrance, but lack that killer instinct, bereft of a striker with the gift of scoring, someone who would convert the footballing domination of his team into goals. He knew who the perfect fit would have been but, unfortunately for Hidalgo, Papin was still in the ranks of junior football at the time, with INF Vichy. Continue reading →

Xabi Alonso – Liverpool’s Pass Master.

On 1 June 2018, the man who, less than a week later, would be appointed as manager of Segunda División B club Real Sociedad B, quietly settled into his seat at Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. He was there to watch former club, at which he collected a Champions League winner’s medal, and the words inevitably playing through his mind were of a different song, one that asserted no-one who was part of that footballing family – one he felt strongly that he belonged to – should ever feel alone.  Xabi Alonso, was there to watch Liverpool win their sixth title as Champions of Europe. Continue reading →

Raymond Kopa – France’s ‘Little Napoleon’, who conquered Europe with Real Madrid.

The player who would ascend to legendary status as one of the outstanding footballers of the late fifties, accumulating three European Cup winner’s medals, multiple league titles in both France and Spain, numerous continental trophies and a Ballon d’Or award in 1958 – as well as being runner-up in 1959 and placed third in both 1956 and 1957 – was born on 13 October 1931, and christened as Raymond Kopaszewski. His grandparents had lived in the Polish city of Kraków, near the Czechoslovakian border before emigrating to Germany, where his parents were born. Following the first World War, the family then moved to France. In the Autumn of 1931, therefore.,the young Raymond became the third generation of the family, each to have been born in different countries. Continue reading →

Alexandre Pato – The teenage sensation who had his future stolen away by injury.

Over the years, the camisa seleção brasileira canarinhohas has been worn by a number football’s most celebrated forwards. Pelé, Sócrates, Zico, Falcao, Ronaldinho are just a few names that immediatelyspring to mind. On 26 March 2008 in the unlikely setting of Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, another name jostled to be added to that illustrious litany of talent when Alexandre Pato made his international debut in a Friendly against Sweden and announced himself to the watching world by netting mere seconds into his time as a full Brazilian international.

At just 18, it seemed that Brazil had another gem to place into its crown of glorious talents. An elegant style, fluid movement, an ability to dribble past opponents and the crucial eye for a goal had many observers ready to anoint the new hero of Jogo Bonito. Cruel twists of fate with recurring injuries as his career progressed though meant that the full flowering of a nascent talent that promised so much was denied a chance to fully blossom. Continue reading →

The Lament of Stade de Reims – So nearly the first champions of Europe.

When Olympique de Marseille defeated AC Milan in 1993 – regardless of how tainted that victory may, or may not, have been – it ended decades of enforced patience for French football. It had taken almost 40 years for a French club to win the European Cup. Had fortunes taken a slightly different course in 1956 however, the history of European football’s premier club competition could have been so very different. Instead of Los Blancos of Real Madrid becoming the dominant force of continental football, their place in history may well have been taken by Les Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims. A club finishing in a mid-table position in Ligue 1 at the end of the 2018-19 season, newly returned to the top tier of French domestic football after a period of relative inconsequence, drifting around the lower leagues, could have been the swaggering aristocrats of the nascent European competition, rather than one of the sans-culottes lamenting over what might have been. Continue reading →

Taribo West – Colourful hair, debatable age and a legend on Championship Manager.

If you’re the sort of player who travels the world kicking around various leagues having a decent, but hardly world-shattering career, with a hairstyle that marks you out as ‘individual’ to say the least, having another claim to fame can be invaluable. For all gamers who adopted the persona of a manager in a simulated world around the turn of the century, signing Taribo West for your club was a pretty astute move. Bargain basement signings that kick on to become stars in that electronic environment are the very essence of carving out a successful managerial career, and Taribo West slotted right into that category. When games were played on grass rather than keyboards though, things were a bit different. Continue reading →