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).