Football: Greatness has a last flowering in Baggio

European Cup quarter-final: Manchester United face an Internazionale No 10 who still has a master's touch

AFTER 20 minutes of unrelenting pressure from their visitors on Saturday night, Internazionale finally let Juventus know that there were two sides on the San Siro pitch. And it was one man's doing.

Roberto Baggio, formerly the world's greatest player, had started the game by disappearing into the long shadow of Zinedine Zidane, currently the world's greatest player. The battle of the two No 10s had been going so badly for the little Italian that when he was called to take a sixth- minute free-kick outside the Juventus area, he couldn't even manage to lift it over Zidane, who was standing the regulation distance away - the most banal error imaginable. But eventually he did something to remind Zidane, and the rest of us, of why, five years ago, he was untouchable.

Collecting the ball near the left-hand touchline, midway inside the Juventus half, he advanced on Antonio Conte, the Turin team's all-purpose midfielder, and Alessandro Birindelli, the resolute right-back. Slowing to a stroll, he drew them towards him. A short ball inside seemed a good idea. Instead, with a sway of his hips and a double-shuffle, he had left both men sitting on their pants and was accelerating towards the penalty area. The crowd gasped with delight. Next came Ciro Ferrara, Juve's experienced libero, who advanced to meet the threat but was dismissed with a dip of the shoulder and a sudden dart. A third magpie fell to earth.

And then the gods cried enough, as Baggio's short ball into the goalmouth was smothered in a tangle of bodies. But it had been an unforgettable moment, a vivid cameo of greatness in its last flowering.

Baggio produced a few more pearls as Inter came back into the game in the second half, but he couldn't manage to break the stalemate in a scrappy game. A couple of beautiful passes to Nicola Ventola, the young substitute centre- forward, might have produced a goal, and Baggio himself was only centimetres away from connecting with a wonderful diagonal ball from another substitute, Andrea Pirlo, who will be his successor in the team. But justice was served on a team undeserving of more than a point.

In the midst of a frustrating season, with their team in sixth place in Serie A despite a series of effective performances in the Champions' League, Inter's supporters are taking some consolation from Baggio's efforts. The player, too, is enjoying a return to the spotlight after several unsatisfactory seasons. Bought from Bologna in the summer, he began the season as a deluxe- model substitute but forced his way into a permanent role with a series of influential late appearances, such as his performances in Austria, in the 2-0 win over Sturm Graz in the Champions' League, in the 3-1 home win over Real Madrid in the same competition, and most dramatically against Roma at the San Siro before Christmas, when he came on after 10 minutes of the second half with his side behind to the only goal and orchestrated a 4-1 triumph, scoring two himself.

There was an immediate outcry to let him start the matches. The Gazzetta dello Sport assembled a panel of experts, including former Inter stars Alessandro Altobelli and Robert Boninsegna, who were unanimous in their belief that Baggio was too good to be used as a part-time genius. This presented Inter's new coach, Mircea Lucescu, with a dilemma which neatly resolved itself when Ronaldo's injuries allowed the team to take the field with a three-man front line - a tridente - comprising Baggio, Ivan Zamorano and Youri Djorkaeff. Not, it must be added, that the results in domestic competition have improved in consequence, particularly away from home, where poor team performances have cost them their chance of improving on their third and second positions in the last two seasons. Against Lazio in Rome 10 days ago, in the match that more or less decided whether Inter would be able to mount a challenge for the title, not even a final 15 minutes of furious effort and invention from Baggio could prevent a 1- 0 home win for the leaders.

Baggio celebrated his 32nd birthday a couple of weeks ago, and there are noticeable physical differences between today's player and the Divine Ponytail of 10 years ago. The ponytail is gone, for a start, and the face has lost its innocence. The hips are wider, too, although still narrow enough to slide through the gap between Alessandro Birindelli and Antonio Conte. But the touch is still there, and the appreciation of movement around him. Even in a ropey game, a film of his performance on Saturday night, and Zidane's, could be used as a master class to show children how to shape the body in order to direct a pass at a difficult angle.

Yet it has been a curious career, in which the disappointments have loomed as large as the triumphs. The only Italian player to score goals in three World Cup finals, he will nevertheless be remembered for the one he missed - the decisive penalty in the shoot-out against Brazil in 1994, when he had dragged Arrigo Sacchi's nondescript team to the final by his own unstinting efforts, only to fall, drained by mental and physical exhaustion, at the final obstacle.

Long before that, there had been a sense that Roberto Baggio was a man apart. He began his career with Vicenza, then in the third division, in 1982, but a move to Florence three years later, at the age of 18, was interrupted when he injured a knee in his final appearance before the transfer. A long convalescence delayed his Serie A debut for almost two years, but by the time he made his international debut in 1988 he was already the idol of Fiorentina, for whom he scored 55 goals in 130 games. There were tears from Baggio and riots from the Florentine fans when his pounds 8m transfer to Juventus was announced in 1990. Gianni Agnelli's Fiat fortune had brought football's most gifted individual to Turin, for a relationship that lasted five years, until another little prince, Alessandro Del Piero, came along to take the No 10 shirt.

A transfer to Milan in 1995, again for pounds 8m, represented the worst move of Baggio's career. He turned down an approach from Inter to join what turned out to be a team in serious decline. Worse still, after Fabio Capello's departure he was joined there by Sacchi, a coach for whom he privately had no respect.

His experience with Milan cost him his place in the national squad for Euro 96, but he had already regained it by the time he made his next move, to Bologna for pounds 1.7m, in the summer of 1997 - again spurning Inter's approach. His time in Bologna was not without its turbulent moments, particularly when the coach led him to believe that he would be starting the big game against Juventus and then dropped him to substitute on the morning of the match, but it was sufficient rehabilitation to persuade Cesare Maldini to take him to France last summer.

And who knows what might have happened had Maldini been brave enough to drop Del Piero, the nation's current pin-up boy, whose poor form diminished the whole team. Baggio made appearances in four of their five matches, and it was as a late substitute that he came close to changing football history when his superb cross-shot in extra time almost prevented the quarter-final against France from going to penalties. He was still, unquestionably, the class act on the field, but for the third time in succession he found himself eliminated from the World Cup by the most unkind of methods. Afterwards, he couldn't sleep.

He returned from France to join yet another club, having finally succumbed to Massimo Moratti's entreaties and made what will probably be - although don't bet on it - his final big move. Manchester United should bear in mind that despite winning Serie A medals with Juventus and Milan, and the Uefa Cup with Juventus, his record lacks a major international trophy. He is hoping to play for Dino Zoff in Euro 2000, but this season's European Cup surely represents his last realistic chance at club level, and even in Inter's confused season there is enough evidence to attest to his continuing ability to influence the tide of events.

The Buddhist who spends his holidays hunting game in Argentina must have needed all his inner resources to retain a decent perspective throughout such a career. But, interestingly, there wasn't much of the old Zen tranquillity in the ex-ponytail's performance on Saturday night. He was forever chasing around after a whistle-happy referee, arguing the toss about fouls and offside decisions given against the black-and-blues. When Lucescu was asked about it afterwards, the coach pointed out that, in the absence of Giuseppe Bergomi, the club captain, the armband was worn by the goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca. "But Robi," he said, "is the captain in the outfield, so it's his job to talk to the referee."

So the desire is still there. He is not wearing the black and blue stripes just in order to secure his pension. If tomorrow's first leg of the European Cup quarter-final is destined, as the defender Fabio Galante predicted this week, to turn into "a battle in which temperament, conviction and a spirit of sacrifice will be more important than tactics or technical quality", then Roberto Baggio's character is unlikely to be found wanting. And the talent, as we saw in that indelible moment at San Siro on Saturday, is still his to command. Perhaps Old Trafford, too, will get something to remember him by.

News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own