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
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The Independent Online
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.