Football / World Cup USA '94: Baggio delivers his moment of genius

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The Independent Online
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IF greatness is the ability to win big football matches with a sublime moment of skill, then genius is the ability to do it at the pressure end of big matches, when the scales of fate have begun to point against you and your team.

Genius here on Saturday was a six-letter word called Baggio and, begging Dino's pardon - for his also was a strike of breathtaking touch and accuracy - it was contained in a tiny package with a ponytail, and it set the world abuzz with admiration.

Before Baggio's moment of joy and destiny, Spain had built a compelling argument as to why it should be they and not Italy who go forward to New Jersey to face Bulgaria in Wednesday's last stop before the World Cup final.

Spain could and should have held the lead and the prized ticket to the Giants Stadium for another all-European encounter in the semi-finals. But, as good a goalscorer as Julio Salinas has proved to be at international level - just tap into the Republic of Ireland memory bank from the qualifying series - true genius does not falter when the call comes.

When Nicola Berti spotted Giuseppe Signori's burst into space midway inside the Spanish half, with the white shirts pressed forward to take tangible advantage from their growing ascendancy, the neutrals watching here and around the globe were willing him to transfer the ball immediately to the right and, before the boot of despairing defence could intercept.

That was where Baggio was lurking in enough space to bring to bear a magical talent which, save for the first 30 minutes against Ireland and the last 30- and-a-bit minutes in the second round against Nigeria, had been at odds with itself.

The feeling that now Baggio, as he had done in the dying seconds against the Africans four days before, could explode into colourful life proved entirely correct. He was primed and ready for the kill. In the Spanish goal, Andoni Zubizarreta was equally determined to guard his domain as a dog protects the family silver. He was on to the man in blue in an instant but just as quickly Baggio had got away, so quickly, in fact, that the Spaniard could not even yank back that famous pony tail.

Even then, there remained work for Baggio to do. He had been forced wide and Abelardo had made recovery tracks. Lesser men would have checked and looked for support from a tight position, but it was an inhibiting angle easily within the scope of a master as he squeezed his shot in past the lunging defender.

In such special moments do World Cup memories endure for years and years. Not only that, but has anyone before come to influence a World Cup from relative anonymity and despondency?

At that juncture, with only two minutes remaining and the game won for Italy and lost for Spain, Salinas was alone with his thoughts. Five minutes beforehand, he could have been wearing Baggio's match-winner's mantle.

It was to Salinas that the first opportunity went to guarantee victory in a game that, after half-time, at last freed itself from a stifling midfield blanket.

A long ball over the top had again exposed the Italian defence's propensity for error. His markers stopped as Salinas took control of the ball, and he was presented with the none-too-difficult decision on which side to pass Gianluca Pagliuca.

However, Salinas flunked it, tamely prodding his shot against the legs of a goalkeeper who wisely had stayed tall, and was able to make the save with his legs.

The Spanish coach, Javier Clemente, bit back on his disappointment to philosophise about the miss.

'That is football,' he said. 'It would be wrong to be critical of so whole-hearted a player. I congratulate Italy on their success and I am sure the people of Spain will be pleased that their team has come so far in the competition.'

A Salinas salvo then would have sent Baggio and his colleagues back to their homeland for a reception in some contrast to that in Dublin which awaited Jack Charlton's returning squad, even though the Irish had fallen one fence earlier.

Now even the harshest critic of Arrigo Sacchi and his side must admit that, while for long periods of a game the sum total does not reach the excellence of the individual parts, this is a team of heart and staying power. That can not always be said of the representatives of a football-crazy nation who so often succumb when the pressure is at its fiercest. Italy survived here after Spain deservedly found an equaliser through Jose Caminero, who was unable to dominate the midfield in the way Spain had hoped he could.

Fourteen minutes after the break a thrust down the inside- left channel took a lucky bounce off the heel of Alessandro Costacurta and eventually fell for Caminero to hit a shot that was lifted up and away from Pagliuca's clutches by the untimely intervention of his own full-back, Antonio Benarrivo.

It needed assistance of that kind to beat the goalkeeper who had amply repaid the faith of Sacchi, who wasted no time reinstating him after his three- match ban even though Luca Marchegiani had done everything asked of him. Earlier, Pagliuca had gone spectacularly across to defy Juan Goicoechea's brute of a left-footer and soon after the first Baggio strike, a swerving triumph for the midfielder, Dino, from 25 yards, he had got down well to claim Caminero's towering header.

There was drama right to the end after Luis Enrique demanded a penalty following a vicious elbow assault from the full-back, Mauro Tassotti. He later required surgery for an extensive facial injury but nothing should be taken away from Baggio's celebration.

Afterwards Baggio said: 'I had a great determination and conviction to show everyone I am a great player. I know I am great and I just wanted to demonstrate that. As for the goal I just had a second to score. He closed the door and it was difficult to find the spot, but I made it.'

ITALY: (4-4-2): Pagliuca (Sampdoria); Tassotti, Maldini, Costacurta (all Milan), Benarrivo (Parma); Donadoni, Albertini (Milan), D Baggio (Parma), Conte (Juventus); Massaro (Milan), R Baggio (Juventus). Substitutes: Signori (Lazio) for Albertini, h/t; Berti (Internazionale) for Conte, 65.

SPAIN: (1-3-5-1): Zubizarreta (Valencia); Nadal (Barcelona); Ferrer (Barcelona), Abelardo (Sporting Gijon), Otero (Valencia); Goicoechea (Barcelona), Caminero (Atletico Madrid), Bakero (Barcelona), Alkorta (Real Madrid), Sergi (Barcelona); Luis Enrique (Real Madrid). Substitutes: Salinas (Deportivo La Coruna) for Sergi, 60; Hierro (Real Madrid) for Bakero, 64.

Referee: S Puhl (Hungary).

(Photograph omitted)