“He took free-kicks like no other,’’ said Andrea Pirlo. ‘’I just used to stand there in training and study him for days. I think I learned something in the end.” It can be easy to overlook just how brilliant the Divine Ponytail was at set pieces, given how marvellous he was at everything else on a football pitch. Few in the Italian game were better at manipulating the ball to their will than Roberto Baggio.
Firmly placed in the top five set-piece specialists in Serie A history, with 21 goals from free-kicks, Baggio is among an illustrious group that contains Gianfranco Zola, Pirlo, Alessandro Del Piero and Sinisa Mihajlovic. Not only is Baggio among the finest, he also influenced them. Quite the legacy.
Trying to whittle down Baggio’s top five was a laborious task. These goals were chosen based on the difficulty of the strike, the importance of the goal, the calibre of the opponents and the significance of the game, among other things. A top 10 would have been so much easier, but where’s the challenge in that?
5) BOLOGNA 2-4 Inter, Serie A, 1997-98
Having left Milan in the summer of 1997, seemingly heading for Parma only for a young Carlo Ancelotti to veto the deal, Baggio found himself signing for Bologna, where he fought to win back his place in the Italy squad for France 98. He had scored a penalty on his debut in a 4-2 away defeat to Atalanta and in the second week of the season Bologna and Baggio were at home to Inter, but this wasn’t any old Inter side – this was Ronaldo’s Inter.
The game was billed as Baggio v Ronaldo, the meeting of old and new; Ronaldo had usurped Baggio as the best player in the world at the age of 21. “They all exaggerated this match as a challenge – me against Ronaldo,” Baggio said. “But this will be exclusively Bologna against Inter.”
On a rainy day at the Stadio Dall’Ara, Inter raced into the lead with goals from Fabio Galante and Maurizio Ganz. Then, a minute before half-time, Bologna won a free-kick just outside the Inter box. Baggio curled the ball up and across the wall with such velocity that goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca had no chance of saving it, the ball screaming into his top right-hand corner.
Baggio scored another goal, this time from a penalty, before Ronaldo added a sublime third for the Nerazzurri and finally Youri Djorkaeff scored a sumptuous chip to win a pulsating game for Gigi Simoni’s side.
This match was the beginning of Baggio’s resurgence. He scored 22 goals in Serie A that season for Bologna as he secured his place in the Azzurri squad for the World Cup. The following season he signed for Inter, where he would link up with Ronaldo and Djorkaeff.
4) Fiorentina 2-2 BRESCIA, Serie A, 2000-01
Baggio’s first season at Brescia was a mixed affair. Injuries, his eternal kryptonite, forced him to miss a chunk of the campaign and he still hadn’t scored a goal for the club by February. He made his return to the pitch against Fiorentina, one of his former clubs, and found the net in the fourth minute with one of the scrappiest goals of his career. If there was ever a finish unbefitting of a man with Baggio’s quality, this was it.
Fiorentina had turned the game around with goals from Nuno Gomes and Enrico Chiesa but they gave away a free-kick in the 67th minute on the left-hand side of their box. As Baggio stepped up, the decibel level rose sharply as the home fans started whistling. Baggio remonstrated with the referee, claiming the wall wasn’t back far enough, before he strolled back to the ball casually. He then curled the ball over the wall delightfully, crashing it violently off the crossbar and down and up into the roof of Francesco Toldo’s net. Baggio refused to celebrate and the game ended in a draw.
Brescia’s target for the season was to avoid relegation yet they confounded critics by finishing eighth in Serie A, which was enough to give them a place in the Intertoto Cup. Baggio finished the season on 10 goals.
3) INTER 3-1 Parma, Champions League play-off, 1999-2000
Inter and Parma finished the 1999-2000 season equal on 58 points, so a play-off was needed to determine which side would qualify for the final Champions League spot. The teams met nine days after the end of the season at the Stadio Bentegodi in Verona.
Baggio had suffered through one of the worst seasons of his career under Marcello Lippi, who had arrived at Inter in the summer of 1999 and asked Baggio to spy for him in the Inter locker room. Baggio, being a players’ player, baulked at the demands and that disagreement set the tone for the season. Baggio was often on the bench or in the stands, but rarely on the pitch.
As the season neared its end, Ronaldo ruptured his knee ligaments against Lazio in the Coppa Italia and, with Alvaro Recoba being, well, Alvaro Recoba and Iván Zamorano reduced to the role of impact sub, Lippi had no choice but to start Baggio in this crucial match. Massimo Moratti, ever the patient president, informed Lippi that if Inter lost the match he would be sacked after a single season. It was all or nothing for the cigar-smoking coach.
In the 36th minute, Lilian Thuram fouled Benoit Cauet down the left-hand side of the Parma half, just outside the penalty area. The angle was very tight and most of the players must have imagined that a cross into the box would follow. But Baggio had different ideas. Instead of crossing the ball, he bent it beautifully over the wall and past a stunned Gigi Buffon. The execution was flawless. This wasn’t a one-off; he had scored a similar free-kick against Foggia in March 1995.
Baggio scored another superb goal late in the game – a volley from outside the box to confirm Inter’s place in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League. This was his departing gift to Moratti, who Baggio always respected. La Gazzetta dello Sport gave him a 10/10 rating the next day, a rarity for the paper, who have only given seven perfect 10 ratings in their existence.
It would all be for nothing, however, as Baggio left in the summer of 2000. He was followed out the door by Lippi as Inter were beaten by Helsingborg in the qualifiers.
2) MILAN 3-0 Perugia, Serie A, 1996-97
In Baggio’s first season at Milan, in 1995-96, he won his second consecutive Scudetto but he wasn’t the key player everyone had envisioned. Fabio Capello shoehorned him into his system rather than building the team around his talent and it seemed that the manager, who was suspicious of mercurial players in the 1990s, didn’t know how best to harness Baggio’s ability.
In the summer of 1996, Capello left Milan for Real Madrid and in came Uruguayan Oscar Tabárez, who had worked wonders with Cagliari. Baggio was in and out of the starting XI in the opening rounds of the 1996-97 season as Tabárez chopped and changed his formation every week. On the fourth weekend of the season Perugia came to Milan, but Baggio was relegated to the bench, with George Weah and Marco Simone leading the line.
Milan raced into an early lead through the Liberian and he added a second late in the second half. Baggio came on at the start of the second half for a young Massimo Ambrosini and in the 77th minute Milan were awarded a free-kick.
The set piece was a good 25 yards from goal; Baggio took a very quick sprint and curled the ball up and over the wall into the top corner of the Perugia net. This strike was probably the highlight of Baggio’s season. Milan had a disastrous campaign and Tabárez was sacked in December 1996. “I feel so sorry for him,’’ said Baggio. “The role Tabárez made for me was perfect.” Silvio Berlusconi brought Arrigo Sacchi back to the club and Baggio’s season didn’t get any better. He rotted away on the bench to the detriment of Milan, who finished 11th.
1) Dortmund 1-2 JUVENTUS, Uefa Cup semi-final second leg, 1994-95
The 1994-95 season was bordering on being historic for Juventus. Under new coach Marcello Lippi, they were competing on three fronts. They were top of the league, in the final of the Coppa Italia and in the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup against regular mid-1990s foes Borussia Dortmund.
The ponytailed one had endured a mixed season; injured for large portions of it and suffering from a World Cup hangover meant he wasn’t having the most stellar of seasons. Pasadena hung over him like a dark cloud.
Yet, as the season was nearing its end, there were signs that Baggio was returning to form as Juve headed to Germany for the second leg of the semi-final. Despite how good a young and bushy-haired Alessandro Del Piero was performing as his understudy, Baggio started when he was fit.
The first leg had ended 1-1, with Baggio scoring a penalty, and the second leg was expected to be another tight affair. Sergio Porrini scored an early goal, heading in from Baggio’s corner to give Juve the lead on aggregate. Dortmund equalised not long after and then Juve won a free-kick in the 31st minute after Rene Tretschok hacked down Angelo Di Livio. Baggio took charge of the ball. This was his kind of territory.
Throughout the course of his career Baggio had various ways of taking free-kicks. One method was to simply take a step or two and hit the ball with his instep, like in the aforementioned goal for Brescia against Fiorentina. Another technique, one that he mostly used during his time at Juve, was to run at the ball as if he was going to hit it with his laces but turn at the last second and use the inside of his right foot to bend the ball beautifully. He called on this technique against Dortmund. As he hit the ball it arched majestically, travelling at pace past Stefan Klos and into his top right-hand corner. The German keeper barely moved as the ball clipped the underside of the crossbar and crashed into the net. It was a goal of violent beauty, his greatest ever free-kick and an effort worthy of any occasion.
Juventus went on to win the game and make it to the final, where they lost to Parma and were denied a treble. It was to be Baggio’s last great goal for the Bianconeri, as he departed in the summer of 1995 to rivals Milan.
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