ITV have begun screening games from Euro ’96 this week, which has prompted a round of assessment of that tournament, 24 years ago, and how good it actually was in comparison to perception, collective memory and nostalgia.
Which is all fair enough. It’s interesting to look back on tournaments like that, consider things we might not have thought about back then or since. False nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist has got the world into some problems in the last few years, so re-examining those memories are a useful exercise, if nothing else. Such reassessment can stray into the territory of the ‘you know that thing you like? Actually it was shit’, which is always pretty tiresome, but for the most part it’s been in good faith and it has helped pass the time at least. Lord knows we need things to pass the time.
In some respects though, it hardly matters whether the tournament as a whole was of good quality, if it provides enough great moments, because it’s those moments that really stay with us. What people remember when they look back on Euro ’96, or Italia ’90, or Mexico ’70, or basically whatever your most formative international tournament was, are broadly speaking individual moments, and how the tournament made them feel.
Moments like Roberto Baggio’s goal for Italy at the 1990 World Cup, for example. Just before the tournament, Baggio had unwittingly caused a public order incident after being sold by Juventus to Fiorentina for £8million, the jilted fans not taking the world record sale lying down and had surrounded the Fiorentina club offices in protest.
Baggio was 23 and fresh faced, a riot of curly hair from his younger days slightly pared back, on the way to being the ponytail that would later give him his nickname but still bouncing behind him. He was also the subject of frantic debate at the start of Italia ’90, of whether this man whose talents were such that they could launch near-riots in Florence, should start for the hosts.
Azzurri coach Azeglio Vicini was in the unenviable position of having an entire nation leaning over his shoulder and offering spirited advice as he picked his team. But in their first two games he ignored the romantics and the aesthetes and left Baggio on the bench, preferring established golden boy Gianluca Vialli, partnered by honest grafter and Diego Maradona sidekick Andrea Carnevale up front.
By their third game, against Czechoslovakia, things had changed. Italy were through after beating Austria and the USA, but hadn’t been convincing either time, 1-0 wins against sides they were expected to blow away not entirely satisfying. The Czechs were also through, but a draw would leave them top of the group, which was actually valuable this time: the team finishing second would be on a path to face either West Germany or the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. Plus of course, the nation wanted a performance.
What had also changed were the forwards. Vialli was injured and Carnevale ineffective, so a double switch was on the cards. Toto Schillaci had forced his way into the team after saving Italy in the first game as a substitute, whereas Baggio had sat on the bench unused, all that fizzing potential doing nothing beyond inspiring debate. By not using Baggio, Italy felt a little like Kate Bush going into the studio but absent-mindedly humming into the microphone, rather than using her voice to sing.
All of which meant there was pressure on Baggio to perform. This is one measure of judging the greats, waiting to see if they will respond to pressure, whether they will live up to their potential in the biggest moments. Over the course of his career, you can probably argue Baggio didn’t do this, his spells at the biggest clubs he played for – Juventus, Milan, Inter – showing his brilliance only in bursts, but then we come to the 78th minute, Stadio Olimpico, Rome, against the Czechs.
Italy were 1-0 up thanks to a Schillaci header. Giuseppe Giannini collected the ball in the Italy half, and it seems that he immediately looked around for Baggio. Other passes were on, but Giannini shifted his body and looked for the space to pass to Baggio, on the halfway line. Baggio returned it to Giannini, who in turn played it back to Baggio: it was the obvious and best pass, but it was also as if Giannini was giving the people what they wanted by teeing up the wunderkind. Qualification is in the bag, let’s send them away floating.
“[The goal] seemed to set alight that tournament, and captured the imagination,” said James Horncastle, on the edition of Golazzo about Italia ’90. “This was a new generation coming through: the only players who were in the [World Cup winning] 1982 team were Bergomi, Baresi and Vierchowod. This was an Italy that felt very fresh, and Baggio was a symbol of that.”
Baggio glided towards goal, dodging a lunge from Ivan Hasek that had set sights on his ankle. There were options left and right, but Baggio kept going. “I just kept going and going,” Baggio told Mundial magazine a few years ago. “It was very special.”
✍️NEW FEATURE✍️Nostalgia might warp how good tournaments like Italia '90 were, but moments like Roberto Baggio's goal are just as special as we remember. That's probably all that really matters. @NickMiller79 on that goal against Czechoslovakia.
— TotallyFootballShow (@TheTotallyShow) May 13, 2020
And the really special bit was The Shimmy. He didn’t actually do much, just sort of mock stumbled to his left, feinting towards the wing before shifting the ball inside and onto his right foot. It was a minimalist but devastatingly effective bit of skill, like those actors who can portray a lifetime of emotion just with a little flick of their eyes.
It was enough to spin Miroslav Kadlec around 360 degrees, like a confused dog chasing his tail, and by the time Kadlec was facing the right way, the jig was up. Baggio had given Jan Stejskal the eyes and stroked the ball into the bottom corner, and Italy rejoiced.
Well, most of Italy. Perhaps the more sensitive corners of Turin might have objected to new Juve prize Baggio dedicating his goal “to the fans of Fiorentina. I believe they deserve it for all the affection they showed me over the years.”
The group was won, but perhaps more importantly imaginations had been stoked. “Baggio and Schillaci scored goals that could be put in a picture frame, they were that good,” said Vicini afterwards.
Baggio’s celebration wasn’t quite in the Marco Tardelli/Fabio Grosso mould of pure outward elation, more a sort of relief, overcome in the moment, collapsing to the floor and covering his face, aware of how special what he had just done was. “When I scored I was so happy I could have kissed everyone, the crowd, every Italian, the whole world,” added Baggio.
A few days earlier the United Arab Emirates midfielder Khalid Ismail had been promised a Rolls Royce after scoring his country’s consolation against the Germans, their first ever World Cup goal. Baggio quipped he would be happy with a bicycle, and a few days later the Italian Cycling Federation obliged, sending him a mountain bike.
Baggio didn’t have another moment like that in rest of the tournament. He was substituted in the second round against Uruguay and the quarter-final versus Ireland, when he had a goal dubiously ruled out for offside, then back on the bench for the semi-final, though he almost scored after coming on and did find the net in the penalty shoot-out.
Italy lost that shoot-out against Argentina, a crushing disappointment, particularly given how bad the final was and how they might have put up a better fight against West Germany than the Argentineans. But at least they had that moment. At least when we tell the tale of Roberto Baggio, we can remember such a goal that sent the spirits soaring.
Italia ’90 might not have been as good overall as plenty remember it. But that moment was, and maybe that’s all that really matters.
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