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Remembering Roberto Baggio’s greatest goal 20 years later | Serie A

It’s two weeks before the start of the 2000-01 Serie A season and Roberto Baggio is without a club and training alone in Caldogno, his quaint home town to the north of Vicenza. The 33-year-old had left Inter following a bitter, and very public, feud with coach Marcello Lippi. As the humid Venetian summer gave way to a more palatable autumn breeze, there was a very real chance that the season would start without him. Then his phone rang.

“Hello Roberto, I’m Mazzone,” said the voice on the other side of the call. Carlo Mazzone, who had just taken over at Brescia following their promotion to Serie A, had a daily ritual of reading the Italian sports papers, and was incredulous to learn that Baggio was considering a move to Reggina. He tracked down Baggio’s number from a friend and sprang into action. “I dialled the number faster than it took him to say it,” recalled Mazzone.

Baggio was surprised. “Hello mister, is it really you?” came the response. “Yes, it’s really me, Carlo Mazzone. I’ve read in the newspaper that you are going to Reggina. Why don’t you come to Brescia and you can stay closer to your home?” Baggio seemed keen so Mazzone visited the club’s owner, Luigi Corioni, to sell the idea to him. The turning point came when Corioni’s wife, Annamaria Bottazzi, overheard the conversation. “Baggio? Yes, sign him, immediately,” she said. The deal was finalised by the end of the day.

Despite having Baggio, Brescia started the season badly, picking up just three points in their first seven games. Baggio could not buy a goal and, to make matters worse, he jarred his knee in a match against Lecce just before Christmas and was ruled out for two months.

He returned in late February and finally found the net twice against Fiorentina, one of his now many former clubs. If his first goal for Brescia was un-Baggio like, a scruffy toe poke from a yard out, then his second was more in keeping with his back catalogue. With Fiorentina 2-1 up, Baggio crashed a trademark free-kick off the underside of Francesco Toldo’s crossbar to rescue a point.

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Brescia’s hopes of survival had been boosted by the January loan signing of a floppy-haired 21-year-old midfielder called Andrea Pirlo. A son of the city, he had made his debut for the club in 1995 as a 16-year-old before moving on to Inter. After finding playing time hard to come by at Inter, he returned to his hometown club on loan.

While Baggio was injured Pirlo played in his usual trequartista position, operating just behind Dario Hübner. However, Mazzone was not going to play with two No 10s when Baggio returned, so he devised an ingenious solution. “I took Pirlo aside one day in training and said: ‘Andrea, I want to improve the quality of our play, and I need you to help me. You have a good tactical sense, good feet and you know how to move. I want to change your position, you will be a playmaker in front of the defence.’”

Pirlo was sceptical. “He looked at me, perplexed, before saying: ‘Mister, but I won’t score many goals.’” Mazzone was convinced the idea would work, telling Pirlo: “You are like someone who has perfect vision, but wants to cover their eyes. You must direct the play, and not play with your back to goal like an attacker.” The switch did not pay immediate dividends. Brescia lost to Lazio, Roma and Atalanta, conceding seven and scoring only once. By the time they travelled to the Stadio delle Alpi to face Juventus on April Fools’ Day, they were third from bottom in the table.

Baggio and his old teammate Alessandro Del Piero.
Baggio and his old teammate Alessandro Del Piero. Photograph: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

The match sold itself: Baggio and Pirlo against Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane. Box office. Juve, then coached by Carlo Ancelotti, were slugging it out with Roma for the Scudetto. The Giallorossi had a commanding lead at the top of the table, so Ancelotti knew there was no room for error.

Juve started brightly and Del Piero rattled the post with a curling free-kick. Baggio, not wanting to be upstaged by his former understudy, then tested Edwin van der Sar from distance. Zidane, having a good game in his final few months in Italy, was being typically Zidane-like – probing and prodding at the Brescia defence to find an opening.

Gianluca Zambrotta fired Juve into the lead after half an hour with a crisp volley. After the interval, Del Piero nearly doubled the lead with an overhead kick that just went over the bar. Baggio, now with speckles of grey running through that iconic ponytail, then fed Pirlo down the left, who floated a cross that narrowly missed the head of Hübner. Yet, with the clock ticking down, the score remained 1-0.

With four minutes left, Pirlo picked up the ball just inside his own half and took the slightest of glances to see where Baggio was. I used to take the ball from my teammates and immediately look for Roberto, either behind or between the line of the defence,” he recalled later. Baggio ghosted in behind centre-backs Ciro Ferrara and Igor Tudor. Pirlo, in his typically languid manner, launched a 40-yard pass in Baggio’s direction. There was now just Van der Sar standing between Baggio and the goal.

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Baggio once said he has “never really been satisfied with the easily scored goal”. So it proved. As Pirlo’s pass dropped from the sky, Baggio decided to elevate the difficulty level to 100. He doesn’t swipe at the ball first time but instead contorts his ankle like an elastic band to control it and move it beyond the keeper in one ludicrously velvet touch, sending Van der Sar’s huge frame sprawling to the ground in a desperate attempt to make a save.

The entire sequence is so fluid and flawless. There is not a trace of panic in Baggio’s movement as he glides past Van der Sar: no hurried attempt to smash the ball home once the keeper is out of the equation. With calculating calm, Baggio waits and picks the right moment, gently stroking the ball into the net so slowly that it looks like Juve defender Michele Paramatti might just reach it before it crosses the line. He doesn’t, of course. Van der Sar stands motionless, hands on hips, no doubt wondering what he has just witnessed. It’s one of the greatest first touches in the history of the game.

In a career that delivered precious little in the way of trophies, Baggio’s goals became works of art: masterpieces to be rediscovered, rejoiced and dissected for generations. “Whenever I see the goal again, even now, I stand up and applaud him,” wrote Mazzone in his autobiography Un Vita in Campo.

Baggio playing his final game for Brescia in 2001.
Baggio playing his final game for Brescia in 2001. Photograph: Carlo Baroncini/AFP/Getty Images

The match finished 1-1, Juve fell further behind in the title race and Roma went on to win the Scudetto. It was fitting that Baggio had stood in the way of Ancelotti and Juve winning the title. Ancelotti had rejected the chance to sign him in 1997 when he was in charge of Parma, believing there was no room for Baggio in his strict 4-4-2 system (a decision Ancelotti later admitted he regretted). And, even though Baggio was loved at every side he played for, Juventus were the exception. Feelings have thawed over time but many Juve fans have never forgiven him for refusing to take a penalty against Fiorentina in April 1991, and subsequently putting a Viola scarf around his neck after being thrown one by a supporter. He was whistled incessantly when he returned to the Delle Alpi after leaving the club in 1995.

The goal was not just about Baggio. It was Pirlo’s eureka moment, the game that convinced him about his new position. “I knew that afternoon that I found a phenomenon of Italian football,” said Mazzone, who is not given enough credit for moving Pirlo back into the regista role, where he would become Italy’s best outfield player since Baggio.

Buoyed by their draw in Turin, Baggio and Brescia went on a tremendous run: Baggio scored seven goals in the next five games (including a hat-trick against Lecce, with one directly from a corner) and Brescia remained unbeaten for the last 10 games of the season, which skyrocketed them up to eighth in the table, the club’s highest ever finish. They qualified for the Intertoto Cup, eventually losing in the final to PSG, and Baggio was nominated for the Ballon d’Or. At 34, he was the oldest player shortlisted.

Baggio had repeatedly clashed with coaches through his career, but his relationship with Mazzone was key to Brescia’s success. When Baggio had signed for the club, he had insisted that his contract included a clause which stipulated that if Mazzone was ever sacked he would also be allowed to leave. Mazzone stayed for three years, Baggio a year longer.

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“He was the manager I had always dreamed of,” Baggio wrote in his autobiography. “Mazzone was sincere, far away from hypocrisy and the fascination with authoritarian power. He let me rediscover the joy of playing, of dribbling, to try the spectacular. My only regret is that I didn’t meet him earlier in my career.” Mazzone returned the compliment, saying: “Baggio was one of the greatest Italian players of all time. He was quiet, polite, respectful, humble. He never let his great talent weigh on anyone else. He was a friend who helped me win games on a Sunday. But as a man, he was three times greater.”

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