Those of us growing up in the 1990s are lucky enough to remember the glory days of Football Italia on Channel 4 when Italy’s Serie A was probably even more popular than the Premier League is today.
Watching host James Richardson browsing the Italian newspapers on the streets of Milan or Rome while enjoying his cappuccino as we delved into the week’s action was the highlight of the week.
At that time Serie A boasted a host of quality players like Paul Gascoigne, Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, Christian Vieri, Paulo Maldini, Gabriel Batistuta, Fabrizio Ravenelli, and later the ‘original’ Ronaldo. But perhaps the greatest of them all in terms of sheer skill, was Roberto Baggio.
On the occasion of the Italian legend’s 50th birthday, we look back on one of the greatest players to represent Serie A and the phenomenon that was Football Italia.
Baggio is often remembered for two things, that pony tail and as the man who blazed a penalty over the bar as Italy lost the 1994 USA World Cup to Brazil. The man should be remembered for much more than that.
Although he failed to live up to his standards in the group stage at USA 94, where Paul McGrath had him in his pocket as the Republic of Ireland sprung a surprise and beat the Italians in Giants Stadium, his goals in the knockout stages that ensured Italy reached the final seem to have been forgotten.
However, Baggio is regarded as one of the greatest players ever to pull on the famous Azzurri jersey and scored one the greatest goals ever at Italia 90 against Czechoslovakia.
That penalty miss in the Rose Bowl haunted Baggio for years although he later claimed “Penalties are only missed by those who have the courage to take them.”
Born in the small town of Caldogno it wasn’t long before a young Roberto Baggio was already making a name for himself as Italian clubs swarmed him in an attempt to snap up this rare talent.
After scoring 45 goals in 26 games Vicenza won the race for his signature and Baggio never looked back. In 1985 both Juventus and Fiorentina fought it out for his signature with the Florence club winning the battle, however shortly after signing for Fiorentina for £1.5m, Baggio suffered an ACL injury that would blight his career.
Baggio’s career stuttered at Fiorentina largely due to his injury and he eventually parted for rivals Juventus in 1990, much to dismay of the Florence fans. Baggio scored an impressive 78 times in 141 appearances for the Turin club. Despite winning his first title with Juventus, Alessandro Del Piero, a new kid on the block started to outshine his mentor and a move away looked to be the best outcome.
Baggio became the first player to win back-to-back Scudetto’s with two different teams after joining Milan in 1995. Spells at Bologna, Inter, where he partnered Ronaldo, and finally Brescia followed but many were left wondering if that unfortunate injury had never happened what heights could Roberto Baggio have it?
We will never know but the fact he is still held in such high regard is a true testament of the quality of the player.
Despite injuries, his career spanned from 1982 to 2004 yet although he only won two Serie A titles, one with Milan and one with Juventus and one Coppa Italia with Juventus, he influenced a generation of young footballers coming through the ranks who grow up watching Italian football at a height it has not seen since.
The Uefa Cup in 1992/93 is the only European honour to Baggio’s name while that penalty miss in 1994 may be forever remembered there is much more to the Divine ponytail than that miss.
That Uefa Cup campaign is largely regarded as the greatest part of his career with his goals in the tournament eventually leading him to win the FIFA World Player of The Year Award that same year.
His performances in an Italian jersey led him to legendary status where he scored 27 goals in 56 appearances for the Azzurri. He represented them in three World Cups to become the first Italian to score in three separate tournaments in 1990, ’94 and’98.
A class playmaker that was truly blessed with a unique technique and dribbling skills to be admired was cruelly blighted by a serious injury that stopped us seeing the real Roberto Baggio, although he did score over 200 goals in Serie A. However the memories he did leave us with are up there with the greats of the beautiful game.
The 1990s was a glory period for Italian football and its demise since then has been sad to witness. Football Italia was watched by a generation of kids and adults watching in awe at the stars that dominated Serie A at a time also delivered on the European stage.
The skills of Gazza, Baggio and later Zidane were something to behold and were often copied on the football fields later that day. People thought Italian football was boring but Football Italia showed it was anything but. Sky had taken English football from ITV and terrestrial tv, meaning Channel 4 had an open field to showcase all that Serie A had to offer. It didn’t disappoint.
Italy was the place to play your football in the 1990’s similar to the Premier League today.
The Uefa Cup was dominated by Italian teams throughout the 1990s. Inter Milan won the cup three times in the 90’s, Parma twice and Juventus twice, while Lazio, Fiorentina, Roma and Torino were runners up in the competition. On four occasions in the 90’s Italian clubs faced each other in the final.
The European Cup later renamed the Champions League also featured Italian sides throughout the 90’s with AC Milan winning two of their seven Champions League’s in the 90’s, playing in three finals in a row between 1992/93 to 1994/95. Juventus won their last Champions League in 1996, while Sampdoria were runners up in 1991/92.
Incredibly an Italian side made the final every year from 1991 to 1998.
The decline has been alarming as England, Spain and Germany have overtaken the Italian’s. AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan were the only Italian sides to contest the Champions League final in the past decade while in the Uefa Cup/Europa League you have to go back to the 90’s when in 1999 Parma defeated Marseille and were the last team to win or even contest a final in the competition.
From 1990 to 1999 Serie A produced four different winners, AC Milan 5 times, Juventus 3 times, Napoli and Sampdoria once each. This is in stark contrast to the last five seasons where Juventus have won Serie A with ease.
While many issues are blamed for the demise of Italian football, the lure of the Premier League, the money involved in the English game, the style of football on offer and many other reasons, those of us who witnessed this golden period in Italian football and got up every Saturday morning to watch Football Italia have great memories of a great period of football when you didn’t need to support the best team because many teams had the opportunity to be the best.
It is difficult to imagine Football Italia having the same appeal today as it once did due to the vast amount of football on tv and the decline of Serie A.
However as a kid growing up in the 1990’s I’m forever grateful I got to witness a glorious period in Italian football and got to see the legend that is Roberto Baggio. Golaccio!!
Damien McEvoy Pundit Arena