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Monday, 7 March 2011

Teams That Made Us Fall In Love With Football #1: Italy 1994

Here's our very own Rob MacDonald to kick off a 10-part series on the teams that made us fall in love with football. Enjoy...

After a bit of memory work the other day, I worked out that the first ever game I went to was Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea on November 25th 1989. As you squint at the ceiling, trying to work out a) the first game you attended and b) how long ago 1989 was, let me save you some trouble on the latter. It was 22 years ago. Which is a long time.

While I can remember this date, I don’t really remember much about the football. The clearest memory I have after that is the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1991. I still wasn’t particularly bothered about football and while most of my current peers were falling in love with the game by virtue of England’s campaign at Italia ’90, I was living in Scotland and inexplicably (or not) supporting Argentina. Do not question the logic of a six-year old. The sum total of my football knowledge was probably ‘Mark Hughes likes volleys’ and ‘West Germany are good’. How times change.

United’s first two Premier League titles were my main introduction to football as a spectator. I remember that team fondly enough now, but they weren’t the ones that made me fall in love with the game. That honour falls, perhaps inexplicably, to the Italy side of USA ‘94. Do not question the logic of a 10-year old, whose favourite player, mystifyingly to this day, was Lee Sharpe.

World Cup 1994 started out in a jumble of ceremony and group games before drawing into increasingly sharp focus as the tournament reached its climax. The Italy team, similarly, seemed stunned at first as well. The famous 1-0 defeat at the hands of Ireland, in their first group game, is bit of a blur – of a sweaty Jack Charlton, of Paul McGrath’s heroics and, following Ray Houghton’s goal, wondering why on earth Terry Phelan looked so hell-bent on trying to hug so many of his team mates when his arms seemed so short.

The Italians’ propensity for giving themselves a mountain to climb would reoccur throughout the competition, but the group provided two more chances to issue a statement of intent. The games themselves, however, did little to suggest Italy would go deep into the tournament. A win against Norway looked easily achievable in the opening 20 minutes of the second group match, before Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off for handballing outside the box. Nevertheless, a flying header from Dino Baggio on the end of a brilliant Beppe Signori free kick put Italy ahead before a barrage of Norwegian long throws and corners had them clinging on for dear life at the end. The cost of the red card was minimised, eventually, but it wouldn’t be the last of them.

It’s fair to say I don’t really remember the 1-1 draw with Mexico, but it contrived to leave every team in the group having played three, won 1, drawn 1 and lost 1, with goal differences of exactly zero. These were still the days when ‘best third-placed’ teams qualified for the knockout stages, though, and behind Mexico who had scored three, Italy and Ireland went through having scored two each to Norway’s one.

So far – and I freely admit this – there was absolutely no reason for me to take any interest in Italy whatsoever. What about the Brazilians, Rob? No? The Nigerians or the Saudis, with four wins and 10 goals between them? No? The sensational Argentina side? The Dutch? Anything? No?

Well no, apparently not. Naturally, Yekini’s ‘er… is he ok?’ celebration in the goal has stayed with me. So too Saeed Al-Owairan’s goal for Saudi Arabia against Belgium. But it seems I was much happier convincing myself that Roberto and Dino Baggio were brothers and believing that if an unremarkable Italy gave the ball to Beppe Signori, who ran very fast, they’d score a goal.

The flickers of memory, though, are at least becoming clearer. The Italians met everyone’s second favourite team, Nigeria, in the last 16. The Super Eagles took the lead through Amunike in the 25th minute and Italy’s woes looked to be returning fast.

Gianfranco Zola might have been 27 at this point, but it was the first time I had ever seen him. And this I remember perfectly clearly. Standing on the sidelines at 65 minutes, about to go on, looking nervous and small. Of course, only one of those was true – he was tiny – but my totally unfounded discomfort with his introduction (again, at 10 years old, I don’t know where it came from) did in fact prove to be founded as he was sent off – extremely harshly – 10 minutes later.

At this point, it’s perhaps pertinent to note the egocentricity of being ten years old. I had no idea this was Nigeria’s first World Cup, that they were overachieving or even that, nearly 18 years after this afternoon in 1994, football romantic Adam Bushby would still take it so personally. What I certainly could work out was the immediacy and the drama of an 88th minute equaliser in a knockout game, especially having seen the Nigerians celebrating as Zola despaired and departed 15 minutes earlier.

The quality of Roberto Baggio’s goal ultimately doesn’t matter, but the way it slid along the side netting made the whole thing so measured and precise that it looked like a work of genius. The build up was quite scrappy, the connection didn’t even seem that great, but in it went. Italian delirium everywhere. Down to 10 men, again. A goal from nothing, again. Two intoxicating, victory-from-the-jaws-of-nothing comebacks. What’s more, the World Cup suddenly had a new hero.

Italy’s extra time penalty, given away by Augustine Eguavoen – the man Zola had ‘fouled’ to earn his early bath – was unerringly dispatched by a Roberto Baggio gaining in confidence. Watching replays years later, Nigeria somehow failed to reply moments after, with three men spare at the back post, but I don’t remember that because I was transfixed by the man with the ponytail.

If Baggio had been crap in the next game, this would be a different story. But every time I heard the name ‘Baggio’ I started expecting a goal. In the quarter final against Spain, though, it was Dino on the scoresheet first, firing an absolute bullet past Zubizarreta from the edge of the box. Bizarrely, Italy were in front at half time. Unfamiliar territory alright. It didn’t last either, Jose Luis Caminero – by virtue of a deflection that I’m fairly sure I told my Dad ‘shouldn’t count’ – drawing Spain level on the hour.

Two flying saves from Pagliuca in the last 10 minutes made me sort of want to become a goalkeeper before the 88th minute arrived again, dragging along with it Roberto Baggio, again. Italy broke, Signori knocked the ball into his path and as he went round the keeper it was almost as if ‘shit, gone too far’, flitted across everyone’s minds. But a last heroic effort twisted his body round the ball and fired it into the net, millimetres in front of Abelardo Fernandez, trying desperately to get back. Italy were almost too spent to celebrate. It was getting exhausting, but to me, each win and each goal was becoming more heroic than the last.

In Bulgaria, Italy faced another surprise, romantic package in the last four. Did I care? Did I bollocks. The ‘Divine Ponytail’ had done for me and a supporting cast of his ‘brother’ Dino, Demetrio Albertini, Nicola Berti and Roberto Donadoni had me hooked. Two quick Italian goals in the first 25 minutes completely broke with tradition and inevitably Baggio scored them both. That was it. He was unstoppable – the first, two sublime turns from a throw in and ANOTHER finish that only touched side netting; and the second, a beautifully timed run and volley into… yes, the bottom corner. Unerring. And a rearguard including Costacurta and Maldini wasn’t about to let a two-goal lead slip.

We’re all well-versed with what happened in the final against Brazil. The fabled 88th minute came and went without heroics. Italy, who had never looked in control of their own destiny throughout the tournament, held out for 120 minutes for a goalless draw. Then, injured, Baggio put Italy’s fifth penalty over the bar and Brazil were World Champions.

Baresi and Massaro missed in that shootout too, but Baggio’s is notorious. As a ten-year old, notoriously fickle as I was, it made me grapple with whether I could still like him or not. In the end it didn’t matter. The very fact I was questioning what could have happened if he scored, the fact that I would always focus at the slightest mention of ‘Baggio’ on Football Italia, and the fact that I had been party to Italy’s unconvincing, desperate, brilliant, glorious and ultimately unsuccessful month in the USA, was more than enough. They kept coming undone, but they kept coming back, Il Divin Codino at their head.

Roberto Baggio and Italy 1994. The team that explicably made me love football. Rob MacDonald

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