Roberto Baggio And His Year In Bologna

I think people forget just how good Roberto Baggio really was (Maybe an upcoming Netflix documentary can change all that).

In the early to mid nineties, Baggio was without doubt the best footballer on the planet.

When you think of the World Cup in 1994, people will automatically think of Baggio’s traumatic penalty miss in the final. Brazil would take the victory that day in Pasadena and Roberto would be painted as the villain.

Yet it’s often forgotten just how sensational the Italian superstar was in the knockout stages of that competition!

He almost single handedly got his beloved Azzurri to that cup final. He scored a dramatic double to see off a determined Nigeria. Then he scored late on to get the Italians a win over Spain. In the semi-final Baggio would grab another brace against Bulgaria.

He had been sensational at Juventus before injuries and the emergence of Alessandro Del Piero made it impossible to guarantee Baggio an automatic starting berth with the Old Lady.

It was also speculated that Juve needed to cash in on the Ballon d’Or winner.

Although foreign offers were on the table, Roberto knew at that time it was nigh on impossible to leave Serie A and stay in the Italian national team.

That self imposed restriction saw Roberto join Juve’s title rivals AC Milan in a £6.8m deal in 1995. His first season proved successful as he helped them to a Scudetto title.

Milan and Baggio would then struggle during the next season without Fabio Capello as their manager. Oscar Tabarez failed to get to grips with life at the San Siro and he was gone after a few months. Baggio wasn’t happy when legendary coach Arrigo Sacchi returned to the Milan hotseat.

Sacchi was Baggio’s international boss during that 1994 World Cup run. The two fell out during the tournament, even though that world recognised Baggio’s brilliance Arrigo didn’t seem to be as enamoured.

The coach seemingly believed Baggio was at fault for Italy’s final defeat and only selected the pivotal forward two more times. He was also the Italian manager that didn’t take Roberto to Euro 96.

Their relationship didn’t get any better at Milan. The maverick star’s game time was once again limited as he struggled to find any meaningful form for the Milanese giants.

That meant that the summer of 1997 was going to be a huge one for Il Divin Codino.

Staying at Milan wasn’t an option, the attacker needed a fresh start.

During this time Italian football had been changing and the top teams had decided to move away from having a creative number ten type star. That’s why Gianfranco Zola left the Peninsula for the English Premier League.

Juve obviously still had Baggio’s original replacement in Del Piero who had become a world class talent by this stage. So there would be no reunion there. Milan wouldn’t sell him to city rivals Inter.

Baggio was desperate to find World Cup redemption with the Azzurri and as France 98 was just around the corner, a move abroad was again a non starter. This saddens me as the Italian would have been sensational at Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson saw Baggio as an ideal replacement for Eric Cantona and Fergie would’ve built his team around the Veneto native.

It looked as though Parma would be the next destination for the world icon but alas the move fell through after a young Carlo Ancelotti decided to pull the plug deciding Baggio wouldn’t fit into his plans.

It was low-key Bologna that would end up signing the formidable forward. Now I have been to Bologna and it’s a beautiful city with fantastic food and gorgeous architecture but it wasn’t a footballing hotbed.

I Rossoblù were seen more as relegation fodder than as an elite club at that stage. Baggio was going to have to have a miraculous season if he were to stand any chance of getting into Cesare Maldini’s World Cup squad the following summer.

Could he really standout whilst at Bologna?

It was to be an inauspicious start.

Bologna lost both of the first two Serie A games that season by four goals to two. Baggio scored three though, including a brace against Inter.

Three goalless draws followed and then their was another loss, this time to Parma with I Rossoblù again failing to score.

Goals started to come in thick and fast thereafter. They recorded their first league win of the season, on their seventh attempt, with Roberto grabbing a dramatic second half hat-trick against Napoli!

Baggio would only score two in the next five as Bologna again struggled to find consistency.

As 1997 ended, the classy forward had scored a credible eight goals in the first thirteen games of the season but his side had only recored two victories in that time.

In the first outing of 1998, the now former ponytailed striker grabbed his ninth and tenth of the season in a 2-1 win over Brescia. That was followed up with a 0-0 away draw with Empoli.

The wheels nearly fell off of Baggio’s season in the next game. Bologna were due to host Juventus on January the 18th. Their coach, Renzo Ulivieri, had decided to bench Baggio. It wasn’t the first time he’d done so either, with the maestro kicking his heels for much of his side’s game against AC Milan earlier in the campaign.

This wasn’t meant to happen to the striker at Bologna. He was meant to take centre stage against everyone and anyone as he craved that international return.

Yet another coach was getting in his way. It’s funny but if you ask players about Baggio, they’ll usually always be complimentary.

Fellow playmaker Zinedine Zidane once said:

“Baggio on the bench? It’s something that I will never understand in my lifetime”

Via Forza Italian Football

Real Madrid and Argentine great Jorge Valdano would say:

“When other players run, he stands still. When other players do the predictable, he creates. When other players are stressed, he keeps his cool”

Via Fantasista10

But while current players and former greats could see his genius and marvel in his performances, coaches and managers seemed to not understand him or his qualities.

Fabio Capello allowed him to leave without much fuss, Marcello Lippi didn’t put up any fight to keep him at Juve and the two would have a major falling out later in their careers. Then of course we had his infamous spat with Arrigo Sacchi.

These are all noted, world class managerial figures and now here’s Olivieri deciding he couldn’t trust Roberto to make an impact in big encounters.

Toys were subsequently thrown out of the pram as the maestro stormed out, rejecting a place on the subs bench. Juventus would then thump a Baggio-less Bologna 3-1.

Baggio’s teammates then managed to arrange some sort of peace agreement between their star player and the boss. Renzo would stick Roberto back on the bench for their next game, another loss.

The great Italian international had regained his starting berth by early February as Bologna faced Ronaldo’s Inter Milan at the San Siro. The away side produced a memorable performance, with Baggio justifying his place in the line-up with a nice cutback to assist the winner!

The Devine One kept his place for the next league encounter against Bari, the game ended in a thrilling 4-3 won for I Rossoblu with Robbie hitting a brace. A narrow loss away to AS Roma soon followed.

Baggio added to a Kennet Andersson double to give Bologna a 3-0 win in their last game of February.

March started with a defeat to Parma before Baggio’s Bologna would go on a nine game unbeaten streak. Roberto bagged himself five goals during that streak, with The Greyhounds picking up five wins that propelled them up the table.

His standout game during that run came against Capello’s Milan on the 19th of April.

Baggio gave his side the lead when Milan failed to deal with a looping ball, the creative attacker then controlled it inside the box before thrashing it home. The Red and Blues number ten then held his nerve to tuck away a penalty, which helped secure a magnificent 3-0 home victory.

In that outing Roberto Baggio showed the world that he most certainly could hold his own during the massive encounters and produce a mesmerising display that could inspire his teammates.

As the season headed into May, Bologna were firmly in the top half of the table.

They had a fairly inconsistent run in; wining one, losing one and drawing the other. Baggio himself grabbed four goals in those last three fixtures, scoring in each of the games. That included a trademarked well controlled finish against eventual Scudetto winners and former employers Juve.

In Bologna and Baggio’s last game of the 97/98 season they were up against another set of the big boys. Lazio. Roberto once again became the talismanic figure as he ended the campaign with another two strikes.

It started off as a bit of a contest between two iconic number tens, with both Baggio and Lazio’s Roberto Mancini shining. It was Baggio who would come out on top though as Bologna picked up a 2-1 win.

Their leading scorer calmly stuck away a penalty before Diego Fuser found an equaliser. Baggio would produce a fine low shot with his right foot to finish the end-to-end contest.

When the referee blew the final whistle, Bologna fans invaded the pitch. They were delighted that their side had secured an eighth place finish in Serie A.

Baggio was definitely regarded as the hero on the pitch, the thirty-one year old had struck a wonderful tally of twenty-two goals in thirty league games for Bologna that season. Only Oliver Bierhoff and Ronaldo would grab more that year, with Bobby bagging more than Gabriel Batistuta and Alessandro Del Piero.

His move to Bologna showed that he could still be a star in Italy’s top flight and didn’t need to be at one of the country’s big clubs to prove it. He would be nominated for the Ballon d’Or, Fifa World Player of the Year and the Italian Footballer of the Year after that majestic season in the Emilia-Romagna region.

Roberto Baggio would later go on and say that the move to Bologna was huge for his career at that time:

“Bologna was an important step, because at Milan I risked not playing consistently and missing out on the 1998 World Cup, so decided to move on. I discovered a fantastic city in Bologna and I played, which made me happy.”

“I was very pleased to wear the Inter jersey, as they had already tried to sign me the previous January, but I could not betray Bologna by leaving mid-season.”

Via Football Italia

The transfer was justified as his performances would secure him a flight to France for the 1998 World Cup. He did find redemption during that tournament as he faced his demons and scored a crucial penalty in the Azzurri’s opening game against Chile. He would also find the winner against Austria in Italy’s final group game. The Italians would lose in the quarters to hosts France, again to a penalty shootout but at least this time Roberto stepped up first and once again scored from the spot.

Il Divin Codino proved that year in Bologna that a true great of the game can go down a level in quality and help bring teammates up to his high standard.

Roberto Baggio was a true footballing genius and the goals and performances in 1997-98 helped secure a legacy that deserves more respect in my opinion!

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