‘’He took free kicks like no other,’’ Andrea Pirlo remarked. ‘’I just used to stand there in training and study him for days. I think I learned something in the end.’’
Pirlo was of course talking about Roberto Baggio, one of the majestic midfielder’s childhood idols. It can be easy to overlook just how brilliant The Divine Ponytail was at set pieces, given how marvelous he was at more or less everything else on a football pitch. Few in the Italian game were better at manipulating the ball to their will like Baggio.
Firmly placed in the top five free kick specialists in Serie A history with 21 strikes, he’s surrounded by some illustrious names, such as Gianfranco Zola, Pirlo, Alessandro Del Piero and Sinisa Mihajlovic. Not content with simply being amongst the finest, he also directly influenced the former two. Quite the legacy.
Trying to whittle down Baggio’s top five was laborious; a top ten would have been so much easier, but then again, where’s the challenge in that? I took into consideration issues such as the importance of the goal, who the opponents were and significance of the game when deliberating on which goals to leave off the list.
5. BOLOGNA vs. Inter, Stadio Renato Dall'Ara, Serie A 1997-98
Having left Milan in the summer of 1997, seemingly heading for Parma only for a young Carlo Ancelotti to veto the deal, Baggio found himself signing for Bologna in order to win back a place with the Azzurri ahead of France ’98. He had scored a penalty on his debut in a 4-2 away defeat to Atalanta, and in week two of the season Bologna and Baggio were at home to Inter, but this wasn’t any old Inter side—this was Ronaldo’s Inter.
The game was billed as Baggio vs. Ronaldo, the meeting of old and new; Ronaldo had usurped Baggio as the best player in the world at the ripe age of 21. “They all exaggerated this match as a challenge - me vs. Ronaldo,’ Baggio said. “But this will be exclusively Bologna vs. Inter.’’
On a rainy day at the Stadio Dall’Ara, Inter raced into the lead with a Fabio Galante header and added another goal from Maurizio Ganz. Then, with one minute before half-time, Bologna won a free kick just outside the Inter box. Baggio curled the ball up and across the wall with such velocity that goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca had no chance of saving it, the ball screaming into his top right-hand corner.
Baggio would net another goal; this time from a penalty, before Ronaldo added a sublime third for the Nerazzurri and finally Youri Djorkaeff scored a sumptuous chip to win a pulsating game for Gigi Simoni’s side.
This match was the beginning of Baggio’s resurgence and he would go on to score a further 19 goals for Bologna as he secured his place in the Azzurri squad for France ’98. The following season he would sign for Inter, linking up with II Fenomeno and Djorkaeff.
4. BRESCIA vs. Fiorentina, Stadio Artemio Franchi, Serie A 2000-01
Baggio’s first season at Brescia was a mixed affair. Injuries, his eternal kryptonite, forced him to miss a chunk of the 2000-01 season and by February he still hadn’t registered a goal for the Little Swallows.
He made his return to the pitch in this game against old club Fiorentina, and finally broke his duck in the fourth minute with arguably the scrappiest goal of his entire career. If there was ever a finish unbefitting for a man with Baggio’s quality, this was it.
La Viola had turned the game around with strikes from Nuno Gomes and Enrico Chiesa, then the away side got a free kick in the 67th minute on the left-hand side of the Fiorentina box. As Baggio stepped up the decibel level rose sharply through whistles from the home supporters. Baggio remonstrated with the referee that the wall wasn’t back far enough before he casually strolled back to the ball.
He then delightfully curled the ball over the wall before it crashed violently off the crossbar and down and up into the roof of Francesco Toldo’s net. Baggio refused to celebrate and the game ended in a draw.
Brescia’s target for the season was to avoid relegation yet they confounded critics to finish eighth in Serie A, gaining entry to the Intertoto Cup. Baggio would finish the season on ten goals.
3. INTER vs. Parma, Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi, Champions League play-off 1999-00
Both Inter and Parma finished the 1999-00 season equal on 58 points and thus a play-off was needed to determine who would qualify for the final Champions League spot. Nine days after the end of the season both sides met at the Stadio Bentegodi in Verona.
Baggio had suffered through one of the worst seasons of his career under Marcello Lippi. Lippi had arrived at Inter in the summer of 1999 and asked Baggio to essentially be a spy for him in the Inter locker room. Baggio, being a players’ player, instantly baulked at the demands and that set the tone for the course of the season, Baggio always on the bench or in the stands, but rarely on the pitch.
As the season neared its end, Ronaldo ruptured his knee ligaments against Lazio in that infamous Coppa Italia tie and, with Alvaro Recoba being, well, Alvaro Recoba and Ivan Zamarano reduced to the role of impact sub, Lippi had no choice but to start Baggio in this crucial match.
Massimo Moratti, ever the patient president, informed Lippi that if Inter lost the match he would be sacked after a single season. It was all or nothing for the cigar-smoking coach.
In the 36th minute, Lilian Thuram hacked down Benoit Cauet down the left-hand side of the Parma half, just outside the penalty area. The angle was very tight and most imagined that a cross into the box would follow.
But Baggio had different ideas. Instead of crossing the ball, he bent it beautifully over the wall and past a stunned Gigi Buffon. The execution was flawless. This wasn’t a one-off; he’d scored a similar free kick against Foggia in March 1995.
Baggio would score another superb goal late in the game—a volley from outside the box to confirm Inter’s place in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League. This was his departing gift to Moratti, who Baggio always respected. La Gazzetta dello Sport gave him a 10/10 rating the next day, a rarity for the paper (they have only given seven 10/10 ratings in their existence).
It would all be for nothing however, as Baggio left in the summer of 2000. He was followed out the door by archrival Lippi as Inter were shockingly beaten by Helsingborg in the qualifiers.
2. MILAN vs. Perugia, San Siro, Serie A 1996-97
Baggio was in his second season with Milan, his first produced a second consecutive Scudetto, but he wasn’t the key player everyone had envisioned. Fabio Capello shoehorned him into his system rather than build around his talent and it seemed that the manager, who had little time for mercurial players in the 1990s, didn’t know how best to harness Baggio’s ability.
In the summer of 1996, Capello left Milan and Italy for Real Madrid, and in came Uruguayan Oscar Tabárez. Tabárez had previously worked wonders with Cagliari in 1994-95 and 1995-96, guiding them to ninth and tenth-place finishes.
Baggio was in and out of the starting XI in the opening rounds of the season as Tabárez chopped and changed his formation every week. On the fourth weekend of the season Perugia came to Milan, but Baggio was relegated to the bench, with George Weah and Marco Simone leading the line.
Milan raced into an early lead through the Liberian and he added a second late in the second half. Baggio came on at the start of the second half for a young Massimo Ambrosini and in the 77th minute Milan got a free kick.
The set piece was a good 25 yards from goal; Baggio took a very quick sprint and stunningly curled the ball up and over the wall into the top corner of the Perugia net. The real beauty of the goal is seen when viewing through various angles as you can appreciate the technique of the strike.
This strike would arguably be the highlight of Baggio’s season. Milan had a disastrous campaign and Tabárez would be sacked in December ’96. ‘’I feel so sorry for him,’’ Baggio remarked. “The role Tabárez made for me was perfect.’’
In a cruel twist of fate, Silvio Berlusconi brought Arrigo Sacchi back to the club, and Baggio’s season didn’t get any better. He rotted away on the bench to the detriment of Milan, who finished 11th.
1. JUVENTUS vs. Dortmund, Westfalenstadion, UEFA Cup semi-final second leg 1994-95
The 1994-95 season was bordering on being historic for Juventus. Under new coach Marcello Lippi, La Vecchia Signora were competing on three fronts. They were top of the league, in the final of the Coppa Italia and in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup against regular mid-90s foe Borussia Dortmund.
The ponytailed one had endured a mixed season; injured for large portions of it and suffering from a World Cup hangover meaning he wasn’t having the most stellar of seasons. Pasadena hung over him like a dark cloud.
Yet, as the season was nearing its end, there were signs of pre-USA ’94 Baggio as Juve headed to Germany for the second leg of the semi-final. Despite how good a young and bushy-haired Alessandro Del Piero was performing as his understudy, if Baggio was healthy, he started.
The first leg ended a 1-1 draw with Baggio scoring a penalty, and the second leg was expected to be another tight affair.
Sergio Porrini scored an early goal for Juve, a header from Baggio’s corner. Dortmund equalised not long after and then in the 31st minute Juve won a free kick after Rene Tretschok hacked down Angelo Di Livio. Baggio took charge of the ball. This was his kind of territory.
Throughout the course of his career he had various ways of taking free kicks. One method was to simply take a step or two and hit the ball with his instep (number four on the list is a good example). Another technique, one that he mostly used during his time at Juve, was to run at the ball as if he was going to hit it with his laces, yet at the last second would bend the ball beautifully with the inside of his right foot; he called on this technique against Dortmund.
As he hit the ball it arched majestically, travelling at pace into Stefan Klos’ top right-hand corner. The German international barely moved as the ball clipped the underside of the crossbar and into the net. It was a goal of violent beauty, his greatest ever free kick, and an effort worthy of any occasion.
Juventus went on to win the game and make it to the final, where they lost to Parma and were denied a treble. It was to be Baggio’s last great goal for the Bianconeri, as he departed in the summer of 1995 to rivals Milan.
Words by Emmet Gates @EmmetGates
Emmet is a freelance football writer based in Italy. As well as The Gentleman Ultra, he has written for FourFourTwo, These Football Times and InBedWithMaradona.