Nigeria 1 (Amuneke 25′) – Italty 2 (R. Baggio 88′, 102′)
5th July, 1994. Foxboro Stadium, Foxborough.
There is an often-used cliché in football, ‘goals change games’. On the 5th of July 1994 Roberto Baggio scored a goal that not only changed a game, it changed a nation’s whole tournament. In doing so it cemented Baggio’s position as a footballing icon. It also meant that Italy returned home as heroic runners-up, rather than embarrassing under-achievers.
It’s strange to look back on a tournament that many remember Roberto Baggio for and realise that the Juventus ‘fantasista’ struggled through the group phase. Defeat to the Republic of Ireland in game one was followed up by a narrow 1-0 victory in game 2. Baggio was the player sacrificed just 22 minutes into that game for goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani following the sending-off of Gianluca Pagliuca. Game three brought a 1-1 draw with Mexico which saw the Azzurri limp into the knockout phase where they would meet Nigeria.
It had been a disappointing campaign for the Italians, who came to the USA with high hopes. Baggio, the Ballon D’Or winner in 1993, was seen as the man to lead Italy to victory on the back of a successful few seasons with Juventus. Having moved to the Old Lady from Fiorentina for a then world-record fee and announcing himself on the world stage at Italia 90, Baggio was at the peak of his powers.
Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts hosted the last-16 knockout tie between Baggio’s Italy and Nigeria. The Italians, in their dazzling all-white change kit, were truly up against it. Already a goal down to Emmanuel Amunike’s 25th minute strike, the Azzurri went down to ten-men in the second half. Gianfranco Zola, on the field for just over ten minutes having replaced Beppe Signori, having been harshly red-carded. Italy were on the ropes as the game clock ticked on to the 88th minute.
As Nigeria looked to see out few remaining minutes for a famous victory, Roberto Donadoni picked up the ball on the right touchline midway inside the ‘Super Eagles’ half. The Milan midfielder then played neat pass inside to Roberto Mussi who had cut in from his wide right position. As Mussi cut into the Nigeria penalty area Roberto Baggio held his position. Lesser players may have been pulled toward the goal-mouth in their urgency to find a late equaliser, not the number 10 though.
Baggio found himself in perfect isolation as Mussi’s cut-back rolled toward him on the edge of the box. More than fifty-four thousand in attendance and the entire nations of Italy and Nigeria held their collective breath. The man with the ponytail waited, concentration fully on the ball, left sock rolled down to relieve the pain of an injury to his calf.
With movement of his right foot, as artistic as a Michelangelo brush-stroke, Baggio sent a shot toward goal. The picture it painted was so beautiful to Italy that it could have belonged on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel itself.
The ball nestled just inside the Nigerian goalkeeper Peter Rufai’s bottom right-hand corner. The Italy striker wheeled away to celebrate with his team-mates and coaching staff on the touchline. The joy of the moment matched by the sheer relief of staying in the tournament and avoiding humiliation.
As, what appeared to be, the entire Azzurri squad celebrated with Baggio the replays showed those watching on television the true brilliance of the finish. The right-foot brush-stroke of ‘Il Divin Codino’ never left the ground as it travelled over the Boston turf. The view from behind the goal showing the accuracy of the effort.
Both Italy striker Daniele Massaro and Nigerian defender Augustin Eguavoen come agonising close to touching the ball on its journey to the net. Eguavoen flicks a heel out desperately as the shot passes by behind him. The natural striking instincts of Milan striker Massaro cause him to offer a slight jab as the ball passes by his toes. If either of those players had got the slightest of touches the ball may not have found the net. As ever, fine margins defined the moment and the game.
As the dust settled on the Italian celebrations Baggio received treatment from the physio on the troublesome calf which had caused him problems during the game. Despite the injury concern Baggio would go on to play the entire 120-minutes.
The man they call the Divine Ponytail scored the winning goal with eight minutes remaining in extra-time. After being just 1-minute and 45-seconds from elimination Italy were through to the Quarter-Final. Baggio, with a further goal in the Quarters and two in the Semi, proved to be the Azzurri’s talisman. He not only kept his nation in the tournament but he then carried them to the final.
The cruelty of football means that players and teams don’t always get what they deserve. It could be argued that Brazil deserved to win the tournament but no-one could deny that the end of Baggio’s tournament was harsh. It’s often forgotten, or perhaps not even known, that even if Baggio had scored his shoot-out penalty, Brazil would still have had a pen for the trophy.
Perhaps the penalty miss helped to ensure that Roberto Baggio was one of, if not the iconic figure of the 1994 World Cup. A World Cup which turned his way with a late equaliser which could only be described as ‘Divine’.