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Sunday November 17 2013
When Baggio shot down the Super Eagles

With Italy and Nigeria set to clash in London, Giancarlo Rinaldi shares memories of that epic encounter in the USA.

My father had put his jacket on to leave. He was at the door, ready to turn his back on a calamitous end to Italy's World Cup. But then Roberto Baggio intervened.

Even now the goal has an improbable look. Find it again on YouTube and it tracks a path which could make a believer of the most ardent agnostic. The shot finds the narrowest of gaps on its journey to the net. It threads its way between a defender's heel and an attacker's foot, past a goalkeeper's glove and sneaks inside the post. It's a strike which increases your incredulity every time you watch it.

Italy, as improbable as it seemed, were back on level terms with Nigeria. And my father had to take his jacket back off.

Even by the standards of delicious torment Arrigo Sacchi's side distributed during the 1994 World Cup, this game was a high point. They had stumbled their way out of a group containing Norway, Mexico and the Republic of Ireland with a win, a draw and a loss. Their goal tally was a meagre two strikes. But it was enough to get them the final spot in the last 16 as a best third-place finisher. The traditional Italian low-key way to progress in a tournament had been achieved once more.

Nigeria, for their part, had emerged as group winners in a section containing Bulgaria, Argentina and Greece. Daniel Amokachi on his own had matched the Azzurri's goalscoring exploits. Plenty of pundits were predicting a World Cup upset for the then three-time World Cup winners when they faced the Super Eagles.

The card-happy Mexican referee Arturo Brizio Carter made his mark early, booking present-day Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo after just two minutes. That was the first of 10 cards he would wave during the game. Minutes later Daniele Massaro was next into the referee's notebook.

That was symptomatic of a tetchy and tense opening period before Nigeria broke the deadlock. A moment of defensive slackness from an unexpected source cost Italy dearly.

"I was marking someone - I forget who it was - who was very good at heading the ball," recalled Paolo Maldini. "I was watching him more than the ball."

"Maldini could not get it away and it bounced over my head and ended up right at an opponent's feet," added defensive colleague Roberto Mussi. Emmanuel Amuneke needed no second invitation to give the lead to Clemens Westerhof's men. The "shock" elimination was on.

And it only seemed to get more likely as the game progressed. In climatic conditions Maldini described as "ridiculous," Italy failed to scale any great heights. When the half-time whistle blew, the body language of players like Beppe Signori suggested they had little faith in turning things around. Years later, Sacchi insisted he still had confidence during his team talk.

"I was quite tough and told them it was a game we could not lose," he said. "I did not think Nigeria were as good as people said."

He made his first change during the interval with Dino Baggio replacing Nicola Berti in midfield and it almost paid off at once. The man on his way to Parma from Juventus came as close as anyone to levelling matters. But after that chance went begging, things fell flat again. So, on 63 minutes, the ex-Milan boss made a move which would have an even more profound effect. Off came Signori and on went birthday boy Gianfranco Zola. It was the first action he had seen in the whole tournament and he would last about 12 minutes.

"I tried to get the ball back and I got it without touching the defender," he remembered. "He threw himself down and made a real meal of it. I thought it was odd when the referee whistled for a free kick - then I saw him moving his hand to get a card and I couldn't believe I was going to get booked. But he sent me off instead. When I saw the red card it took me a while to realise he had actually sent me off."

Zola fell to his knees in disbelief. "The world caved in around him," said Mussi. "He was crying in the dressing room." Millions of Italy fans around the world felt the same. There had been little prospect of recovery with 11 men, what hope was there with just 10? Metaphorically at least, most of us had our jackets on ready to head home like my father.

"Something happened to me during that game which never happened before or since," admitted Sacchi. "I could see us going up the steps of the plane and heading back home to Italy." One can only imagine what kind of reception the Azzurri in general - and Zola in particular - might have received. Tomato sellers might have been anticipating a busy day.

But, with two minutes to play, the reporters would have to rewrite their sporting obituaries on Italy's World Cup dream. Baggio suddenly seized his role as the man of destiny for the tournament and delivered his pinpoint strike. The release of joy among the European side was as intense as the sense of deflation in their African opposition.

Sunday Oliseh, who would go on to play with Juventus, reckoned they showed their inexperience. Instead of making their opponents chase the ball when they were a man short, Nigeria indulged in a few unnecessary tricks and flicks. He has never been able to watch the game again, such was the pain it caused.

Baggio's redemption was complete in the first period of extra time. He chipped a through ball to Antonio Benarrivo who tumbled inside the box. The Divine Ponytail's spot-kick kissed the post on its way into the net and Italy had the lead. By hook or by crook - and with one famous Dino Baggio clearance - they held on to victory.

"It was as if a train had just passed over the top of us and we found out we were still alive,” said Sacchi. There was certainly something of the miraculous as the Azzurri progressed all the way to the Final at that World Cup. For my dad, who thought his anguish had ended against Nigeria, there were still three more matches in the competition to suffer.

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Have your say...
Italian players, well in the attacking sense as I think overall it is between he and Franco Baresi with Maldini not far behind. There is no way that I would ever rank that Italy side with such a rubbish midfield, hopeless tactics, players out of opposition as being a great side. You know you are in trouble when Dino Baggio is your best player. Roberto Baggio was anonymous in most games but then would pop up and score last minute goals except against Bulgaria where ironically he got injured.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 8:08pm
Amazing what nostalgia can do to some people's memory. First off Italy were terrible in 94 due to Sacchi, playing just 20 minutes of great football against Bulgaria. Baggio was not amazing, he scored crucial goals but overall Dino Baggio was Italy's best player not Roberto but again that was becos of Sacchi's tactics.@Garry Baggio only got injured in the semis not the whole tourney and no way near what Diego did in 86. In fact he played better in 90 but scored less goals. Agree he is greatest
on the 17th November, 2013 at 8:02pm
Italy didn't win. Nigeria lost.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 7:53pm
Wonderful article and wonderful memories. This is the first game I watched of the Azzurri and what kept me coming back for more. There is no sweeter triumph than snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 7:50pm
I was 12 at the time. The relief when Baggio scored that last minute goal and then penalty in extra time was immense. Had Barasi and Baggio been fully fit in the final I think we would have beaten Brazil. We had some team then. Losing the final was heartbreaking and makes me cry just thinking about it. Baggio is my hero and the greatest Italian ever.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 7:10pm
Get Memories Roberto Baggio. What a player
on the 17th November, 2013 at 7:08pm
Baggio was unbelievable in that World Cup. Playing with an injury too. Had he produced one more moment of genius in the final his performance would've been remembered alongside Maradona's in 1986. Instead many people unfairly remember the penalty miss in the final.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 6:55pm
TOTTI THE GREATEST EVER
on the 17th November, 2013 at 6:44pm
In that game fans saw the greatest ever - Roberto Baggio.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 6:01pm

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