With Fiorentina and Napoli playing out the Coppa Italia Final at the weekend, it is perhaps apt to recall that in the same month of May, this particular fixture when played in the League saw Roberto Baggio’s first Serie A goal scored, 27 years ago.
On a very hot day in May in a Fuorigrotta concrete canyon, 70,000 fanatical Napoli fans were whistling and screaming insults at a cool 20-year-old Roberto Baggio stood in front of the home goal. The Fiorentina forward calmly took the ball and, placing it on the line at the left end of the D, set it up for a free-kick. Waiting patiently for Pierluigi Pairetto to settle the wall, the young ace kept a steady eye on the six defenders pushing and shoving in front of him. A few moments later the whistle went and with the crowd noise absolutely overwhelming, he took the smallest of run-ups to send a screamer through the wall into the bottom left corner and past the outstretched hands of Claudio Garella.
This was in 1987, in a month that features heavily in Il Divin Codino’s career and little did we know but that particular strike was to become a major milestone in Italian football history - it turned out to be a powerful portent for many more extraordinary strikes as Baggio continued to score unique goals throughout his career. Of course it wasn’t the only omen that magical day in the San Paolo, as Napoli would go on to win their first Scudetto, but that is another story.
It was also the first of many set-pieces that the Viola’s cultural icon would eventually convert. Unfortunately there seems to be no official record of his goals from free-kicks but we do know he converted 76 penalties out of 91 in Serie A, which is still the all-time record.
Looking back at some other special goals, many in May, his first for the Azzurri came two years later against Uruguay, which fittingly enough was also a free-kick in another 1-1 draw. All told Roberto went on to score 27 goals in 56 games for the La Nazionale, which is the fourth-highest in the all time rankings and certainly would and should have been more, if not for intransigence of several Coaches. The inspirational No 10 is also the highest Italian goalscorer of all-time in the World Cup, with 9 goals from 16 appearances.
One that will always resonate with Italian fans and lovers of the sublime was scored during Italia 90 against Czechoslovakia on his World Cup debut. The Azzurri were winning 1-0 when in the 78th minute the pony-tailed assassin collected the ball in his own half, took a few steps, a quick one-two with Giuseppe Giannini and then without missing a beat set off. Touching the ball nine times on a 40-yard slalom in seven seconds, he destroyed three opponents, before sending the goalkeeper the wrong way to score the goal of the tournament.
Before that competition, word got out during May that Baggio was to leave for Juventus and riots followed in Florence. However, it did not stop him becoming a nationwide cultural icon as he scored 14 goals in 33 games in his first season with the Bianconeri. The following campaign was even better with 18 goals, before really making his mark in 1992-93, scoring 21 times in just 27 League games. His inspiring performances continued the next campaign as he reached 100 Serie A goals, thanks to his fantastic finishes, mindboggling power and a very short back-lift.
In total the Divine Ponytail scored 291 goals in his club career with 221 coming in the League and all but 13 in Serie A. Scoring from all angles including strikes from mazy dribbles, chips, volleys, set-pieces, penalties and one-on-ones, the calcio conjurer also produced uncountable assists as the world’s best fantasista.
One of these unforgettable goals was his significant strike against PSG in the 1993 UEFA Cup semi-final second leg, which helped Juve into the final. Over the two-legged final, against Borussia Dortmund again in May, he scored three more to guarantee him his only major European trophy, after the 6-1 aggregate win. That year also saw him voted World and European Player of the Year cementing his status as one of the game’s greats.
Internationals, Cup games, League games you name it he made poetry before scoring in it. Reflecting on a career built on many magical moments like the above, the only outfield player to be awarded a ten out of ten by La Gazzetta said: “With soccer I have the ability to do things differently. That is why I admire Leonardo da Vinci. He was able to create things other people wouldn’t believe in.” The very same could be said about Roberto, who of course retired 10 years ago in this very merry month of May.