On April 1, 2001, with four minutes left on the clock, Andrea Pirlo collects the ball in the centre circle of the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin after some frantic arcade football. Dancing with it for a few moments, he gives it peace with a gentle touch, lets it wobble on the potted grass, unmarked and in space, before looking up to see Roberto Baggio pointing in the direction he would like to have it played. The No 10 starts his run from the trequarti, in behind the opponent’s defence as Pirlo unleashes the drone towards the set target.
The lofted pass swirls through the air with exact pace and precision to drop over Baggio as he runs into the penalty box. As the veteran pulls himself free from the defence, the ponytail whiffs up and down as he opens his body, lets the ball neatly fall over his shoulder before faking a first touch finish.
The proposed volley stops, as his foot instead only slightly makes contact with the ball, to change its direction with a soft but instinctive movement that carries it past the rushing Edwin van der Sar, to open up an empty net for the left-footed finish.
Juventus 1-1 Brescia. The Bianconeri look helplessly on as Baggio runs towards the stands and is embraced by his teammates. One, two, pas de bourrée. In the moment it was masterful imagination, and to this day is heralded as a prime example of what stood Baggio head, shoulders and ponytail above his peers.
The goal was Baggio’s 163rd in Serie A, but only his third for the Rondinelle, and it proved the real turning point for Il Divino Codino at Brescia.
The Old Lady had been punished by their former hero. Coming from a 4-1 defeat against Lazio in Rome, they were falling further and further back to protect the three vital points in the Scudetto battle, eventually falling at the feet of Italy’s arguably greatest forward in the modern game. One moment to change the story completely, from the future star’s pass to the iconic veteran finishing off his last chapter of an illustrious career, still claiming the role of the protagonist in yet another Scudetto tale.
Without the Baggio goal, Carlo Ancelotti might have brought the title to Turin. Eventually, finishing the season second behind Roma in the League, seeing the Scudetto end up in the Italian capital for the second consecutive year despite having surpassed the reigning champions Lazio in the table.
Baggio himself had left Inter during the summer of 2000, arriving at Brescia old and greying, but ever so hungry. Despite having entered the final chapter of his career, the talisman chose to lead by example, staying hours upon hours after training to practice on his own, outside of the scheduled sessions, inspiring the younger stars to do the same. The missing piece to give Brescia stability and focus in the top tier after tempestuous seasons of promotion and relegation.
“He was a silent leader, and above all, he was a leader on the pitch,” Pirlo said about Baggio during their time together at Brescia. “When he played for the team, he made you win the games.” But the former Italy international had both something to prove and something to gain at Brescia. A move abroad could have prevented him from playing in his fourth World Cup, he couldn’t take any chances. But after falling out with Coach Marcello Lippi at Inter, he found a friend in Brescia.
Carlo Mazzone signed a two-year deal with the superstar despite his troubled knee, admitting that “he’d arrive an hour early to have physiotherapy and do strengthening exercises, then was the last to leave.” Maximum belief and effort, though, didn’t stop the player being weighed him down at the start of his career with his new club.
Baggio struggled to find his feet and didn’t score until February, seven months into the season. It still didn’t look like he was going to kick off after that brace against Fiorentina in Week 19. Three defeats followed, before the real turning point – and moment of mastery – came for both team and No 10. The goal against Juventus was the first in a run of eight in six consecutive games, culminating in a hat-trick against Lecce on May 5. From the Week 24 draw with Juventus, the Old Lady went on to lose the title on the last day of the season by two points to Roma. Meanwhile, Brescia didn’t lose again in 2000-01 (6W 5D), with Baggio continuing his form into 2001-02, opening that campaign with eight goals in the first eight rounds, before injury interrupted. Even with that pause, it was the start of a memorable final chapter in the game for one of Italy’s most iconic players that can be traced back to the moment of magic in Turin.
“Baggio was one of the greatest Italian football players of all time,” Mazzone once reflected. “But I can tell you this, he was an even greater man. He was quiet, polite, respectful, humble. He never let his great talent weigh on anyone else. He was a friend who helped me win games on a Sunday.”
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