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.

Keep up to date with the latest news and action from Spain's Primera Division with Football Espana - from the team behind Football Italia.

Have your say...
Great memories !!! I thought we were pretty poor in the tournament until Baggio showed up and scored that first goal against Nigeria out of nowhere !!!
on the 18th November, 2013 at 5:29pm
Vialli, Ravanelli, Paolo Sousa and Del Piero did. Do not get me wrong I think Baggio is one of the greatest players ever, certainly better in my view to the more athletic but goal getting machine duo of CR7 and Messi but he acted like Inzaghi in that world cup. Why Maldini's heir would you say the 94 team was superior to 90 if we go by your logic of using Milan's season? In 1990 Italy won all 3 European club titles with Milan, Sampdoria and Juventus beating Fiorentina in Uefa; all winning
on the 18th November, 2013 at 3:20pm
To this day, that game remains my most memorable experience when watching the national team. I was only 13, but it was just incredible. those last few minutes truly woke up an underachieving side, and the feeling after the final whistle was just....truly amazing. that is precisely why I cannot wait to be sitting in the hammersmith stand this evening. I couldn't miss this game for anything.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 3:15pm
Maldini's heir please remind when Baggio got his injury in 94 world cup. I am sure he got injured against Bulgaria, pulling his hamstring but not before then. It is like saying Ronaldo was injured in 98 becos of what happened in the final. Baggio's goals helped Italy to the final but his overall performances were not great. Dino is an average player but in that tournament, he was Italy's best scoring crucial goals against Norway and Spain. @scottazzuri Baggio did not inspire Juve to scudetto
on the 18th November, 2013 at 3:14pm
Off to Craven Cottage tonight, shame it looks like Pirlo is not playing, but I'll be able to see a good striking partnership.

on the 18th November, 2013 at 3:14pm
Ahmed -why were Italia ''lucky''?

They scored two goals (the second when down to 9 men) and Zola was harshly sent off.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 1:00pm
nigeria lost because like all african teams they do not know or want to defend, or slow down the rhythm in order to control the advantage. italy are, or were, arguably the masters in that area.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 12:19pm
And so was Baresi. Dino Baggio was great but you'd have to be on crack to think he was our best player. Baggio single handily took the team to the final starting (admittedly a little late) with this match. The Bulgaria game was one of the best Italy performances I'd ever seen. That was until the semi-final against Germany in 2006. Come to think imagine if you took the 94 team and stuck Pirlo and Gattuso from 2006 in the middle. For me that was the big difference between 94 and 06.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 11:23am
This was at the time of the 3 foreigner rule. Meanwhile Baggio was the best player in the world at the time and Signori was banging in the goals in what was at the time the toughest league in the world. We were simply the best side on paper. And then Sacchi refused to pick Panucci. Played Signori on and off and mostly on the wing (except admittedly against Ireland!). And then there were the injuries. Contrary to what people saying on here (some bizarre statements by the way) Baggio was injured.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 11:18am
Now that brings back memories.What a player and what a team at a time when Serie A was the number one league. For me this was one of Italy's POTENTIAL greatest sides let down by Sacchi.I remember screaming at the TV at some of Sacchi's decisions (my god it was nearly as bad as Allegri). To put this in context Milan had just won the league and Champions League double. They had conceded 15 goals in the league and smashed Barca 4-0 in the final (in one of the greatest final performances of all time
on the 18th November, 2013 at 11:16am
This world cup made me fall in love with the Azzurri and in particular, Juventus. Roby Baggio was almost non-existent in some games, with the commentators hyping him up, for they had seen what an impact he had on Italia90 tournament. Then almost in a flash of brilliance, the ball would end up in the net thanks to Il Divino Codino. I hate it when Baggio is only remembered for his miss, when after this he inspired Juve back to the Scudetto in 94-95. A true enigma and genius.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 10:30am
For those critcising the Italy team of 1994, the team that won the World Cup in 1994 weren't a great team too. Just as Italy relied on Baggio, Brazil relied on Romario and Bebeto. The best n most talented team don't always win such tournaments. Like it or not, luck plays a big part.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 10:21am
I was only 10 years old at the time of this match and I remember pre-match everyone was tipping Nigeria to win. The match was shown in the early hours of the morning here in Singapore so I didn't wake up in time to watch the entire match but I woke up in time to watch the replay of Baggio's equaliser and the entire second half. Zola's sending off was completely ridiculous.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 10:18am
What a game and what a performance from R Baggio. I'm going to the match at Fulham tonight and hope that it is mentioned in the program notes.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 9:34am
You also bring up how Italy didnt deserve the penalty. Well, I can also say the straight red card to Zola was invalid and a team who doesnt do much to create or score with the other team down to 10 men doesnt deserve to win. In reply to dennis, you're statement is inaccurate. Italy were terrible in group stage but, beyond that they played as they were expected to play even having Baresi out injured up to the final and Baggio playing on one leg for most of the tournament.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 9:12am
Ok, I don't know some of the people on here are saying Nigeria deserved to win against Italy in the World Cup in 94. Italy were pressing and dominated all game giving very little away to Nigeria aside from Amunike's goal that was put on a silver platter from a horrid defensive clearance by Maldini.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 9:01am
Is that the World Cup Tassotti nearly killed a Spanish player?
on the 18th November, 2013 at 8:21am
Goes without saying, no one in football has achieved what Baggio has. Give him a talented yet toothless team and see what he made out of it. 9 WC goals aside, no one else could have done what he did single handedly in 90, 94 and 98. Sure Italy were over-reliant on him but they had little choices with someone like him in the squad. Numbers don't do justice - the sheer quality here speaks for himself. He shall forever remain one of the greatest ever. thanks Ginkers!
on the 18th November, 2013 at 8:15am
The referee was a mess. Italy should have ended that match with 8or 9 men. They kept on kicking the Nigerian players until they injured Amokachi and Amunike.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 7:21am
The difference between Italy and Nigeria in 1994 was that Italy was a three time champion and playing in their 13th tournament. Nigeria on the other hand was playing in their first World Cup. At the end of the day, call it what you will, experience will always prevail. It wasn't luck. Italy had the will to never give up and keep pressing until the end. And yes, we can call Baggio our Maradona. Ciao.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 6:36am
Italy deserved to win and should have won the whole thing.
on the 18th November, 2013 at 4:31am
Italy deserved to win and should have won the title. People who talk about luck need to really fhink about what they are saying
on the 18th November, 2013 at 4:30am
Italy were just lucky. Nigeria played better football that day. We lost to luck,not Italy.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 9:20pm
Hey guys,Italy were lucky and it also was a controversial penalty. Apparently,Nigeria was robbed.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 9:10pm
That youtube video is amazing. Not only does it show case his infinite talent but also the ferocious defending and tackles he and other forwards at the time were subjected to. If Messi or C.Ronaldo were around in that time we'd probably not know who they were. But if Baggio was playing today - he'd be considered god.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 9:09pm
Anyone who watched the 90 WC & the 94 WC could not argue that the 90 squad was much better than the 94. The 90 team was one of the best sides not to win the WC, with some luck the 94 Squad reached the final and nearly pulled off the shock. What you have to also remember though is that special players like Baggio often do very little but what they do counts and that's what RB did in 94. Yes he played much better in 90 but Italia did not get what they deserved that year.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 8:55pm
I cracked two holes in the ceiling that day, with my head.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 8:35pm
If there was not a poll in the grass Italy were out(by the baggio goal)!! how life can be.....Nigeria fully deserved that victory...
on the 17th November, 2013 at 8:00pm
I went through the same thing. With three minutes to go a colleague from work called me to laugh at Italy's early demise. I had already bet him Italy would beat his beloved Ireland (I had to wear sandals to work as a forfeit). But Baggio saved us. I had the last laugh (although the aforementioned colleague said he would have skipped work if Italy had beaten Brazil). The Divine Ponytail still divides opinion but I don't know why. I've said it before and I'll say it again; he was our Maradona.
on the 17th November, 2013 at 7:52pm
Have you any of you watched that 'Baggio dribbling compilation' on YouTube? There is some fantastic footage of him from his Vicenza days. He was only about 17 then. This was before he suffered that terrible knee injury that plagued him for the rest of his career. What he managed to achieve in spite of this (& overly pragmatic coaches), was amazing. My all-time favourite footballer!
on the 17th November, 2013 at 7:31pm

Post new comment

Your email address is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
If you have your own website, enter its address here.
Maximum 500 characters.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.
Your responses will be moderated, and sometimes edited, by Football Italia before appearing on the site. Please keep your comments clean and try to keep them relevant to the blog above. We reserve the right to reject views that we deem unsuitable for publication.