Baggio II: Ode to Dino

 

Dino Baggio would be forgiven for having the words, ‘Non suo fratello’, meaning ‘not his brother’, tattooed across his forehead. A career spanning over 20 years in the higher echelons of European football, including three UEFA Cup title honours, Dino Baggio spent his entire playing career in the shadows when compared with his unrelated namesake, Roberto.

I visited the Juventus Football Club Museum in Turin last week. While the gallery featured highlight montages, replica shirts, stats and quotes commemorating their precious number 10, Roberto Baggio, there was barely a mention for their former midfield stalwart, Dino. Perhaps it was because the latter played for the bianconeri for only two seasons, although it appears to be a belittlement which, even to Dino himself, should come as no surprise.

Dino was often referred to throughout his career as ‘Baggio 2’ or the ‘other Baggio’ by his fellow team-mates and the Italian national press. Despite the two players having vastly different footballing philosophies, although remaining close friends to this day, the lack of relative credit Dino received in those circles, while unsurprising, must no doubt have rankled.

Aside from sharing a surname, the playing styles of Roberto and Dino could not have been more different. In the 90s, their respective hairstyles neatly represented their differences: while Dino’s hair was cropped and unfussy, Roberto’s was flamboyant and outlandish – a do which can only be described as a fuzzy, braided mullet. While Roberto was a classy and nippy goalscorer, Dino was a resolute and trusty defensive midfielder, a versatile protector of the back line.

The early years

Dino Baggio was born in 1971 in Camposampiero, a small town in the province of Padova. While he was four years younger than his Italian counterpart, the two would spend years battling together for both Juventus and Italy, at a time when Serie A was strongly considered the best league in the world.

A product of the primavera system in the 1980s, Dino’s first two seasons at Torino were a resounding success. During a time when youngsters were afforded precious little opportunities of first team football in Italy, Dino made his debut in Serie A at the tender age of 19, going on to become one of their most consistent performers on their way to a fifth-place league finish and qualification to the UEFA cup. Internationally, he added an U-21 European Championship winners’ medal to his trophy cabinet.

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Dreaming of greatness: a young Dino Baggio posing in his hometown of Camposampiero

These were heady times for Italian football. Following the success of hosting the World Cup in 1990, elite footballers from across the world flocked to the long Mediterranean coastline to showcase their skills. ‘Football Italia’ beamed from television sets into the living rooms of British households, James Richardson astutely and articulately guiding audiences through the week’s news while sipping coffee in an Italian cafe.

Dino’s rise through the ranks coincided with a rush of interest in Italian football. His early career came at a time when most teams in Italy played with five defenders across the back line. His position and philosophy were highly in demand. A challenging and negative tactic of resolute defence frustrated a young Dennis Bergkamp during his brief spell at Inter Milan. In the brilliant book, ‘Stillness and Speed’, the Dutchman said, ‘Football is about finding solutions to problems on the pitch. I had less space in Italy than I did in England and played against five defenders, but I loved the challenge.’ While protecting the defence of the great bianconeri side, Dino proved to be one of the most challenging opponents of that era, and a problem which Bergkamp never did sufficiently solve.

Dubious loyalty and the roots of an unlikely friendship

It was during their two seasons together at Juventus that the two Baggios first became friends. The pair both having been born in the northeast region of Italy, their friendship blossomed at Juve, where they were roommates. Their two families would later go on to enjoy hunting and skiing holidays together during the off-season.

Dino’s time at Juventus, though, was not without its controversies and upsets, particularly in the days following his 10 billion Italian Lira transfer in 1992. Dino’s move from local rivals Torino was received with criticism and caution from large swathes of the Juventus faithful. He quickly allayed those initial fears, with the help of strong support from Roberto, the latter being, at the time, Juventus’ prize asset and newly appointed team captain.

The pair would often exchange stories of life before they arrived at Juventus, with nostalgic tales from their lives in northern Italy. While they heavily contributed to the successful Juventus’ side of the early 90s, there was always a sense that they were reluctant wearers of the black and white stripes.

In Roberto’s case, the lack of loyalty he showed was far less subtle, although the history books have been massaged with highly successful goalscoring form. Upon the signature of the pony-tailed striker, Roberto’s words were somewhat luke-warm, ‘I was compelled to accept the transfer.’ In a Serie A match against Fiorentina in 1991, Baggio would refuse to take a penalty against his former club. His replacement, De Agostini, missed the penalty and Juventus lost the match. Rather than placating an outraged Juventus fanbase, Roberto said, ‘Deep in my heart I am always purple’, the colour of Fiorentina.

At a time of unrest in his own career, Dino was, for once, thankful for being outshone by the controversies of his namesake – it would become a theme. The early scepticism from the fans fizzled out following consistently solid performances in the heart of midfield, as Dino competed for a starting berth with star-signing David Platt. The peek of his time in Turin would be the 6-1 demolition of Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Cup final in 1993, scoring three goals over the two legs.

Dino began to receive high praise across the Italian footballing landscape for his harrying and assured displays, although outside of Italy he was perhaps not even yet viewed as the ‘other Baggio’. The World Cup in 1994 was about to change all of that.

World Cup 1994 and the match-winning touch

While Roberto was awarded the Ballon d’Or for his heroics for Juventus leading up to the World Cup in 1994, it was Dino who proved to be a pivotal cog for that brilliant Italian national team, notably leading the charge for the Azzuri in the group stages in the USA.

Heading into the tournament, hopes were high in Italy. In qualifying, Dino Baggio had scored the only goal of the match against Portugal to guarantee Italy’s place in the tournament. In the opening group match, Ray Houghton of the Republic of Ireland temporarily stalled the Italian party with a stunning chip from outside of the box, complete with a less impressive forward-roll celebration. Italy lost 1-0.

The second match against a stubborn Norway team was then, naturally, labelled as a ‘must-win’. With Roberto on the sidelines with an Achilles’ tendon injury, Dino scored the winning goal, a powerful header in a tightly-contested 1-0 victory. He would also later score a 25-yard bullet in the quarter-final against Spain.

It was a pivotal tournament for Dino, a time when he proved he was more than just the ‘piano-carrier’ for the rest of the team’s attacking flair. The day before the final at the sun-blasted Rose Bowl stadium, Dino said to the press, ‘For years, no one knows who I am, and then after a few World Cup games, everyone says I am the other Baggio. By the end, maybe I show everyone I have a first name and last name.’

His words were echoed by his manager, Arrigo Sacchi, ‘People didn’t believe in Dino Baggio. He has silenced a lot of them. Now, he has become a major weapon for us.’ While Italian heartbreak ensued in the final, Roberto’s missed penalty in the shoot-out sealing their defeat, the tournament in 1994 proved to be a season of change for Dino. His performances were a hearty and powerful slug to his critics across the globe.

Parma and the knife incident

In the aftermath of the World Cup final defeat, yet again being the lesser known Baggio had its advantages for Dino. Roberto was singled out for criticism by the Italian media, while Dino’s performances enabled a summer move to Parma. The famous story goes that Dino was indecisive about a move, and Juventus came very close to offloading a young Alessandro Del Piero to Parma instead. Dino had a change of heart, and the rest is history.

The years at Parma were relatively kind, and he got off to a flying start, winning the UEFA Cup in his first season. Dino again scored in both legs of the final in a comfortable victory against, of course, Juventus. The two clubs, and indeed the two Baggios, would battle it out for the rest of the 90s, as Dino became one of the most outstanding midfield talents in the world.

This period of his career was perhaps most famous for the ‘knife incident’ during a UEFA Cup match against Wisła Kraków. Baggio was struck by a knife thrown by one of the Kraków fans. Showing bravery of Bert Trautmann proportions, he went on to play the remaining eleven minutes of the tie. Following the match, with five stitches in his head, he said, ‘I turned my head a second before I was hit. If I hadn’t, I could have been struck in the face or the knife could have gone in my eye.’

Baggio had the last laugh that season, his Parma side went on to claim the UEFA Cup, his third and final medal in the competition. He played for Parma until 2000, enjoying moderate success but without ever winning a Serie A title, on the closest occasion missing out to Juventus by a mere two points.

The later years and a brief flirtation with England

Dino continued to be hampered by injury, his time at Lazio also, unfortunately, coincided with midfield talents including Juan Sebastián Verón and Diego Simeone. As opportunities became limited, Graeme Souness signed him on loan for Blackburn Rovers. As a Blackburn fan, I remember this period. Dino looked classy, although, mostly due to injury problems and scarce starting opportunities, his signing could not have been deemed a success for neither club nor player. Rovers only won three of the twelve matches in which the Italian featured, drawing two and losing the other seven. His loan move was brought to an end earlier than scheduled.

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Out of sorts: Dino, at this point way past his best, shields the ball from Everton midfielder Thomas Gravesen

The midfielder’s form never improved, as he played his twilight years at Triestina and Tombolo. Since then, he has consciously stayed out of the limelight. ‘I have always tried to keep a low profile. I have tried to create my own space on the field.’ He did the same with the press, forever the master technician.

Whether or not caused by his surname, Dino Baggio was one of the best central midfielders of his generation for both club and country – a dynamic, versatile and forward-thinking talent. Unfortunately for the Italian, in many footballing circles, he spent his career being chronically overlooked and underrated.

Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here

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