Il Gran Rifiuto
Roberto Baggio’s ‘Great Refusal’
Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion. The barista in the town centre cafe, the teacher at the Liceo Scientifico and the carabiniere at the corner distractedly directing the traffic – they all had something to say on the subject. But none of them seemed able to agree on the final outcome. Would Roberto Baggio really end up at Juventus?
It was the spring of 1990 and Italy was gearing up to host a World Cup but in Florence and its satellite towns and villages they had more parochial matters on their mind. The little lad they had signed up from Vicenza and nursed through knee surgery had rapidly emerged as the brightest talent the nation had to offer. The Pontello family, however, were getting keen to cash in their chips and it had supporters in turmoil.
This was sporting soap opera of the most intense kind. Fiorentina were in the midst of a truly mediocre spell in their history where a relegation dogfight and grim survival seemed to be the order of the day. But in the boy who would become the Divin Codino, they had someone to be proud of – an heir to their greatest hero, Giancarlo Antognoni. Unfortunately for them, he was the subject of overtures from their most despised rivals.
The beat of the message from the jungle drums on the Curva Fiesole was growing ever more insistent. Those in charge of the Tuscan club were prepared to do a deal with the “devil” in order to get the best return on their most promising player. And to hell with the consequences.
What gave the potential transfer an even more delicious irony was the fact that the two clubs were on collision course for a UEFA Cup final. Baggio was instrumental in leading the purple troops all the way to that last hurdle. The spoils ultimately went the way of Juventus and, to add insult to injury, the deal to take their finest player to Piedmont was confirmed afterwards. It was as if the sky had fallen in over the Ponte Vecchio.
The rage which had been simmering among supporters for some time spilled out onto the streets. There were uncomfortable afternoons at the club’s headquarters as some fans vented their anger in riot and protest. A message had been given out that the days of Antognoni were long gone. This was now a team ready to sell off its prized possessions, rather than do everything in its power to keep hold of them. It was like uprooting the Uffizi for the highest bidder.
If Fiorentina were the prime target for the Ultras anguish, second in line was La Nazionale. Gathering at Coverciano outside Florence to prepare their World Cup bid the Azzurri were forced to go behind closed doors. “Baggio, puttana, l’hai fatto per la grana!” went the chant of the most irate tifosi. “Baggio, you slag, you did it for the money!”. It was a crude, bitter and spiteful way to hit out at a player who seemed, in truth, to have been pretty powerless to avoid the record-breaking transfer deal.
If Italy got a hostile reception, worse was to follow when, inevitably, Juventus rolled back into town with Roberto Baggio in their ranks for the first time. The Bianconeri were escorted into Florence by police motorbikes and a helicopter patrolling overhead. It seemed like the city was closer to a war zone than it had ever been before for a visit by the much-maligned Gobbi (the Hunchbacks).
It was early April 1991 and the atmosphere for the 28th round of games in a 34-match season was tense. Juventus sat in fourth place in Serie A – not as high as they hoped but still in with a shout of getting at least second spot behind high-flying Sampdoria. Fiorentina, for their part, were fighting to stave off the spectre of relegation.
An air of how much the afternoon meant to the home support was given by the special Coreografia thought up for the match. With purple and white card handed out to the inhabitants of the Curva Fiesole, a portrait of the famous Florentine skyline was put on display. It remains one of the most striking scenes ever put on show by a fanbase which is both contrary and inventive in equal measure. If anybody was in any doubt, it was clear that THIS was the game of the season.
This was not the greatest ever Juve side assembled under the guidance of Mr Champagne Football, Gigi Maifredi, but it still looked strong enough to dispose of Fiorentina. Goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi could count on the likes of Nicolo’ Napoli, Gianluca Luppi and Brazilian Julio Cesar to shield him from the Viola attack. Little Thomas Hassler ran the midfield along with Giancarlo Marocchi while the attacking options included Baggio, Pierluigi Casiraghi and World Cup hero Toto Schillaci.
The home side responded with more honest endeavour than real class. There was the Brazilian resolve and organisation of Carlos Dunga and the more dubious talents of Czech Lubos Kubik. At the back they boasted decent professionals like Stefano Pioli and Mario Faccenda. Alberto Di Chiara provided some impetus on the flank while the occasionally brilliant Massimo Orlando played the role Baggio had vacated. Up front, Stefano Borgonovo led the line but was now orphaned of a strike partner who had shared nearly 30 Serie A goals with him a couple of seasons earlier.
It was a nervous affair, always likely to be decided by a set-piece. Diego Fuser thumped home a free-kick in trademark style to give the Viola the lead before half time. It was one of eight goals that campaign which left the midfielder as the club’s joint top-scorer in Serie A along with Orlando. For his part Baggio had been, in truth, pretty anonymous.
It was early in the second half that he took centre stage, in an unexpected way. Just five minutes in the Bianconeri were awarded a penalty much to the rage of the home support. It was assumed that Baggio would step up to take it with the trademark calm he had shown throughout his career. But things did not go according to script.
Instead, it was Gigi De Agostini who strode forward and missed the spot-kick, provoking howls of derision. To add to the fury of Juve supporters, Baggio was substituted later in the game and left the pitch draped in a Fiorentina scarf. It was a betrayal which some of the Turin faithful could never forgive.
The Viola held on for a nail-biting victory which ultimately helped to ensure Serie A survival. For Juve, the result proved to be part of a downward spiral which would see them conclude the campaign in a miserable seventh place and see Maifredi relieved of his post. Baggio, of course, would go on to score plenty of penalties and help to win honours for the Turin side.
But that afternoon remains etched in Fiorentina folklore. Perhaps Baggio could not turn down the transfer but he could still reject the possibility of harming a club which had done so much for him. It was a rare moment in football when sentiment was allowed to take precedence over all other considerations. The world seemed to stand still as a small gesture said no amount of money could purchase a player’s soul. There have been precious few such incidents before or since that day. But, then, there have not been many players like Roberto Baggio.