In a time when it has never been easier to watch football from the past, it is a curious quirk that so much effort is devoted to celebrating great players of yesteryear through the stories that have been told about them rather than their actions on the pitch. It is like trying to understand Mozart by looking at his Wikipedia page rather than listening to his music.
Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio were two of the greatest entertainers ever witnessed in Serie A. Yet, for those of us born after their heyday, it is easier to recall moments in the narrative created about them rather than their moments on the pitch. By focusing too much on the stories about a player’s career, we can miss what made them special.
The finest achievement of Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Maradona is not how he told the story of Diego Maradona’s life, but how it helped viewers understand him by making his football the starting point for that exploration. The wonderful sound design made Maradona’s work in a Napoli shirt visceral, juxtaposing the borderline thuggery he was subjected to by defenders with his moments of logic-defying skill and athleticism.
The recent Netflix biopic about Baggio fell into the trap of following the narrative rather than the football. The film illustrated much of his struggle but little of his genius. His great duels with Maradona were missing, as were his legendary goal for Italy against Czechoslovakia at Italia 90 and his Andrea Pirlo-assisted finish for Brescia in 2001, one of the greatest finishes in Serie A history. A newcomer to Baggio might have watched the film and mistaken him for wasted talent, but the truth on the pitch told a very different story.
In the spirit of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, let’s go “back to the things themselves” and understand these two footballers through their football, specifically their meeting in Serie A on 17 September 1989, which Napoli 3-2 Fiorentina.
The race for Serie A’s golden boot in the 1989-90 season was the most glittering in history, with Baggio third, Maradona second and Marco van Basten winning the Capocannoniere. Two of them met in September, when Napoli hosted Fiorentina.
The first half belongs to Baggio. Maradona is not fit enough to start so has to sit on the bench as the second most talented footballer on the globe scores twice. Maradona watches on, resembling a tracksuited Che Guevara with his long hair and beard, while Baggio puts on a show in the No 10 shirt. His fluid movement and close control is outstanding. Like Maradona, Baggio provoked some dark arts from opponents and his first touch in the match is met with a scything tackle. Noticeably slighter than everyone else, he stays down and it is impossible to not be concerned.
He gets up, though, and continues totrouble the Napoli defence. Minutes later, magic happens: a Napoli corner breaks down and Baggio picks up the ball outside his own box. Even though his pace is electric, the ball stays superglued to his feet as a Napoli midfielder tries and fails to catch him while tracking back. Now beyond the halfway line, Baggio glides past a sliding tackle from Alessandro Renica and dribbles around Ciro Ferrara. One of the finest defensive partnerships of the 1980s is powerless to stop him.
He enters the Napoli penalty area and their goalkeeper Giuliano Giuliani rushes forward. Baggio dummies a shot, dances past him and puts the ball into the empty net. Golazo. A divine goal from a divine talent.
Napoli are spooked by Baggio. He floats around the pitch, going deep to cause problems in midfield, toying with full-backs and conducting attacks between the lines of midfield and defence. Great performances can hypnotise opponents and, seemingly bewitched, Giuliani throws the ball out directly to Baggio on the right wing. He bursts into the box and shimmies his way past Renica, who opts to take him down and leave it to the fates of penalties. Scoring from 12 yards: how hard can it be? Baggio slots the ball into the bottom left corner. Two nil after 33 minutes. Half-time is a gift for Napoli.
Enter Maradona, centre stage. The most famous No 10 in the world comes on wearing a No 16 shirt and 53,000 Napoli fans roar as he takes up his position, a bearded general in light blue giving orders and motivation to his teammates. His presence dispels the Baggio magic and a Fiorentina defender handles the ball in the box to prevent Maradona receiving it. Penalty. Scoring from 12 yards: how hard can it be? Maradona steps up and his effort is saved. Even the legends miss from the spot occasionally.
Despite the penalty miss, Maradona drives Napoli forward and a previously impervious Fiorentina defence starts to overthink. A cross comes in from the left, Maradona is one of three Napoli players to attack the ball and Stefano Pioli puts it past his own goalkeeper, 2-1.
Maradona drives the team forward, going close with audaciously long free-kicks, coming deep to receive the ball, moving from flank to flank, bursting into the box late to occupy the attention of centre-backs. Napoli equalise when a pass arrives at the feet of Careca, who has been ignored by the Fiorentina defence as they are so distracted by Maradona, and the Brazilian hits it first time, 2-2.
The match needs a winner. Three minutes from time, Maradona works a short corner routine on the left side and sends a precise cross into the area for Giancarlo Corradini to dive towards. He connects perfectly and the ball is in the net. 3-2. Final whistle.
The football tells the story of these two great players. Baggio was an individual in a team. He carried Fiorentina, making and finishing their goals. That role suited him throughout his career and perhaps explains why some of his greatest successes came at clubs outside of the spotlight, as well as explaining why he sometimes had problematic relationships with coaches such as Arrigo Sacchi, who valued the team above all else. It might sound like a flaw but, in the right context, he was a sight to behold.
Maradona was happy as a leader. He came on to the pitch giving instructions and the Napoli players happily followed them. In return, they overturned a two-goal deficit. Maradona was at his best when in a position of responsibility. There is a difference between his leadership and Baggio’s. Both were happy to carry a team but Maradona was better at helping others reach their potential.
To spin a narrative would be to suggest we can see why one retired a World Cup winner and the other did not. But, to return to “the things themselves”, we can simply enjoy the fact that genius can exist in different forms on a football pitch and give thanks that enough stars aligned to put these two icons on the field at the same time.