Classic Azzurri Matches – Italy vs Nigeria 1994
As Italy teetered on the edge of elimination at the World Cup in 1994, arguably the greatest talent of his generation – Roberto Baggio – stepped forward and single handedly sent Nigeria packing with a majestic display of his talent on the global stage.
July 5 seems to be a historical date for calcio fans. At the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Italy beat Brazil 3-2 and Paolo Rossi was the hero at the Estadio Sarria in Barcelona, scoring a hat-trick after failing to score in the first four matches.
The Azzurri faced emerging African power Nigeria 12 years later in another classic encounter. The match against Nigeria might not have been as aesthetically pleasing but there was still plenty of drama at the Foxboro Stadium in Boston. This was the match in which Roberto Baggio came to life, scoring two goals in remarkable circumstances.
Things weren’t running so smoothly for Italy in the early stages of USA 94. A shock 1-0 defeat to the Republic of Ireland was followed by a hard-fought 1-0 win against Norway and a 1-1 draw with Mexico.
The Azzurri qualified out of Group E in third place, behind Mexico and the Irish. Fortunately for Italy, the 1994 World Cup featured 24 teams and under that system, four of the best teams who finished third in their group could progress to the second round.
Italy’s unconvincing performances were blamed at coach Arrigo Sacchi. As AC Milan coach, he won back-to-back European Cups using the 4-4-2 formation and implemented a style which involved zonal defending and pressing over the pitch.
He tried to do the same with the Azzurri and the Italian press were not thrilled, especially because he eliminated the libero position. The players also were placed in roles that didn’t suit them and the squad was rotated match after match.
In contrast to Italy, newcomers Nigeria were the media darlings and early pacesetters at USA 94. A 2-1 loss to Argentina was sandwiched in between two wins against Balkan countries. Their first win was a 3-0 win against Bulgaria and the Africans topped their group thanks to a 2-0 win against fellow debutants Greece.
Spain were awaiting the winners of this match after they beat Switzerland 3-0 three days prior. The Spaniards’ next opponent wouldn’t need to travel far because the quarter-final against Spain would also be in Boston. For the time being, Italy didn’t look like a team that would progress very far.
The Azzurri started off well enough, playing a short passing game and with a high back line. Nigeria were happy to counterattack and hit long-balls to their burly centre-forward Rashidi Yekini. Even though the Azzurri were good in their ball retention, they were lacking something in the final third of the pitch.
Daniele Massaro was Baggio’s partner in attack and he showed that he could drop back into midfield or move to the right-wing when possible. He needed to do that because Nicola Berti wasn’t fit and couldn’t run his socks off and Roberto Mussi wasn’t making overlapping runs from right-back.
Giuseppe Signori crossed from the left-wing for Baggio, who had his shot blocked by Michael Emenalo. Signori made his presence felt in the attack and he curled a low left-footed free-kick into the penalty box, only for the ball to fall to Paolo Maldini. He failed to get a clean touch and Nigerian goalkeeper Peter Rufai collected the ball.
The Nigerians finally got into the game and the short passing game seemed to suit them too. Yekini was still the target man for Clemens Westerhof’s team but the forward was well-marshalled by Maldini. The wings provided better options.
Emmanuel Amunike received a long pass from Finidi George and his cross from the left was headed into the stands by Berti. George took the corner from the right and Maldini headed the ball into the air. It was poorly judged and as a result, Nigeria took the lead.
Amunike read Maldini’s looping header and with one touch, he flicked it in with the outside of his left boot. Italian goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani had not been forced into a save for over 25 minutes and suddenly he had to pick the ball out of the net.
The Italian players got a bit rough for a while before searching for an equaliser. Demetrio Albertini tried to win the ball back in midfield and kicked Amunike, which resulted in a stretcher being brought on. Alessandro Costacurta received a yellow card for fouling Yekini in a challenge that was less reckless than Albertini’s.
Italy had a shout for a penalty but play was waved on. Signori crossed to Massaro, who then headed the ball to Roberto Baggio. Chidi Nwanu roughly nudged the Divine Ponytail before heading the ball away. No penalty given. Signori went on a dribble afterwards and despite a rough challenge on him, there was no foul or free-kick given.
Antonio Benarrivo was starting to get into the match. He crossed for Massaro, who headed over the bar and then made an attempt at a bicycle kick. Surprisingly Rufai rushed off his line, charging to the top right corner of the 18-yard box and punched the ball away from Benarrivo.
After that, Signori bent another free-kick for Maldini and he headed the ball over the bar. Roberto Donadoni was playing as an attacking midfielder in the first half and his long-range shot was easily saved by Rufai.
The Azzurri were trailing 1-0 at half-time. Nigeria didn’t pose too much of a threat and the only other chance the Africans had was a shot that George ballooned over the bar. Happy to sit on their lead, they struggled to counter-attack each time they won the ball.
At half-time, Sacchi moved Donadoni to the right-wing and replaced the ineffective Berti with Dino Baggio. Baggio quickly made his presence felt, almost scoring with a volley and then creating a chance for Massaro. The striker ended up botching it after a heavy touch on the turn.
Signori tried to win a penalty but he received a yellow card after dribbling two players and then taking a dive. Sunday Oliseh touched him after the Italian started his fall. Signori was replaced by Gianfranco Zola and the short Sardinian was involved in the match’s most controversial moment.
Zola had been on the field for over 10 minutes when he was battling with Augustine Eguavoen for the ball. The Nigerian right-back pushed Zola off the ball and when the Sardinian jumped in front of Eguavoen, the defender fell backwards and feigned an injury by holding his face.
To Zola’s disbelief, Mexican referee Arturo Brizio Carter showed a straight red card. The forward fell to his knees, folded his arms and dropped his head. Zola was a clean player with no reputation for cynical play or diving. Unfortunately, it was Zola’s solitary World Cup appearance.
The Italian camp was in shock and disgust. One fan in a Sampdoria jersey was so disgusted; he grabbed his genitals with one hand and shouted out a foul-mouthed remark at the referee. If anything, it should have been Maldini who should have been sent off minutes later.
Yekini was running clear and Maldini was the last man in defence. He grabbed the African forward and halted his run. Maldini only received a yellow card and from the resulting free-kick, Jay-Jay Okocha bending free-kick forced a save out of Marchegiani.
Italy had been creating opportunities, even with 10 men. The Azzurri looked predictable though and Nigeria were putting in a solid display. With less than five minutes to go, ITV commentator Gary Bloom came up with the commentator’s curse.
“The new power of world football has mastered the old,” said Bloom. Up stepped Roberto Mussi and Roberto Baggio. Mussi was playing much better in the second half, constantly making runs from right-back.
He received a through-ball on the right wing, stormed into the box and cut the ball back. Baggio shot from just inside the box and the angled drive went low into Rufai’s right corner. The scores were level and Bloom was quick to change his mind. He said: “The dying, flagging Italians are right back in it!”
Both teams had their chances to take the lead in the first period of extra-time. The Azzurri were the better team and after 100 minutes, Roberto Baggio scooped the ball over Eguavoen and Benarrivo. The Nigerian brought the Italian defender down and the Azzurri had won a penalty. Baggio stepped up to take the penalty and smashed a low shot past Rufai’s right corner.
The Azzurri took a 2-1 lead but straight after the goal, Emenalo centred for Yekini, who failed to get a clean touch but still beat Marchegiani. The ball was bouncing towards the net before Dino Baggio cleared the ball right on the line. Just before the first period ended, Roby Baggio went on a solo run but failed to get a hat-trick, shooting straight at Rufai.
The last 15 minutes of extra-time was dominated by Nigeria, who were on the back foot for once. Everyone except for Roberto Baggio stayed back and defended for Italy. The likes of Donadoni and Massaro had put in good tackles. Mussi was reduced to walking due to muscle strains in his leg.
In the last minute, Okocha created a chance for Yekini and his shot was blocked. The midfielder also tried to dribble past three Italians but his run was blocked too. Brizio Carter then blew the whistle for the end of the match.
The Azzurri got another unlikely win, Nigeria were out of their first World Cup and Brizio Carter was also heading home after his shambolic display. Baggio finally got his scoring boots on and delivered when his team needed him. He was embraced by his team-mates as well as Benarrivo, who fell and was in tears.
Both Baggios played vital roles for Italy at USA 94. Dino scored the winner against Norway and opened the scoring against Spain and the Divine Ponytail scored five goals en route to the final, which the Azzurri lost to Brazil.
Roberto missed his penalty in the World Cup final shoot-out but he played a vital role in getting Italy there in the first place, starting with his heroics against Nigeria.