For all his achievements in Italian and European football, including three UEFA Cup titles, Dino Baggio still wonders what would have been had he accepted a proposed move to Major League Soccer when the league first launched in 1996.
“I was invited by a friend at the (New York/New Jersey) MetroStars but I was only 25 at the time,” Baggio recalled in a recent interview from his Italian home. “I thought to myself ‘I’ll play in Italy until I’m 30 and then I’ll try it’. But time passed and so did the interest. If I had to do it all over again today, I’d be there in a heartbeat.”
Baggio is one of a number of former Italian international stars who will be showcasing their talents in Toronto on March 5th in an event called “Italian Football Heroes”, a new concept which combines on-field performances of some of the legends of Italian soccer with live music and entertainment.
As a member of the Italian National Team, Baggio, a hard-working, tenacious, defensive midfielder, enjoyed an outstanding World Cup at USA 94, scoring twice and inspiring the Azzurri to reach the final against Brazil. He treasured his time during the tournament and considers it his most vivid career highlight.
“Almost twenty-two years later, I still get people coming up to me with memories of my goals against Norway and against Spain” – Dino Baggio
“It’s everyone’s dream as a kid to play in a World Cup,” said Baggio, who represented the Azzurri on 60 occasions. “To actually reach it and play in a final is the absolute apex. That remains my greatest memory. Almost twenty-two years later, I still get people coming up to me with memories of my goals against Norway and against Spain. They may not remember my goals for my club teams, but they remember my goals for the National Team. And it was an outstanding World Cup, very well-prepared and well-played.”
The success of that World Cup spawned MLS two years later and Baggio wishes he had a time machine so he could have been one of the first Italians in the league.
“If I was born ten years later, I would have come to North America to play,” claimed Baggio. “The boom began a few years ago, and players here (in Italy) are itching to go abroad. Many other leagues have become much more important than Serie A. Look at (Seba) Giovinco. He’s playing, he’s enjoying himself and he’s stress-free. The game there has changed drastically in the past decade. The league is attractive and exciting. The stadiums are full. In Italy, it’s rare to see a full ground nowadays.”
While Baggio never made it to MLS, Bernardo Corradi ended his playing career in the North American league following a brief stint with Montreal Impact in their first season in 2012.
Corradi likes the growth potential of MLS and sees the benefits for domestic players.
“It was once seen as a league that attracted international players on the verge of retirement,” Corradi said in a recent interview from Italy, “but it’s now looking to build from within, developing homegrown players as well as attracting foreign stars in their prime, such as Giovinco, who raise the quality of play. That will only benefit the US in their effort to attain another World Cup.
“MLS is growing significantly; it is a well developed league from a performance based aspect and growing rapidly on a tactical level. Perhaps attracting international coaches with tactical backgrounds will give that growth an added boost.”
A bustling, bruising striker, Corradi had been a bit of a journeyman throughout his career, with stops at several lower league clubs before hitting his stride in Serie A with upstart Chievo Verona in 2000. For someone who went on to perform on bigger stages at Valencia and at Manchester City, he considers his two seasons spent with the Flying Donkeys to be the highlight of his professional career.
“I always tell the Chievo president he should have put a copyright on the club name because now all the newly promoted teams that do well are compared to that Chievo side” – Bernardo Corradi
“I had a fantastic experience at Chievo,” recalled Corradi. “As a newly promoted club in Serie A, we were first in the league as late as January. I always tell the Chievo president he should have put a copyright on the club name because now all the newly promoted teams that do well are compared to that Chievo side.
“If you look back at the stars that were in the league at the time at Juve, Inter, Roma, Milan, for us to be first in mid-January meant we were the perfect club.”
When he moved on to Lazio, Corradi earned a call-up to the National Team and while he only made 13 appearances in total for the Azzurri, his debut was a memorable one.
“In my first match (vs Portugal) I started, scored and we won the game which I think is the ultimate achievement,” said Corradi. “You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
While under contract to clubs abroad, Corradi spent parts of two seasons on loan at Parma where he netted 15 goals in 63 appearances. Of course that club, as we know it, vanished last season under a crippling debt load and has re-emerged under new management in the lower leagues. Corradi blames the club’s failure on the general crisis affecting all of Italian football.
“The business of soccer is not as fiscally sound as it is in many other countries,” Corradi noted. “In contrast, MLS has a very stable structure. To see a city like Parma, or the difficulties that Lazio experienced some years ago, is tragic. It wasn’t that long ago these clubs were battling for important objectives with giant backers. With Parma, many people put their life savings into the club only for it to go bankrupt. Beyond the failure on the pitch, Parma was hit by one of the world’s biggest economic collapses. “
While separated by several seasons, Dino Baggio shares a playing experience at Parma with Corradi. Although Baggio spent his youth in the Torino system, he is known more for his two seasons at city rival Juventus where he won a UEFA Cup and reached league runners-up status alongside his more famous namesake, Roberto, who is not related.
However, Dino Baggio’s best years were spent at Parma where he played more than 170 games over six seasons, scoring 19 times. With the Emilian club he won two more UEFA Cup titles, an Italian Cup and an Italian SuperCup, all distinctions that have been swept away following the demise of the bankrupt club last season. Unlike Corradi however, Baggio sees a promising future for the new team in that city rising from the ashes of his former club.
“The team has started from scratch and should make its way back up to Lega Pro,” said Baggio. “Next year they will likely build a squad that can compete to return to Serie B. As far as I’m concerned, within 5 years, Parma will return to Serie A without any debts, focused on its youth, and that’s for the best. Napoli went through a similar thing and look where they are now.”
Both men consider Napoli and Juventus to be the front-runners for the Italian championship this season but they’re divided on the fortunes of the Azzurri at Euro 2016.
While Corradi believes Italy will be true to historical form and reach the latter stages of the tournament, Baggio is not as optimistic because of a perceived lack of development particularly in the youth sectors.
“Whereas in Spain there is a concerted effort to develop youth, in Italy we’re behind at least 20 years in that effort. We have promising young players but no one is willing to invest in their development” – Dino Baggio
“We have very few Italians playing regularly so it’s difficult to prepare a National Team at the level we were once at,” Baggio admitted. “We used to have eight or nine Italian starters in each team, now you may have one or two in a starting lineup at some of the bigger clubs. Conte can only work with the players at his disposal. Whereas in Spain there is a concerted effort to develop youth, in Italy we’re behind at least 20 years in that effort. We have promising young players but no one is willing to invest in their development. The youth sector needs to be improved.”
Unlike Baggio who is enjoying a relatively quiet retirement away from the game, Corradi has immersed himself back in the sport, working as a soccer commentator for Italian TV network Mediaset. However, in early March, they will set aside their respective duties and join a host of other former Italian internationals at the Italian Football Heroes showcase at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, an event they both are excited to participate in.
“I think it’s nostalgic for fans of Italian players to be able to welcome them back and re-live memories,” Baggio said. “We play a number of games for charity or as part of events like this one. It’s great because now we play for the enjoyment. We find large Italian communities wherever we go and it’s nice to be able to embrace that spirit.”
“This event allows us the opportunity to interact with Italians who may have left their country of birth but still have close ties to Italy,” said Corradi. “We’re part of this project that brings the Italian brand to different parts of the world. And it’s always nice to put on the National Team jersey again and re-live experiences with former teammates and to stay connected in a small way to your playing career.”
Tickets for the March 5th event are now on sale at www.ticketmaster.ca