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A story of Guardiola and Baggio, a captain’s armband, Carlo Mazzone, and of course Fiorentina

The historic moment when Pep Guardiola handed Baggio the captain’s armband,

Brescia v Fiorentina X

La Storia Siamo Noi

This is a story which involves Fiorentina, but it’s not a story about Fiorentina. This is a story which involves one of the world’s greatest ever players, but it’s not just a story about that player.

2001/02 was a season to forget for Fiorentina, but unfortunately one we’ll always remember. This story takes place a week after Fiorentina were condemned, mathematically, to Serie B. The following Sunday, April 21st, the team traveled to take on Brescia, a team who were still very much in danger of joining the Viola in dropping out of the top flight.

Fiorentina had lost their previous four games, and were really the perfect opposition for any side in need of three points. Brescia had gathered just one point in their previous three outings, and were level on 34 points with Udinese, who sat fourth from bottom in the relegation zone. With just two games left after this clash with Fiorentina, and one of those away to Juventus, this was a match that Carlo Mazzone’s side had to win.

Brescia had earlier that season reached the final of the Intertoto Cup where the winner would qualify for the UEFA Cup. They came up against PSG in the final, and over two legs the French side would win out through their away goal scored in Italy. Last night Pep Guardiola managed to get the better of the Paris club in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final. Back in August 2001, when the final against Brescia took place, it was before the days of Qatari investment and Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. It was also before Guardiola had arrived in Italy. After last night’s win, speaking to Italian television, he delighted many Italians by mentioning a Francesco De Gregori song, La Storia Siamo Noi.

He had spent his whole playing career up to then with Barcelona. Having joined the Catalan club when he was 13 years of age, now at 30 he decided it was time to move on. With a World Cup coming up at the end of the 2001/02 season, Pep took his time in deciding on his destination. There were many top clubs in Europe willing to sign him, but he also knew he needed to be in a team where he would get regular game time. It wasn’t until September that Pep finally made his mind up, and his choice was a surprise one as he moved to Serie A, but rather than one of the big clubs, it was Brescia who managed to convince him.

Guardiola had just arrived at the club, and wasn’t in the team in late September when Brescia played Atalanta in the big derby game. This was the game where Baggio’s hat-trick gave his side a 3-3 draw having gone in at the break 3-1 down. It will always be remembered though, for Mazzone as he raced to celebrate in front of the Atalanta fans in the away end. Carlo had been insulted by the away fans all throughout the game, and was particularly stung by insults to his late mother. He had promised those fans that if they managed to make it 3-3 he would go under the Curva, and Carlo Mazzone is a man of his word.

Guardiola would speak years later of the incident, and how he had thought to himself watching the scene “What am I doing here?!”.

He later admitted to manager Carlo Mazzone, that the main reason he joined his squad was to have the chance of playing alongside Roberto Baggio. It may seem strange then, that a club with both Baggio and Guardiola, along with the goals of Luca Toni, was struggling near the bottom of the table. Unfortunately for Mazzone, he would be missing both Baggio and Guardiola for a major part of the season.

La storia dà torto e dà ragione

Guardiola would miss four months of action, between the end of November and the end of March, serving a suspension for doping. He finally managed to clear his name of this charge almost ten years later. Baggio meanwhile, had suffered two injuries which kept him out of action for long spells of the season. The first came at the end of October, when his knee injury meant almost three months on the sidelines. He had barely recovered from that when he suffered another serious injury at the end of January.

Brescia had suffered a much more devastating tragedy a week before this. Baggio’s injury came in the Coppa Italia semi final first leg at Parma, he entered the field as a second half substitute and lasted only 14 minutes. This game should have been played the previous Wednesday, January 23rd. Just before kick-off, the Brescia players received the news that their team mate, defender Vittorio Mero, had died in a car accident that afternoon. The 27 year old defender had been suspended for this game, and was returning home to his family after a training session that morning, to watch the game on television.

La storia entra dentro le stanze, le brucia

Baggio and the rest of the players had been kept in the dark about what had happened, and only the protests of the fans before kick-off made them realize that something serious was wrong. When they eventually found out the truth, Baggio broke down in tears, threw away his gloves and walked off the pitch. The game, finally, was rightly abandoned.

While Guardiola returned at the end of March after serving his suspension, Baggio would need to wait until April 21st before he was able to make his comeback. For this vital game against his former club, Roberto would start on the bench, ready to be called upon if needed. He was still hoping to be included in Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad for the upcoming World Cup, and had just a few games left to show he was fit.

A future Fiorentina hero, Luca Toni, had put Brescia ahead ten minutes before the break, heading home a Guardiola free kick. With twenty minutes left in the game, the home side still held that slender lead. Mazzone knew this was a day when they needed to take all three points, and so he decided to send on his star player. Baggio replaced Federico Giunti, but before the number 8 came over to allow the number 10 onto the field, the Brescia number 28 came racing over to the sideline, and not because he had misread the substitution board.

We are all accustomed to seeing a team captain when he is substituted finding someone to hand over the captain’s armband to, before leaving the pitch. On this occasion however, the captain, Pep Guardiola, was not leaving the field of play. He decided however, as soon as he realized who was about to enter the game, that he should return the captain’s armband to its rightful owner. Baggio at first didn’t want to accept, but Guardiola insisted, and the Brescia hero entered the field, as their captain, to a standing ovation from the crowd.

After the game, Mazzone would praise Guardiola’s beautiful gesture, while also wondering if it was even allowed by the rules. In reality, it is not permitted by the rules and regulations of the game, unless the captain leaves the field. Thankfully, referee Marco Gabriele turned a blind eye to the scene, and common sense prevailed. At the time of the substitution however, Mazzone was more concerned with getting Baggio on the field, and shouted at the players to get on with it, the game was still to be won. Guardiola shouted back to his manager, as he wasn’t going to be put off by anyone.

It took Baggio just three minutes to find the net, having looked to set up Luca Toni to score. When Taglialatela saved the striker’s initial effort, Toni managed to play the ball back across the goal where Baggio managed to turn and his left foot sent it to the back of the net. With two minutes left to play, and with Baggio possibly in an offside position, and Luca Toni’s effort probably going in anyway, his instincts gave him the final touch, and rounded off a perfect comeback.

Siamo noi, che abbiamo tutto da vincere, tutto aa perdere

A week later, and Brescia looked in real trouble after a 5-0 loss to eventual Scudetto winners Juventus. On the last day of the season they pulled off a miraculous salvation. They sat two points behind Piacenza and Verona who faced each other, and so Brescia had to win against Bologna. Guardiola missed this vital game through injury, but Baggio was available from the start. Scoreless at half-time, they had one foot in Serie B, but three goals after the break, with Toni and Baggio among the goals, kept Brescia in Serie A, and Verona were the team to join Fiorentina, Lecce and Venezia in Serie B.

After an eventful season for both players, Baggio and Guardiola would eventually miss out on the World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Guardiola’s injury in that loss at Juventus cost him his place in Spain’s squad, for the second consecutive World Cup, while Trapattoni controversially decided not to risk giving Baggio a place in his Italian squad.

Guardiola would then move to Roma, but by January he was back at Brescia. He had never really fit into Fabio Capello’s plans, where it had been the club owner Franco Sensi who wanted to bring him to Roma. His return to Mazzone’s side, along with an injury free Baggio, brought Brescia to a 9th place finish, before Guardiola left top flight football to head off to Qatar and Mexico to finish out his playing career.

Perchè è la gente che fa la storia

Brescia, Baggio and Mazzone though, will always have a special place in Guardiola’s heart. In 2011 he paid a visit to his former club, and took in a Giuseppe Iachini training session while he was there. Beppe and Guardiola must have hit it off well, as later Iachini would head to Manchester for a four day trip in 2017 to observe Guardiola’s methods.

Guardiola also tweeted his congratulations when Brescia gained promotion back to Serie A in 2019. He had half joked on that visit in 2011, that the only club he would manage in Italy was Brescia, and he would do it for free.

Baggio would later tell of his surprise, but delight, at the fact that the player he had admired at Barcelona was coming to join him at Brescia. He said in football terms it was like having a brother next to him, they understood each other straight away, they felt the same emotions and saw football in the same way. In 2010 Baggio was invited to Barcelona to watch Guardiola’s team play Arsenal in the Champions League. There he witnessed Lionel Messi score all four goals in Barcelona’s 4-1 win. After the game, introducing Baggio to Messi, Guardiola told his star player that Roberto, even with seven knee operations was the greatest player he had ever played with.

La Storia Siamo Noi, Siamo Noi Padri E Figli

Guardiola has always spoken highly of Mazzone, and when he brought his Barcelona side to Rome for the Champions League final in 2009, he called up his former manager to invite him to the game. Mazzone has spoken of how Pep Guardiola is like a son to him and that he follows all his games on TV. When he received that telephone call, at first he thought it was somebody playing a trick on him, when his grandchild told him who was on the line. Even when Pep introduced himself Carlo still needed convincing before finally accepting his offer to attend the big game.

Ed è per questo che la storia dà i brividi

Speaking many years later, Mazzone recalled that scene between Guardiola and Baggio, and said that it made him realize how lucky he was to have managed, not just two great players, but two great men. After the game in the dressing room he approached Pep and told him that not only was it thanks to his gesture that they had won the game, but he also told him that he would go on to become one of the greatest managers in football.

Carlo Mazzone, who also managed Fiorentina, was surely looking on proudly last night, as his former pupil continued to prove him right.