6 April 1991. 4th-place Juventus desperate to cut the 8-point gap looming between themselves and leaders Sampdoria with just 7 games left, or to at least vault past AC Milan and Inter Milan to earn a spot in Europe. Arriving at the Studio Artemio Franchi on the back of two straight wins, a 12th-place Fiorentina didn’t look likely to present a massive obstacle, although the Viola hatred of the Turin giants was already well established at that point.
The Tuscan fans, though, hadn’t gotten that memo and welcomed the Juve bus with such enthusiasm that a police escort was required to ensure the visitors’ safety. After all, this was the first game back in Florence for a certain fantasists who’d left Florence that summer as Flavio Pontello, desperate to avoid bankruptcy, sold off his prized asset.
Yes, Roberto Baggio would lead the Bianonero attack against his former club, and the Franchi faithful were ready to remind him of the magnitude of his betrayal. His explanation that he’d been “compelled” to accept the transfer as Fiorentina owner Flavio Pontello desperately liquidated club assets (not the last time such an episode would lead to fury in Florence) didn’t hold much water with the Viola fans.
As il Divin Codino took the pitch amidst a throng of photographers and journalists, the Curva Fiesole unveiled a massive tifo of the Florence skyline, reminding Baggio what he’d abandoned; after that, the ultras focused on whistling and jeering him whenever he touched the ball.
Perhaps it worked: he had little influence on the proceedings as a hard-nosed approach from Fiorentina paid dividends as the hosts, feeding on the energy of a packed and frenzied stadium, put Juve goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi under siege, forcing him into a couple of good saves. He was helpless, however, to repel a Diego Fuser free kick in the 41st minute that pinged off the upright and back across the goal before nestling into the netting inside the opposite post. The Franchi went mad.
It was just 6 minutes after the restart, though, that Baggio, who’d been pretty quiet thus far, picked up the ball on Fiorentina’s right and surged past Stefano Salvatori and Mario Faccenda. The former grabbed a handful of shirt and referee Rosario Lo Bello immediately pointed to the penalty spot. Baggio, a noted penalty specialist, had the chance to peg his old side back and finally win the skeptical Juventus fans to his side.
Instead, he refused to take the penalty, leaving it to Luigi De Agostini instead. Naturally, Viola number one Gianmatteo Maregini pushed the leftback’s low penalty penalty wide of the post, much to the consternation of the visitors and the delight of the Curva. Baggio got the hook 13 minutes later in favor of Angelo Alessio.
As the number 10, draped in his enormous coat, slowly made his way up the touchline and back to the visitors’ bench, the Fiorentina supporters rained down abuse (and a few small objects). Eventually, a scarf made its way over the barrier and dropped right at Baggio’s feet; without breaking stride, he scooped it up and continued to the dugout.
The post mortem in the press was as bombastic as you’d expect. Baggio explained that he was in no position to take the penalty, having taken “over 8000” penalties against Mareggini over the years in training. His manager Luigi Maifredi backed him up, adding that the team had agreed before the game to take Baggio off spot kick duty due to Fiorentina’s familiarity with his tendencies from 12 yards out.
Perhaps bathed in the largesse of victory, the Viola fans accepted this gesture—as well as his statement that “Deep in my heart, I’m always Viola”—as a formal apology from Baggio and returned him to their good graces, and he’s been a legend in Florence ever since. The Juve fans, though, accused him of lacking respect for the badge, especially in light of his refusal to put on a Bianconeri scarf at his first press conference in Turin. Although his subsequent exploits would shift perceptions of him at the Stadio delle Alpi, he would never become the sort of beloved figure you’d expect a player of his talent to be.
Fiorentina, meanwhile, would find a new idol that summer in Gabriel Batistuta, who would go on to have an even more impressive career in Florence before meeting the same fate as Baggio: sold to keep the club solvent. It’s pointless to argue about which was better, as they were very different players, but whereas Batigol operated with almost brutal power, il Codino was all about subtlety and magic.
It’s tempting to juxtapose Baggio’s return with those of more recent departures like Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa, who both left Florence amidst similar recriminations and, on their returns, celebrated vigorously. However, the game has changed so much in the intervening decades that any comparison falls flat.
Instead, let’s just remember it as one of those ineffable moments of grace that provincial sides like Fiorentina receive in return for the countless and thankless seasons spent laboring to claw up the table only to see everything crumble at the crucial moment. No Juventus fan could ever understand what it meant to the Viola for Roberto Baggio to pick up that scarf, and no Viola supporter can explain it.