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With his long flowing blond locks trailing behind him as he set off on one of his runs, Claudio Caniggia took on the image of a stallion in full flight. Power and grace to the fore, darting and daring, he epitomised the sort of image beloved of fans. In a career spanning almost two decades and no less than ten different clubs, his performances and passion afforded him cult hero status. It is however with the Argentine national team, at the biggest football tournaments on earth, the World Cup, that he is best remembered.
At Italia ’90, Caniggia was involved in one of the iconic moments of the tournament. For the opening game played in Milan, Argentina holders of the trophy were pitted against Cameroon. Few gave the Africans much chance of upsetting the odds against a side retaining much of the talent from four years ago, including the Mercurial Diego Maradona. La Albiceleste were considered likely to canter to a comfortable victory. Then just 23 years old and playing for Atalanta in Serie A, Caniggia was originally posted to the bench.
At half-time though, with the scoresheet remaining blank and the Africans displaying a robust muscularity in their play, things were looking anything but comfortable. Just after the restart, coach Carlos Bilardo shuffled his pack and sent on Caniggia to replace Oscar Ruggeri. It hardly seemed to change the flow of the game though, and even when André Kana-Biyik was shown a red card just past the hour mark it hardly stopped the flow of African physicality. Six minutes later, against all of the odds, they went ahead.
For the remainder of the game, the South Americans pressed with increasing intent, but couldn’t breakthrough. Then, with time ticking away, Caniggia launched one of those driving runs. Evading two tackles of increasing ferocity, that were in all probability fouls anyway, he was eventually halted by the brutal lunging challenge of Benjamin Massing, who kicked the forward so hard that he lost his boot in the process. A second yellow card for the assailant was inevitable, but Cameroon held out. That last surging run however not only catapulted Caniggia into the conscience of the wider footballing world, it also served as an apt metaphor for the game.
His display was also sufficient to persuade Bilardo that he was worthy of a starting berth for the second group game against the Soviet Union, and although he failed to score, Argentina ran out 2-0 winners to get their title defence back on track. Caniggia retained his place for the last group game when a 1-1 draw with Romania was sufficient to see them progress.
The round of sixteen game pitted Argentina against Brazil in a classic South American contest. It was a typically tight encounter, but one that would ultimately be settled by Caniggia. Collecting a pass from Maradona with ten minutes left on the clock, he burst clear and when faced by Brazilian goalkeeper Taffarel, calmly dribbled past him and rolled the ball into the empty net. For any Argentine scoring against the Seleção, fame and glory is assured, but to do it in a World Cup elimination game borders on achieving legendary status. Bilardo’s faith in the forward had been repaid handsomely.
The quarter final against Yugoslavia was an edgy affair, settled only by a penalty shootout, but Argentina progressed to face Italy in the last four, when once again Caniggia’s contribution was key. Trailing to an early Toto Schillaci strike, Argentina struggled to draw level against a team yet to concede a goal, but on 67 minutes, the blond locks of Caniggia nodded home the equaliser, and again the South Americans prevailed on penalties. It sent the champions into the final, but after Caniggia’s efforts to get them there, he would miss the showpiece. A yellow card for deliberate handball against Italy, on top off one received against the Soviet Union meant a ban, and a place in the stands as his team lost out in a dreary final. Would he have made a difference to Argentina’s fortunes had he been available? It’s difficult to say, but La Albiceleste could hardly have performed worse than they did.
Four years later, with the tournament staged in the USA, many of Argentina’s stars were in the twilight of their careers, but they started brightly, dismantling Greece 4-0 in their opening group game. Caniggia played the entire game, but it was a hat-trick by Batistuta and a goal from Maradona that did the damage. In the following game though, it was a brace from Caniggia that saw Argentina to victory over Nigeria, after Samson Siasia had given the African side an early lead. On 20 minutes, a free-kick was tapped to one side for a powerful drive from Batistuta. Captaining his side, Nigerian goalkeeper Peter Rufai failed to secure the ball and, fastest to react, Caniggia fired home the equaliser. Just six minutes later, a quick free-kick from Maradona set Caniggia galloping free and cutting in from the left. An exquisite curling effort gave Rufai little chance and Caniggia had turned things around for his side.
With two wins already secured, coach Alfio Basile chose to rest players for what was perceived to be a dead rubber against Bulgaria. Maradona sat out the game and Cannigia was withdrawn after 26 minutes apparently with a slight injury. The South Americans lost 0-2 but still progressed. When the round of sixteen game came around, the Argentine team lacked Caniggia and were beaten 3-2. It meant that in every game since that opening defeat to Cameroon in Milan, Argentina had only lost World Cup games when Cannigia wasn’t playing.
For a while, it seemed like the 1994 tournament would be Caniggia’s last for his country. A disagreement with new coach Daniel Passarella saw him omitted from La Albiceleste reckoning for a while, but a World Cup for Argentina without Caniggia – then playing in Scotland with Rangers – seemed unthinkable and when Marcelo Bielsa took over, the forward was included in the squad travelling to Korea and Japan. It would, however, be a frustrating tournament for both country and player.
After beating Nigeria 1-0, and losing by the same score to England – both of which Caniggia missed – Argentina needed victory over Sweden to progress. Caniggia sat on the bench awaiting the coach’s call as his team struggled against the Scandinavians, but it never came. Entering injury time at the end of the first period, with the scores goalless, anger boiled over and a volley of curses at UAE referee Ali Bujsaim, brought a red card for Caniggia and the distinction of being the first, and so far only, player ever to be red carded from the bench in a World Cup Finals.
Chasing the win, as time drained away, Bielsa threw on a handful of attacking substitutes to try and drag the game back in Argentina’s favour, but to no avail. His team could only draw and their tournament, along with the World Cup career of Claudio Cannigia, was brought to a colourful, but ultimately sad end. As with the final in 1990, had Caniggia been available to the coach, would the story have played out differently when a win was so vital? With a proven World Cup talisman on your bench, it’s likely that Bielsa would have played that card, but the red one from the referee had ruled that possibility out.
Two years later, after playing a season in Qatar, Claudio Cannigia retired from football. His World Cup career had the highs of a goal against Brazil and a brace against Nigeria, as well as that iconic run ended by the roughhouse challenge of Massing, but it still remained something of what could have been. A missed final in 1990 and an absence from the key game in 1994, both saw Argentina eliminated without him. In different circumstances, fate may well have dealt him a kinder hand.