One of the most recognisable faces in Argentine football over the past 30 years and a World Cup legend after his heroics in 1990, Claudio Caniggia spoke at length to Cristian Grosso for La Nación. Discussing the forward’s memories of Italia ’90 and his famous winner against Brazil, his injury in 1994 and Passarella’s decision not to take him in 1998. The revelation that he could have still been playing in 2010 and his view on Lionel Messi and Jorge Sampaoli’s side.
If you speak Spanish better off reading it as intended but otherwise, here is most of it in English…
Out of ten, how angry were you when Bilardo didn’t include you in the starting eleven for the opening game against Cameroon at the 1990 World Cup?
More than ten! 100! Bilardo’s decision was incredible. Thank God he realised. He was a very capable manager but he had those crazy things, like that.
At first I felt frustration and then resentment. I thought ‘when I get on the pitch you son of a bitch, you’ll have to swallow that decision.’
The problem was if Argentina won 2-0, I didn’t want us to win for fuck’s sake! Well, I wanted us to win but that the goal scorer was [Oscar] Ruggeri [Argentina’s central defender], or even [Nery] Pumpido [goalkeeper] but not a striker.
What hurt more – the injury after playing so well against Nigeria at the World Cup in 1994 or the yellow that saw you suspended for the final in 1990?
NO! The yellow card that left me out of the final. It was just an instinct. The referee could have avoided it but it was in his mind – if an Argentine falls for any little trap, however small, he wasn’t going to have any mercy.
He knew that I was a striker, I hadn’t kicked an opponent, it was avoidable. It’s a ridiculous rule and it still exists; an inconsequential handball, that gives no advantage to the opponent and it cost me a World Cup final.
‘Brasil decime que se siente’ – The song of the World Cup four years go was partially your fault. How did hearing that make you feel?
It was spectacular, there was even a fan with a mask of my face that went round all the stadiums. I saw him and thought, ‘what balls that guy has, they’re going to kill him.’ They gave everything, the Argentinian supporters are the best and the most creative in the world.
Can you still remember how that goal against Brazil felt? That assist from Maradona, how you receive the ball, what you were thinking and how you decided?
I don’t need to remember how I felt, I still feel it. They’ve never disappeared, it is impossible for them to disappear.
The goal starts with a spectacular bit of play by Diego in the middle of the pitch, at a moment, where if you see on the replays, it is only Maradona, a lot of Brazilians and me in the whole area of the pitch.
I thought Diego was going to lose the ball, I thought he was falling, but Maradona was a difficult guy to take possession from. Maradona carries the ball to the position I was, then in a moment I see that there is a gap, that the defenders are getting dragged out of position because they are chasing Diego and on the other side, there is nobody.
I decided to run into that space and luckily no one followed me, because it was difficult to decide who goes and who drops. There is always an error in a goal, that’s what makes the game so beautiful: there are the proper virtues, yes, but there is always going to be an error.
Argentina didn’t win the World Cup in 1990 – what are your thoughts?
On the pitch, only Brazil were better than us in the first half [of their last 16 meeting]. After that we still didn’t play very well but nobody could beat us. Even in the final, Germany saw more of the ball but we weren’t hanging on.
There was even a penalty for [Gabriel] Calderón [after a foul by Lothar Matthäus] not given. And against Italy [in the semi final] the referee sent off [Ricardo] Guisti and gave Vasco Olarticoechea a second yellow card.
With two of the three playing that were suspended against Germany, we would have beaten them. In that World Cup we had everything against us, and I don’t only mean football.
And Argentina also couldn’t win it in 1994?
No, I wasn’t supposed to win it.
If Argentina had advanced to the last 16 in 2002, were you ready to play?
Yes, I had recovered. [Marcelo] Bielsa’s idea was that I would play the second half against Sweden, with the idea that we would reach the last 16. I was going to play at that World Cup, I was 100 per cent a starter, but I got injured just 33 days before and by the time I recovered, we were out.
Pick one of your goals: the one against Brazil at Italia ’90, against Italy at Italia ’90 or those against Nigeria at USA ’94?
The goals against Brazil and Italy are level. They were two that could’ve helped us win the World Cup and we lost them.
Did it hurt that you didn’t go to World Cup 1998?
Uh, that was hard. It wasn’t fair, [Daniel] Passarella screwed me out of a World Cup. The thing with the hair was ridiculous [Passarella famously didn’t select players with long hair], who thinks up such bullshit?
I always thought of Passarella as a great player but as a coach I was disappointed. And I am told him so. He is like that: his ego said, ‘get rid of Redondo, Caniggia and Batistuta.’ Bati was saved, but was on the verge, I know that. He wanted to be with his players and if he won without the big names then all the credit was his.
There were also some little issues with some of his associates, but let’s leave it there.
Is it true that you could have played at the World Cup in 2010?
Yes, I could have played at a World Cup at 43, like Roger Milla [the Cameroon international who played at 42 in 1994]. Bilardo wanted to take me to South Africa, I was really good physically at 43, I was fast, and Bilardo knew it.
I had been retired for four years but Bilardo has spoken with Grondona about Arsenal and asked me to go back and play for six months in Argentina so that afterwards I could play half an hour or so at the World Cup.
I regret not doing it. I could have really put the effort in to reach the World Cup. I’d played with Diego and I could have played with Messi. I had the chance to be there, obviously not as a starter but something.
Do you think Messi will be in the best form of his career at the World Cup in Russia?
A player’s maximum potential is between 20 and 29 years of age. Messi had that time and has been incredible. He still is, I don’t want to be misunderstood. He is still unbelievable because he takes care of himself, he changed his diet, he is impressive but whether it’s Maradona, Pele or Messi there is always a downturn.
However, you gain other things through experience – how to read the game, how to manage the game and control your energy levels. LeBron James runs less than he did but he is still unbelievable at 33 because he learned how to read the game.
So what does that mean? Do more or less the same but demand less. The peak might be between 20 and 29 but Messi at 31 is wiser now. He’s good. He’s a phenomenon.
And what about this Argentina team?
If you look at the last game against Spain then it creates a lot of doubts. Why should there be any reaction now, why should we kid ourselves when we’ve done everything wrong in recent years?
Because Argentinians are like this, it is our mentality.
Without question, for any other team reaching the last 16 or quarter-finals would be fine and for others, even going out at the group stage, they would already be satisfied. For us, no. In spite of everything, we have believe that we have to be world champions.
We believe that a month is enough, that the manager will put things in order, find his team, that the players will follow and be given the motivation but it isn’t like that. We, because we are a little boastful believe that we are in a position to solve everything.
And it isn’t like that. We need solidarity, which we don’t have. When they attack us, problems appear. And Croatia and Nigeria will play like that, they won’t be afraid of us.
Isn’t Messi the reason why the dream is still alive?
I heard the Argentina manager say, ‘If Messi ok, then everything is fine’ but it isn’t like that. It puts terrible pressure on him. In ’94 Basile didn’t tell us, ‘If Maradona is ok, everything is fine’ and in ’86 even when Diego was incredible, there was also a solid team.
With all the responsibility heaped on one player, what if that day they player isn’t at his best or if they mark him as Gentile did to Maradona in ’82? What will you say then, that it’s Messi’s fault?
Other teams aren’t going to mark Messi as they do in Spain, unless they are stupid. In Spain, they leave him but here in Argentina for example, it is far more physical. They hit you, kick you, get at you, talk to you and won’t let you get going.
In this case, the others must appear. To say, ‘If Messi ok, then everything is fine’ simplifies everything. The other players must take the responsibility to say ‘it’s not just Messi.’
You feel that Messi is left alone?
We had Maradona but we knew that we had to be there. The players must take responsibility even if it’s your first World Cup. When I went to Italia ’90 I said to myself, ‘the responsibility isn’t Burruchaga’s, Maradona’s and Ruggeri’s, who had won it in Mexico, no, what the fuck is that, the responsibility is mine, I’m the striker.
What am I doing if I am going to just leave the responsibility to others? We need ambitious players, who even when Messi or Di María are fit, put on the shirt and say ‘I want to start’
If the others do turn up, we have a great chance. And they must live up to reputation from what they have been doing for their clubs. Having Messi is like having Maradona but Diego had a group around him that turned up when needed.
How do you play under pressure? Can the memory of three final defeats torment the players?
The ideal would be to erase your memory and not remember what happened three or four years ago. That would be good but it can’t be done. I prefer to think that this is another opportunity to turn over a new page. This is something else.
Do you see a more mature Messi? He has always been compared with Maradona but what do you think he could learn from Maradona?
I see Messi more and more mature and far more involved in all aspects of the game. An incredible player, like Maradona was, but we can’t pretend that he has the personality or character of Maradona because he isn’t like that. Messi has the personality to embarrass any opponent at any time and is also personality. He doesn’t shrink away from that, and that is enough.
Will Messi play in Qatar 2022 or could he get tired if things don’t go well in Russia?
That depends on him but he could. Diego could have played another World Cup at 35. If he stays fit, he can. If there is a good team, surrounded by four or five players, of course. It is not the same at 35 as it is 31 just as it isn’t the same as it was at 27. Between 23 and 27 things are the same.
This current generation is saying goodbye. Are you excited about the future of the national team? Lautaro Martinez, Icardi, Foyth, Rulli, Correa, Dybala?
Dybala is a player who should already have shown more for Argentina and yet I consider him the ideal replacement for Messi. Well, there’s only one Messi. Unless another Messi appears within a year or two but I’m asking a lot, aren’t I?
There’s Lautaro, Pavón and Centurión, if he can find the motivation. He went to Genoa and came back but doesn’t like being away, there are players you can’t take out of Argentina. That isn’t good but it doesn’t mean that they can’t do anything. The World Cup is played in another country but it’s 30 days and then you go back to your country so that isn’t a problem.
Centurión is fast, he can go either way and there are fewer and fewer players like that. Almost none like Pavón, wingers, that can cut in and unbalance defences. It’s important to have these variants.
You would be something of an extinct species in today’s game
Yes, of course, today there are no wingers, players that can go on the outside, overlap, make those diagonal runs, it’s a difficult position. There aren’t these players, or there are, but they are not decisive.
I wish I played in this era, I’d have had a picnic. Nobody can touch you now. Straight away it’s a yellow. With these rules, Cameroon would have had six or eight players sent off.
Cristiano Ronaldo is at the level of Messi or is essentially just a great striker?
The are both very good but Messi is pure talent. There are few geniuses. Messi is exceptional and would have been in any era. I’ve heard people ask if this player or that player would adapt to when the game was faster or more physical – of course, they would stupid! It’s so ridiculous and someone who says that, doesn’t know shit about football.
Have you ever thought about working for the AFA or the national team?
If I said yes, it would be as though I were asking for it and taking advantage of the interview. If they wanted that, they would offer it to me.