Interview: World Cup legend Claudio Caniggia

Aged 47 and still with those locks, Claudio Caniggia remains a World Cup icon

Caniggias header against Italy in the semi-final helped Argentina reach the 1990 World Cup final in Rome. Picture: AFP

Although he distinguished himself at club level in Argentina, Italy, Spain and yes, even Scotland, there are few names that so instantly conjure up memories of World Cups than Claudio Caniggia.

In 1990, the ‘Son of the Wind’ was one of the players who lit up the tournament in Italy. Paul Gascoigne and Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillachi were others associated with this particular World Cup but Caniggia progressed further than either of them. Or, at least, he would have done had the rule been in place reassuring those already sitting on one booking in a World Cup semi-final that another yellow card will not see them suspended from the final.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

This decision to wipe the slate clean in terms of bookings after the last eight stage was introduced in 2010. Too late for Gascoigne, but then England never even made it to the final. Too late, too, for Caniggia, whose Argentina side did reach football’s greatest stage, due largely to his efforts.

Claudio Caniggia posing with our man Alan Pattullo

There were no tears from Caniggia, who, at just 23, was only a few months older than Gazza. To look at them now, you would not believe they have age – both are now 47 – as well as a stint at Rangers in common. Caniggia has weathered life’s storms, including a 13-month worldwide ban from the game for using cocaine and, in 1996, the suicide of his mother, which saw him take a self-imposed season-long sabbatical.

He still looks as well as he did 14 years ago when starting a new chapter in his career with Dundee. The distinctive long hair, perhaps not quite as flaxen as when he was in his pomp, is what this writer immediately recognised when spotting him from afar at last Friday’s Germany v France quarter-final clash at the Maracana stadium. It means that those ‘Caniggia’ hair-pieces that many Argentina fans will be wearing at today’s semi-final against the Netherlands are still an appropriate salute to the hero. Caniggia has confirmed that he will risk confusing the locals – ‘like the Caniggia wig, senor’ – by attending tonight’s game in Sao Paulo in person.

Similarly, ‘is it really him?’ mutters were heard earlier this week as Caniggia, baseball cap partly concealing his famous tresses, spent over half an hour by the Copacabana beach chatting about a range of subjects. These included his time in Dundee, where he recalled happily sipping espressos in that other great stretch of seaside decadence, Broughty Ferry.

More relevantly, he also relived his heartache at having to miss a World Cup final, having contributed so much to Argentina getting there. Caniggia’s goal helped Argentina reach their last World Cup final, 24 years ago this month. The striker managed to get his blond mane to a cross before the Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga, who had ill-advisedly advanced from his goal line. Caniggia’s cushioned back-header nestled in the net and ended Zenga’s run of 517 minutes without conceding a World Cup goal – a record that stands today.

The piece of opportunism levelled the scores after Schillachi’s early strike for the Italians. No further goals meant there were penalties in this semi-final just as there were in Turin, where England lost out to West Germany.

“I had to kick the last one, the fifth one,” says Caniggia. “I was waiting. But they missed so I was okay.” It is interesting that the player was considered to be still sound enough mentally to take a penalty, particularly such a potentially vital one. The very next evening Gascoigne, who team-mate Gary Lineker had already memorably signalled was in danger of losing it, withdrew from the five selected by Bobby Robson to take the kicks (fatefully, his place was taken by Chris Waddle). But Caniggia, who was also dealing with the trauma of knowing he was out of the final in the event of Argentina getting there, remained composed.

Indeed, upon re-watching the game on YouTube, just moments after his booking he can be seen darting down the right on one of his trademark runs in a bid to make sure his team-mates made it to Rome, even though he knew already that he was banned.

He simply shrugs now, as if to say, well, what else can you do? “But once it was finished, it was very hard,” he adds. “When I got into the dressing-room everyone was enjoying the moment. But I was not, I was very upset of course. I was not enjoying it at all. I was very angry. I could not believe I could not play the final. But no, no tears. There were no tears.

“I had played six games, scored two goals. I was very young. I had turned 23 just a few months before – about the same age as Neymar is now. I was young, confident and relaxed. I was not intimidated by anyone. I always had that kind of confidence, especially when I was young.”

Nothing, it seemed, could knock him off his stride. Not even when a death squad of Cameroon defenders took turns to kick him, with Benjamin Massing finally succeeding to up-end him with such force that one of Massing’s boots came flying off. This, also from Italia 90, is routinely featured in programmes counting down most memorable World Cup moments. Unlike Neymar, whose style he agrees can sometimes seem similar to his own – “he plays on the left side, he is thin, quick and he is very fast, in a second he can change direction, like I used to do” – Caniggia’s World Cup ambitions survived such a brutal on-field assault.

He scored a well-taken winner against Brazil in the second round, a stage Argentina were fortunate to qualify for after finishing behind Cameroon and Romania in their group (they squeezed-in as one of two teams with the best record in third place). Yugoslavia were defeated in the quarter-finals, hosts Italy overcome in the last four and then…Caniggia was forced to sit out the greatest game in the football calendar, and for what?

Again, a reviewing of his booking confirms that it was harsh in the extreme after a trailing hand made contact with the ball following an aerial challenge; deliberate handball ruled the French referee. “The rules were ridiculous,” said Caniggia. “But not now. They have changed, thankfully. Now, if you get a second yellow in the semi-final, you can still play in the final.”

In the end Argentina, lost a dreadfully disappointing final against West Germany to a penalty from Andreas Brehme, although Diego Maradona insists to this day that had his friend ‘Cani’ played, they would have retained the trophy. Caniggia remembers trying to get as close as he could to the action. “I sat in the final with the substitutes, I wanted to be there with them,” he recalled. “I sat on the bench. I had a tracksuit on. I wanted to feel as if I was a part of it.”

It was while sitting on the bench again that Caniggia featured in another World Cup moment of note a dozen years later, managing to be red-carded without actually featuring in the tournament for dissent as Argentina made a less-than-distinguished first-round exit from Japan and Korea in 2002. It was a remarkable achievement to even make the squad, but Caniggia, then 35 and viewed by some to have opted for semi-retirement by choosing to continue his career in Scotland, reveals manager Marcelo Bielsa assured him a place in the starting XI.

Caniggia doesn’t blame the referee for the fact he did not see any action, because Argentina were going out anyway. Instead, it is a Celtic player he feels was culpable for ruining his dream of playing in a third World Cup (it would have been four, but Caniggia was excluded from the squad for France 98 after refusing to comply with manager Daniel Passarrela’s order to get his hair cut).

“Sat-on, Sat-on… bastardo!” he says expressively, though with an infectious grin. Chris Sutton’s challenge on the player in the 2002 Scottish Cup final meant that securing a call-up to the squad was only the start of his struggle to feature in another World Cup.

“I got a red card but that was not the problem,” he says. “The problem is I got injured in the final against Celtic. Because of Sutton. He played at the back in that game, I do not know why. Martin O’Neill played him there for some reason. I put the ball past him and he knocked into me and injured my knee.”

Caniggia had already been recalled for a friendly versus Wales and explains that he had all but been guaranteed a starting spot at the World Cup when he was injured and replaced inside the first 20 minutes of Rangers’ eventual 3-2 victory over Celtic.

“I was supposed to play v England but I could not, because I was still not quite recovered,” he says, with reference to Argentina’s second group game in Sapporo, which they lost to a David Beckham penalty. “I was not ready to play the 90 minutes but then we were knocked out. It was very frustrating to get an injury in the last game [for Rangers] because I was in a very good physical condition. I was ready to play in the World Cup. And I was going to play in the first XI. The coach told me that. He wanted me to play on the right side. That is why he called me up. Maybe you did not know that? He wanted to play with three, and he wanted me to play from the beginning. Because I was injured [Ariel] Ortega played on the right-hand side instead.”

Caniggia experienced further disappointment when he arrived back in Glasgow. He claims that manager Alex McLeish offered him another year’s contract, saying it would be there for him to sign when he returned from the Far East. It wasn’t, however. Fuelling Caniggia’s frustration was the fact he had already rejected an attractive offer of a two-year-deal in France in the expectation that he was staying at Ibrox.

“It was Monaco, I can tell you that now,” he says. “It was Monaco, which would have been a great place to go for a 35 year-old.”

“He did not behave very honourably,” he added, with reference to McLeish. “He told me one thing to my face and did something else behind my back. I could have gone to France to play in a good place and he said to me no, no, I want you to play for another year here. That’s what I understood and I could have signed a two-year contract in France. He said: ‘no, I want you’.”

Instead, he wended his way to Qatar, at a time when the Gulf state were throwing open their doors to several veteran high-profile footballers in what appears to have been a successful mission to, ahem, ‘win’ the hearts, minds and votes of high ranking Fifa officials.

This spell with Qatar Sports Club would have stood as his last involvement in ‘serious’ football, but then came a curious episode two years ago when the then 45-year-old and several other former internationals, including Martin Keown and Graeme Le Saux, played in an early round of the FA Cup for FC Wembley, in a gimmick dreamed up by Budweiser, sponsors of the competition. The link-up with the beer company is why Caniggia is based at a hotel in Rio de Janeiro temporarily rebranded as the Budweiser hotel.

The atmosphere is decidedly dissolute and perhaps suits someone who has always emitted rock star qualities, although, in truth, Caniggia has always been a lot humbler than this might imply. Music pumps out from the lobby manned by burly security guards and willowy ‘Budweiser girls’ with long blonde hair – their own, it would appear, and not more tributes to the man leaning languidly on a security fence in front of them. In excellent English, Caniggia’s thoughts turn from World Cup semi-finals with Argentina to days at Dundee, and the aforementioned post-training base in Broughty Ferry so adored by the Italian/Argentinian crew at Dundee. “You will say hello to them for me?” he asks, with reference to the staff at Visocchi’s Italian café.

Caniggia is pleased by news of Dundee’s promotion, and tickled by the thought they are hosting Manchester City, the English Premier League champions, on the afternoon of the World Cup final. “They have already started pre-season? Oh, okay. Hopefully I will come back once more. Maybe one last game?”

He marked his home debut against Motherwell with a stunning goal: “I took the ball, I turned around and I came to the centre of the area, I saw the goalkeeper had come out a little bit and I chipped him.”

As he speaks, he is joined by a young man in a baseball cap worn back-to-front, who you initially take to be just another young reveller emerging from the Stygian gloom of the hotel’s lobby/nightclub.

However, it turns out that this is Alexander, the son who some may remember as the mini-Caniggia figure with long hair kicking a ball around at Dundee training sessions. Now 21, his father insists: “He is from Dundee!” The city is, at least, where he first attended formal school.

“I used to take him to the school before training,” recalls Caniggia. “In the first days he said he did not understand anything: ‘I do not want to go!’ he screamed. I told him you have to go. I said: ‘Don’t worry you will understand the language very soon, you are young. Go to school’. Now he is a great English speaker. I thank Dundee and Glasgow for that!

“When I went to live in Spain, in Marbella, I put them (he has two other children, one of whom, 20-year-old Charlotte, is currently causing waves as a glamour model taken to posing provocatively in an Argentina top) into an English school. They did not want to go to any other one.”

A throng has begun to form around the Caniggias – Alexander, too, has appeared on the front of gossip magazines in Argentina. Caniggia offers one of his delicate hands to shake. It makes it possible to notice the tattoo, in the arch between the thumb and forefinger, I first saw at such close quarters the last time we spoke, on a drizzly day at Dens Park in December 2000. Depicting a flower-petal that, even now, is brightly ablaze with flames, it remains an unmistakable stamp of quality.