Claudio Caniggia: ‘F**king Sutton’ ruined my World Cup dream

Claudio Caniggia in action for Dundee
Claudio Caniggia in action for Dundee
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Like the crucifix earring hanging from his left ear lobe, Claudio Caniggia is jangling. Or at least his nerves are.

It’s a magnificently surreal scene. A visibly agitated legend of the world game is heading out the theatre door for a smoke. But this is not the world stage, the sort he has graced in the past. This is a stage in Dundee – specifically, the city’s west end, where, following his own appearance, a production of Dick Whittington is due to begin a run.

Caniggia’s already made a request for the pre-show music to be turned up rather than down in an effort to reduce the anxiety he says he is feeling before facing several hundred Dundee fans at a long awaited An Audience With A Global Superstar event.

It seems this superstar functions best amid din and discord.

Perhaps this should be expected of someone once stationed at the Bombonera, home to Boca Juniors and somewhere reckoned to be among the most raucous grounds in world football. Unusually, Caniggia once also turned out every second weekend at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental, another must-visit stadium known for its ear-splitting volume and the inhabitants’ fierce dislike of Boca Juniors. This was displayed in shameful fashion when the Boca Juniors team bus was attacked before the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final at the end of last month.

The consequence of this is that neither ground, nor any other in Argentina, will host today’s eagerly anticipated, twice-postponed second leg. The Superclásico has upped sticks to Madrid’s Bernabéu. Putting to one side the serious reason for the relocation, Caniggia for one is happy with the choice.

“The game comes to me!” he says. “I was thinking about going to Argentina. But I was there one month ago, when I saw the first game.”

A Boca fan sprayed pepper spray at River Plate players just after half-time of the second leg when the teams met in an earlier round of the same competition three years ago. Since the attack took place inside the Bombonera, Boca were disqualified. Caniggia suggests the same fate should have befallen River Plate – though in the more recent case the offence occurred in streets outside the club’s ground.

“Of course the game should be won on the pitch but if they followed the same rules there would be no second game,” he says. “But you know if you cannot control fans, then it will be a problem for the club. It is not good. It happens. Even in friendly games. People go crazy. It is not good for Argentina.”

Caniggia now lives in the south of Spain but enjoys the rare distinction of being popular amongst both sets of passionate fans back home. He will travel from his base in Marbella for today’s game – while keeping one eye on the result from Dens Park, where another two former sides of his are in action: Dundee and Rangers.

But, first, to Buenos Aires – and a rivalry that, while recognised for its keenness by most with a passing knowledge of football, demonstrated why it deserves special status over a few chaotic days last month.

The sight of Boca Juniors players being helped into the stadium legs buckling due to the effects of tear gas became headline news across the world. The fact Boca Juniors’ 50,000 capacity ground was sold out for an eve-of-match training session – yes, a training session – also saw the occasion of the two eternal rivals meeting in the equivalent of the Champions League final acquire extra charge. Such fervour means few players have successfully crossed the great Buenos Aires divide.

“It is not easy to go from one team to another, because they are in the same city,” explains Caniggia. “It is like going from Rangers to Celtic, especially if you are a big player. If you did not do so much for that club, the supporters do not care.”

Caniggia is too modest to say it – he was a big player. Perhaps only Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Gabriel Batistuta rank above him since the days of Mario Kempes. Boca Juniors fans boast that half of Argentina “plus one”, Caniggia included, supports the club. Caniggia, who grew up in Henderson, a small town in Buenos Aires state, nevertheless started his career at River Plate, scoring eight times in just over 50 appearances before sampling football in Europe for the first time with Serie A side Atalanta.

Seven intervening years and four goals, including a winner against Brazil, in World Cups helped rinse the famous red band of River Plate from his soul in the eyes of Boca Juniors supporters and he joined the club he always supported in 1995. A hat-trick the following year against River Plate helped smooth any lingering acceptance issues.

The move was originally facilitated by Maradona, who himself signed on the proviso the club brought Caniggia back from Europe. Even without Maradona’s insistence, Caniggia felt he was bound to play for Boca at one point.

“I can say I was loved by both,” he states. “I have a good relationship with both supporters. They do not hate me. That is what I believe. Of course there might be a few who go ‘Oh, he went to the other team, blah, blah, blah’. But I do not believe that, because of what I did for the national team – I am more a national team guy for the Argentina supporters than a club player.”

It’s true. Caniggia may have played for both River Plate and Boca Juniors, but it seems he never belonged to any particular club.

Rather, Caniggia is a national idol. More than this, Caniggia, now 51, inspires universal devotion. A Bulgarian fan travelled all the way to Dundee from London to attend the Caniggia night two Thursdays ago – and having come all that way, he wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to ensure his hero understood this. He got to his feet and outlined his journey. He also recalled that when his cousin played against Caniggia’s Argentina at the 1994 World Cup, he still supported the opposition over his homeland because his loyalty to Caniggia trumped his own blood ties.

Then there’s John McEnroe, a perhaps unlikely fan. On deeper reflection, why wouldn’t he be one? Tennis’ ultimate rebel was always likely to be drawn to Caniggia, who, like him, sported a headband – or more accurately a piece of string – to tie back his hair. Even now, he needs it – unlike McEnroe.

The pair met up in New York shortly before Caniggia’s trip to Scotland. Perhaps relishing another reason to rail against officialdom, McEnroe wanted to know more about his friend’s absence from the 1990 Word Cup final (Caniggia was suspended after collecting two yellow cards, the latter coming against Italy in the semi-final in Naples).

“I explained to him I went to stop the ball with my shoulder but I did not calculate it very well,” says Caniggia. “So it hit me in the middle of the arm. There was just a slight touch, above the elbow. OK maybe it was handball, just about. But the referee took out the yellow card. I was like: ‘Why? We are in the middle of the pitch. I am not making a foul on someone from behind, or stopping a goal. I told McEnroe that. He asked me: Did I think it was fair? I said: ‘Of course not’.

“He told me of course it was not fair! Things were never fair for him either!”

It’s good to catch up with Caniggia again. He was in sparkling form in Dundee earlier this month, revealing, amongst other things, that he could have made a return for the 2010 World Cup at the age of 43 – six years after officially retiring. Maradona was manager but Carlos Bilardo, who was in charge of Argentina at Italia 90, sounded out Caniggia about the opportunity while in the role of national team director six months before the finals in South Africa.

Caniggia felt it was a step too far – something he regrets now. He still looks as he if he could play. Actually, he still does. As well as media work he plays exhibition matches around the world. His most recent one saw him line up with Roger Milla, another icon from Italia 90.

There was some unnecessary stress when Caniggia’s scheduled event in Glasgow, a day after his Dundee appearance, was cancelled at the last minute – “unforeseen circumstances” was the reason given by the organisers, the Longest Forty. But Caniggia has already been in touch to offer his services at another night in March to make up for the no show. He wants to make amends.

If unscrupulous advisors are part of the problem, he’s at least avoided the pitfalls being explored by Maradona. According to Caniggia, his former striker partner surrounds himself with too many characters whose intentions are questionable. It’s why Maradona is charting such an eccentric career course as coaching in the Mexican second division while being “chairman” of a club in Belarus.

Caniggia has steered clear of management. He doesn’t seem the type and even sacrificed his place in the squad for the 1998 World Cup because he refused to conform to manager Daniel Passarella’s strict views about hair length.

He is interested to learn Alex McLeish is back in football with Scotland. Caniggia holds McLeish responsible for nixing a potential move to Monaco as his two-year stint at Ibrox neared an end. The then Rangers manager led Caniggia to believe there would be another one-year deal for him at Ibrox. It never materialised.

“He is the Scotland manager?” he asks. “Ah. I was upset, for a little while. There was a good relationship with Alex. But he promised one thing and he did not fulfil this promise.

“It’s a long time ago,” he adds. “There is no problem now. If I can meet him it is not a problem any more. But at the time I was upset.” He endured earlier frustration when he was injured against Celtic in the 2002 Scottish Cup final at the end of his first season at Ibrox. A clumsy challenge by Chris Sutton, who was playing in defence, ultimately thwarted Caniggia’s chance of playing in a third World Cup, having succeeded in breaking back into the international squad in his mid-thirties.

“F*cking Sutton! He was a striker! I have no idea why he was playing as a centre-half. I thought I would make it. But I was not fit for the first game, then the second one…”

Caniggia managed to leave his mark on another World Cup by being sent off without playing, after abusing the referee from the bench in the final group game against Sweden. Argentina were eliminated after the 1-1 draw.

“It was a shame,” he says. “I was very fit that season. I had been doing extra work at Rangers by myself.”

And what of Dundee, the club where he claims his career was reignited and whose fans afford him the status of a Billy Steel or Alan Gilzean? He seems genuinely humbled.

“It is beautiful to be remembered,” he says. “A club has history, even a small club, and there have been so many players, it is great to be considered one of the best ever.

“It was a short time, but a very significant time,” he adds. “My career started again at Dundee, more or less. I was thinking about giving up. For a few months, I was thinking that.” Caniggia’s career had stalled back at Atalanta, then in Serie B. The Bonetti brothers, then in charge at Dens Park, got in touch – Dario had played with Caniggia at Hellas Verona.

“I thought, why not? It is a challenge,” says Caniggia. “I could have played in the best championships in Europe. But I decided to come to Dundee, get back on my feet and start again. Why not?

“Of course, in my mind, once I came back, and started feeling better, day by day, week by week, I started thinking why not come back to the international team? That was my target and – how you say – my purpose, to get back to the national team. And it happened.”

It’s another strand of a fascinating story, containing heartache, redemption, controversy, tragedy – his mother committed suicide in 1996, while he was at Boca – and glory. A book about his life should be mandatory considering the number of players who have chronicled mediocre careers. Caniggia has ready-made titles to choose between too; El Pajaro, or 
the Bird, which was the first nickname he was given as he made his way with River Plate, and the 
Son of the Wind, or El Hijo del Viento, which is the poetic moniker earned later in his career when still able to leave defenders trailing in his wake. “I like the Son of the Wind, it makes me sound like Carl Lewis,” he grins.

As for now, he says, who knows what the future holds. He remains a free spirit, the way it should be.