Claudio Caniggia played at three World Cups in 1990, 1994 and 2002 and formed a lethal partnership with Diego Maradona, and the image of his long golden hair is etched into the folklore of the planet’s premier tournament. At 51, as lean as ever and still sporting that same iconic haircut, Claudio Caniggia spoke about his own World Cup memories and the forthcoming tournament in Russia
- There are only a few days to go until the start of another World Cup. How would you feel in the weeks leading up to the tournament?
It’s extraordinary. It’s a feeling unlike any other tournament. Back then I was excited but at the same time, calm. I never let the pressure get to me. There are some guys who have trouble sleeping as the tournament draws near, and until they get going. Or there are those who never get going, which has happened before (laughs). There are players who used to be definite starters, and then never play again. The national team is different, even for those who play in major tournaments with their clubs.
- For many of you, it seemed to trigger a sort of insatiable hunger.
Back then, footballers were wilder and much more expressive. I think the wider public identified with the players much more than they do now. And I’m not just talking about Argentina. It’s a generational thing. The situations we experienced were rawer; football wasn’t so organised back then, but we were able to adapt to the chaos. We could cope with anything. The only things that mattered were the shirts on our backs, and the fact that we were representing millions of people.
- You ended the tournament as runners-up, but the Argentina team that played at Italia ’90 is often remembered as being an average team that had a lot of luck. How would you refute that?
Nobody outplayed us. Only Brazil, for the first 45 minutes in the Round of 16. Lots of things went against us. Maradona, Ruggeri and Burruchaga arrived at the tournament injured. Pumpido broke his leg. The world champions were having a whole load of problems! Some players hadn’t trained, others needed injections to get through, there were changes to the starting 11. It was horrendous! What other team has had to go through all that at a World Cup? But the way we reacted was astonishing, and we almost won the tournament. It’s the greatest example of psychological strength and triumphing over adversity that I ever experienced.
- Your goal against Brazil is so iconic for Argentinian fans. How does it relate to all of that?
It’s extraordinary. For me, it’s a source of such happiness and pride. I also think the one in the semi-final against Italy was very important, but the Brazil one was incredible because – in addition to being our main rivals – the goal comes from a move in midfield where you can see five Brazilians and two Argentinians. It was a spectacular piece of football. It’s as if they were PlayStation characters. Then when you factor in the aura that surrounded the game, as well as what had happened in the first half, that’s what makes it such an enduring moment.
- You used to compete in athletics when you were young. To what extent did that help you to gain an edge in football?
I didn’t consciously use it, but it did help. I had a strange running style. I used to begin hunched forward and run on tiptoe, because I thought that it gave me a better start. I was lightning on the grass, because I’d already run the 100 and 200 metres. It also helped me when I had to slow down fast and change direction.
- Is there a modern-day Caniggia?
No, because there are fewer and fewer players who play out wide. It’s something that we need to bring back. A good, quick winger can really cause problems for the opponent. There are so many bodies in central areas, it’s more difficult there.
- What sort of a World Cup are you hoping to see?
An attacking, attractive World Cup. There are good teams out there who have opted for an attacking style, and who have got the players to do it. Players who are being asked to go forward, and who are going to do exactly that. After the Round of 16, things might get a bit more cautious. The teams that feel weaker will go that way, which is normal.
- Everyone seems to agree on the favourites, but even they must have failings that nobody is talking about. Can you see any weaknesses?
I think those teams look good, solid. We’ve still got a problem or two to resolve, but nobody is unbeatable. I don’t know if I’d call it an Achilles heel, but there’s always something. People make mistakes. Nobody had even scored a goal against Italy in 1990, and then we beat them. The key is mental strength.
- What about Argentina’s strengths and weaknesses?
What’s in our favour is that the best attacking players can put fear into anyone. Their names alone unsettle the opposition. The other teams don’t think: “Higuain is being criticised in Argentina”. They think: “he’s Juventus’ top goalscorer”. Our weak point is that we’re still not solid at the back, and there are still a couple of places up for grabs.
- Here are two phrases that sum up many people’s opinions: “Messi is not as heroic as Maradona” and “Messi’s teammates don’t give him the same support as Diego’s did”. Which one do you agree with more?
Messi doesn’t get the same support from his teammates as Maradona did. I think that’s true.
- How did you prepare in order not only to support but to keep up with a genius?
I knew that Maradona was the complete football genius, but I didn’t think about keeping up with him. Never. Every player has a responsibility, even those who don’t play much. You can’t give all the responsibility to Messi, because then what’s the point of you being there? Imagine if I’d thought in 1990 that the world champions had to carry me through. No! Carry us? We’re in it together. I’m Argentina’s striker and I have to drag them through it too. That was my responsibility. You’ve got to have character, determination, ambition and impulse.
- Towards the end of 2009, Carlos Bilardo invited you to come back and play at South Africa 2010. How do you think you would have performed?
I was 42 years-old and I’d been retired for four and a half years. We’ll never know now, but to play 30 minutes would have been perfect. I was in good shape and I hadn’t lost my pace. But I couldn’t decide, and later I regretted it. It would’ve been unbelievable to play at another World Cup.