Let’s start by talking about a particular player’s resume, it goes something like this – a young kid from Buenos Aires started from the streets, enrols in River Plate’s renowned academy then graduates into the first team.
He establishes himself as one of the promising players from South America. Not too long Europe comes knocking on his door, he makes a name for himself with Hellas Verona, Atalanta Bergamo, Roma and Benfica respectively.
A certain Diego Maradona was being seduced by his talent from the sideline. Their affair was so passionate, they once celebrated a goal with a French kiss.
Maradona was certain that he had to be part of Argentina’s squad for Italia 90. Together they destroyed the hopes of all Italians.
His international statistics of 16 goals in 50 appearances may pale in comparison to Lionel Messi, but he does boast a curriculum vitae of winning two Copa America and one Confederation Cup title.
Oh, and he also played for Dundee FC.
It doesn’t seem like a happy ending to this journey but that’s the story of Claudio Caniggia. During the late 80s and early 90s, El Cani was renowned for his whizzy and sharp-witted style of play. Once considered the fastest footballer on the planet. So fast, that it took several Cameroonians to butcher him on the field.
Makes you wonder, how did a player of such reputation ends up in the ‘City of Discovery’.
When two local entrepreneurs, brothers Peter and Jimmy Marrs took over Dundee FC, they had a dream -To turn the Tayside club into the Real Mallorca of Scottish football.
Everything changed when former Juventus and Sampdoria midfielder, Ivano Bonetti brought in as the club’s player/coach. With proper backing, they signed a dozen foreign players.
Among them Georgi Nemsadze, Javier Artero, Alessandro Romano and Fabián Caballero in the summer of 2000.
The latter unfortunately suffered an injury, a replacement was urgently needed. The stopgap recruited player turned out to be the biggest transfer coup of the year.
Caniggia’s journey by then was facing a dead end street. His chaotic drug-fueled lifestyle in Rome had already tarnished his career and landed him a 13 month suspension from football. He went bouncing around with Benfica, before returning home to play for Boca Juniors.
Aided by Maradona’s return, the two were expected to bring the glory days back to La Bombonera. But neither could capture the magic they had together with Argentina. Caniggia eventually became a surplus to requirement. He went back to Italy to have another stint with Atalanta.
Unable to resurrect his once promising career, Caniggia fell into depression. The lowest point came in 1998 when both he and his wife, Mariana spent a night in a Miami jail after arrested for shoplifting.
In comes, Ivan’s brother, Dario, a former teammate at Verona. That connection was the catalyst that made this transfer possible.
I was thinking of stopping playing football at the time. I was still training on my own, staying fit, and then the Bonettis called me. I knew them from Italy and asked if I would come to Dundee? I said why not? I decided to come to Scotland and it was great at Dundee.
Knowing the Argentine’s history, it was a huge gamble but the Bonettis and Marrs were determined to take this by the horn. On October 4th, 2000, he was presented as the club’s newest signing.
Caniggia admitted, he was unfamiliar about Scottish football but working with the Bonettis gave him some comfort level to make this decision.
I’ve watched a number of Scottish matches on TV and the play looks robust, but it is Bonetti’s way of doing things at Dundee which has brought me here.
It also gave him a platform to open a new chapter in his career. Little did he knew, this decision will alter his life course journey.
But it wasn’t all love at first sight for Caniggia and Dundee – He was reportedly shocked by the state of the club’s muddied training ground on his first visit to the club’s training grounds. But like any relationship, it took a bit of working and adjustment from both parties.
Dundee fans were more than ecstatic on Caniggia’s arrival. For a club whose glory days dates back to the early 1960s, a player of his stature says a lot about their intent to challenge Scottish football supremo. Nearly 3,000 of them, travel to watch Caniggia’s debut away to Aberdeen.
Caniggia started from the bench with his new club already one goal up at the Pittdrie. Deep in the game, a thunderous roar from the Dundee supporters was beginning to emerge. They were applauding the arrival of a player who still had his signature headband tucked in a long blond hair.
It didn’t take that long for Caniggia to makes his mark. He coolly finished off a pass from Nemsadze to secure Dundee’s win that day. A week later, he scored from an excellent lob on his home debut against Motherwell.
Dundee fans even compose a special chant for him. Based on Culture Club’s classic hit ‘Karma Chameleon’, “Can-a Can-a, Can-a Can-a, Can-a Caniggiaaaaah; he comes and scores, he comes and scores… ”
If there is one game that Caniggia can cement his place in the ‘Dee’s’ faithful, its against city rival Dundee United. Dundee won the game 2-0, he was involved in both goals. The first a clinical finish with his right foot.
Despite his age, and turmoil he had experienced in his career, it was clear that there was still a level of ability left in the 33 year-old, as United’s manager Alex Smith pointed out – “the difference is that there is a World Cup player, and he gets half a chance then he knocks it back into the net. We ain’t got that type of quality up front”.
Caniggia was enjoying his football again, life off the pitch wasn’t bad either. Dundee may not be well known as a relaxing holiday retreat, but the tranquillity surrounding the city had a major role in reshaping his mindset.
This was a world away from the life he had in Buenos Aires and Rome. Claudio’s once party animal life was substituted for hard-working and humility. His humbleness has earned him love and admiration from fans and teammates.
Former teammate Dens, Falconer – “We were the oldest players there so we bounced off each other. He was a down-to-earth guy and he trained as he played. Every day he trained giving 100%”.
Caniggia still maintained a close relationship with Maradona, so much so that there was speculation of the possible reunion at Dundee, to play in a one-off game in Dens Park. Though the move didn’t materialize, the link with an all-time great was a free publicity the club wouldn’t refuse.
Caniggia’s overall contribution helped Dundee to qualify for the UEFA Intertoto Cup. The Marrs’ Real Mallorca dream looks to be heading in the right direction. He was voted in second place behind Henrik Larsson for the Scottish Player of the Year award. Questions begin to arise on whether he would stay for another term?
Caniggia’s success with Dundee attracted offers from Glasgow. Rangers look to him as the player that could help wrest the league title away from their city rivals. It also presented him a chance to play in Europe. And that wasn’t just the only prospect on the cards, it also presented an opportunity to play for his country again.
I was already 33 years old and I wanted to go to the World Cup. Sometimes it is difficult to leave when you have had a great time but I couldn’t miss the opportunity – I wanted to play in the World Cup. Even though I took that decision, the Dundee fans were unbelievable. I can’t find the words to explain.
He left Dundee in May 2001. A year later, Argentina’s manager Marcelo Bielsa included him in his party for the 2002 World Cup.
The love affair between Caniggia and Dundee was only a short fling. But it turned out to be the flickering flame that resuscitated his once fading career. In recognizing his the relationship between the club and the player, he was inducted into the club’s hall of fame in 2009.
Claudio Caniggia, the once bad boy of football, but a Tayside legend forever.