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Ciao, Beppe

It's the power of a name, and also the never-ending beauty of sport.

Twice in the last few years my first name caused amused reactions in some far away (for me) places: somewhere in the mountains between Shiraz and Kerman in Iran, near a creek and some ancient ruins next to whom someone has scribbled 'Del Piero' and 'Owen' on a roofless concrete toilet, I introduced myself to a couple of locals and their response was the same: 'Roberto... like Roberto Baggio!'.

Another time, another place. A customs officer at the border between Belize and Messico relaxed, noticing that the only things I was trying to smuggle north were a suntan and a backpack loaded with books, and uttered the same exact words when he looked at my passport.

It may be discouraging that a country which has produced its fair share of Michelangelos and Dante Alighieris gets remembered for its footballers, but that's the way it is.

But I just cannot imagine anyone named Giuseppe (or 'Guiseppe' as Anglophones invariably and puzzingly write it, just as they write 'Trappatoni' instead of 'Trapattoni' - learn it before it's too late) being stopped in his tracks at a border crossing at welcome by a 'Like Giuseppe Signori!'.

Or Beppe, as he's been known for a long time. Fact is, Signori, 36, retired from football on the same day as Baggio did, but his exit did not command half the attention of the Divino Codino's.

And not because Signori went to great lengths to explain he was merely leaving Italian football to ply his trade next year in a 'less competitive' league, which will surely make for some interesting comments if he doesn't surface in Qatar - the first place which sprang to mind as soon as those words (and the unspoken follow-up 'where someone will pay me lots of money for a handful of matches') were uttered - but in some European or North American competition. But there is no doubt Signori left a bigger mark in Italian football than his rather subdued exit may lead you to think.

During the early Nineties, your football education would not have been complete if you did not take into account the phenomenon of Foggia. Coached by chain-smoking Czech, Zdenek Zeman, a man who can speak without apparently moving his lips, the southern-eastern side gained promotion to Serie A on the wings of astonishing attacking play, based on constant running and the employment of a three-pronged forward line of Signori, Francesco Baiano and Roberto Rambaudi.

Zeman's demanding practices helped shape a team that scored and gave away goals freely. In a memorable 1991-2 Serie A campaign, Signori, who'd started his career at Serie C2 Leffe after being rejected by Inter for being too small, scored 11 goals and earned himself a move to Lazio. There, under Dino Zoff, he topped the goalscoring charts in his first season, with 26 (including 12 penalties, famously taken with his short run-up) in 32 matches.

Signori: Moving on from Serie A
Signori: Moving on from Serie A

Zeman would then follow his striker to the Stadio Olimpico and Signori would become the darling of the Lazio fans, scoring 23 (6 from the spot), 17, 24 (12) and 15 in subsequent seasons, with two more goalscoring crowns, before Sven-Goran Eriksson let him join Sampdoria on loan midway through the 1997-98 campaign, an ill-fated move which Signori described as a mistake. 'It was all my fault because I was not in the right state of mind.'

Signori then underwent back surgery and found his ideal place to recover in Bologna, which accepted him on loan from Lazio, whose fans had been so incensed in the summer of 1995, when the rumour of a move to Parma had come up, that they had staged a riot - sadly, a regular day at the office for a lot of Italian Ultras - and forced the club directors to back off.

But by then Signori had been slowed down by his injury and his short time at Sampdoria did nothing to help him. When Bologna took him, Signori, ironically, replaced another great player who'd spent a year in the red-and-blue shirt and had felt rejuvenated after some sone injuries: Roberto Baggio.

Baggio and Signori had been friends for some time and had shared the excitement, the struggles and ultimately the heartbreak of Italy's 1994 World Cup campaign in the USA. Coach Arrigo Sacchi, who'd memorably been branded as 'mad' by Baggio when he decided to bring off the Codino after goalkeeper Pagliuca had been sent off against Norway, gave Signori, then at his peak, a starting place in the first four matches.

But the two clashed when Signori refused to play on the wing in the semi-final against Bulgaria (he came on in the second half relacing Baggio), and Beppe was dropped for the final against Brazil, which was decided by Baggio's missed penalty.

Signori ended his Azzurri days in September 1995, with a total of 28 games and seven goals, but after the move to Bologna his main goal was to re-establish his career. And re-establish he did.

Bologna has now become his permanent home, and, crucially, he chose to live downtown, turning down the suburban villa where Baggio had lived during his spell there. While trying to regain his form - he'd arrived in town overweight and in bad shape after surgery - he got to know the place and established a special relationship with Bologna, so much so that the local transport authority benefitted from his testimonial, hardly the ordinary choice for a footballer, although he could rarely be seen riding a bus after his recovery was complete.

In his six seasons with the Rossoblu, he scored 67 goals in the Serie A and 90 overall, leading them to within a few minutes of a UEFA Cup final in 1999. Despite his side's constant struggle to keep its head above the relegation zone, Signori became an icon of the fans, which were attracted both by his approachability and by his penchant for spectacular goals with his famed left foot.

World Cup team-mates: Roberto Baggio and Signori at USA '94
World Cup team-mates: Roberto Baggio and Signori at USA '94

After (allegedly) clashing with coach Francesco Guidolin during the 2002-03 season, Signori briefly lost his starting place but was soon back and scored within minutes of his first start, a typical volley against Udinese.

He endeared himself to fans by also setting himself bizarre goals: he bet teammates he could eat a whole snack before he'd walk ten paces, and bet a local controversial TV personality that he'd reach 200 goals in Serie A.

He stopped at 180, missing a penalty in the home match against Siena after which he officially announced his retirement, but he added his decision had not been influenced by some catcalls and whistles he'd heard in that game.

His form had slipped in the latter part of the season, and, ever the conscientious person, he chose to leave Italian football while still in Serie A.

Asked about a rumour of his joining Milan in their upcoming tour of China, he said: 'At least I can wear a shirt with a Scudetto once in my life...'

For, despite his Hall of Fame career, he never won a thing.

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