Claudio Caniggia, the Argentina national team, River Plate, Boca Juniors, and Atalanta cult-hero, who stunned the footballing world by joining Dundee.
Now for the first time, our new Claudio Caniggia documentary film lifts the lid on the Argentine World Cup hero’s extraordinary spell at Dens Park 20 years ago.
The signing lifted the entire city and Caniggia’s former team-mates Lee Wilkie, Barry Smith, Dave Mackay and Stevie Milne bring to life what it was like to play alongside a football megastar who was the great Diego Maradona’s ex-strike partner.
Former Dundee owner Peter Marr holds nothing back as he gives a revealing view of events from the boardroom while we also speak to the fans and journalists who followed the team’s every move as the mercurial Argentine lit up Scottish football.
Among the highlights of The Courier’s Caniggia: 20 Years On documentary, which premieres on October 8, are:
- Peter Marr talks of the successful battle to save the club from being wound up before they hatched a plan to challenge the Old Firm for league titles which culminated in the sensational signing of Claudio Caniggia
- How the Argentine superstar’s pre-game routine involved a cigarette in the toilet and how he coped with the culture shock of training on public parks
- The bonkers Italian winter trip where Caniggia’s appearance in a nightclub led to free drinks and the VIP treatment for the Dark Blues with one woman literally collapsing at the sight of the ageing gunslinger
- How Caniggia was given time off from Dens at Diego Maradona’s insistence that he wouldn’t make a date with Pele without his great friend alongside him
- He could “rack up any bill he wanted” but those closest to him on his incredible Dundee journey give a personal insight into the superstar and tell how the down-to-earth, humble and quiet Caniggia was just one of the lads.
The eye-opening Scottish football documentary looks back at a time when those of us whose usual beat was the news pages now found ourselves writing about the goings-on at Dens Park.
Dundee went from the sports pages to the front pages almost overnight as this God of the game graced the ground whose fastest performers used to be greyhounds.
Among the hysteria, one newspaper report claimed “the old city of Dundee has not been this mind-boggled since the days when Sinatra and the Beatles arrived in town”.
Caniggia was 33 and hadn’t played football for months after being released by the Italian club Atalanta but he packed in a comeback that would have made Ol’ Blue Eyes proud.
Dundee as a city was going through a real period of change.
In the summer of 2000, just before Caniggia arrived, there was the alleged threat that Dundee would lose its city status because the population was dropping.
Caniggia brought light to the darkness: a feeling that something good was on its way.
At the time big signings were coming to Scotland to play for Celtic and Rangers with crazy transfer fees being paid.
So it wasn’t unusual for a player of such stature to grace our game.
But it was his final destination that caused such a shock.
Caniggia was still one of the most famous names in world football and his goals had taken Argentina all the way to the 1990 Fifa World Cup Final in Italy.
Against the strains of Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma, a generation of us grew up watching Caniggia explode on to the scene in the opening game in Milan with a galloping run against Cameroon where he evaded two tackles from green shirts of increasing ferocity before the giant figure of Benjamin Massing flew in waist-high and sent him into orbit with the greatest foul in World Cup history.
Two years later Caniggia joined Roma in Italy’s Serie A for £6m at a time when Dundee were bartering with Lochore Welfare in the Fife junior leagues for the signature of the gangly defender Gary Paterson for £1,000 and a set of tracksuits.
Fast forward eight years and Dundee were in slightly better health with millionaire owners Jimmy and Peter Marr at the helm and back in the Premier League with Italian manager Ivano Bonetti in the dugout.
Former Juventus and Sampdoria midfielder Bonetti was masterminding a colourful overhaul of the playing staff and it was an injury to star striker Fabian Caballero in a derby game against Dundee United that prompted a search for a replacement.
One man Bonetti knew from his time in Italy was Caniggia and he asked him if he would come to Dundee and help a friend.
Dundee fans who could recall the capture of ‘Trackies Paterson’ and the club almost going out of business in 1997 were now left pinching themselves when Caniggia turned up in Sandeman Street with his catwalk model wife Mariana Nannis.
The South American model was famed for her extravagant lifestyle and there were rumours her dog Bau Bau was only ever washed with expensive Evian water.
Caniggia agreed to sign on and become the highest paid player in Dundee’s history for £10,000 a week and insisted he was ultimately motivated by a desire to force his way into the Argentina national team for the 2002 World Cup in Japan.
Caniggia was just one in a long list of unexpected arrivals in the Scottish game that had also included George Best turning out for Hibs at the end of the 1970s, Russian international Sergei Baltacha signing for St Johnstone in 1990 and Paul Gascoigne joining Rangers in 1995.
Excitement reached fever pitch.
Caniggia was still box office – pure and simple.
Sales of replica Dundee strips began flying out the door of the club shop with Caniggia’s name and number 33 on the back.
Sales were only stopped when the shop ran out of the letters N and G but not before one had been sent to Caniggia’s best mate Maradona who had requested one.
Caniggia masks also did a roaring trade and blonde wigs sold out in the city’s hair salons.
This would be more than a change of scenery for a man who played in front of 85,000 in the San Siro at the 1990 World Cup with Argentina – Dundee’s average gate was just 6,900 and the players trained on public parks which were often quagmires.
A reputation is one thing but delivering is something else.
Caniggia didn’t disappoint for the Dark Blues and proved on a weekly basis that he was still at the top of his game.
He scored in the last minute on his debut to seal a Dundee win against Aberdeen at Pittodrie in true Roy of the Rovers fashion.
Dundee fans now had a new hero to worship.
Caniggia fever was such that his home debut would be the first time in living memory that a match against Motherwell had been made all-ticket.
He did his talking on the pitch with important goals in big games including a derby win at Tannadice where he famously pulled pints for Dundee fans in the High Corner pub after the match.
That was the mark of the man.
The Argentine hero also turned in a man of the match performance against Rangers on a night that remains part of Dundee folklore.
Caniggia and Stevie Milne’s goals in a 2-0 win against Dick Advocaat’s side secured only Dundee’s fourth victory at Ibrox since the inception of the Premier League way back in 1975.
Caniggia’s presence even saw Dundee’s games broadcast in South America, New Zealand, Australia and even the West Indies where Caribbeaners brought up on a sporting diet of Viv Richards, Garfield Sobers and Brian Lara were now watching Willie Falconer and Shaun McSkimming.
The style magazine GQ then turned up to write a feature on the club long before Dundee became ‘Scotland’s sexy new city’ with the opening of the V&A in 2018.
It was simply surreal.
Off the pitch, Caniggia loved drinking coffee and would spend the afternoon in the Italian ice cream shop Visocchis in Broughty Ferry which was popular with Dundee’s foreign legion.
He grew to love the city and signed a new deal in January and talked of finishing his career in Dundee.
That was just before Maradona declared himself ready to jump on a plane and play alongside Caniggia in a glamour friendly against Napoli at Dens.
It was another jaw-dropping moment in a story that would have been thrown out of Hollywood for being too far-fetched.
Caniggia’s spell in the City of Discovery even proved the catalyst for a remarkable attempt by a group of Dundee University students to make David Hasselhoff their rector to keep up the feel-good factor.
They watched the impact Caniggia’s arrival was having on the city and believed bringing the world’s most watched television star to Dundee would take things to the next level.
Sadly neither Hasselhoff nor Maradona ever arrived in Dundee and Caniggia’s time was up after just one season and he joined Rangers.
In the end the love affair between Claudio Caniggia and Dundee was just a short fling.
It seems like a lifetime ago but Caniggia and his supporting cast still look back fondly on their time together at Dens when they became everyone’s favourite second team.
The fact he spent less than a season at Dens but was still inducted into the club’s inaugural hall of fame spoke volumes for his impact.
Claudio Caniggia’s Indian Summer on Tayside remains unforgettable for those of us who lived through it.
It was a special time when suddenly anything seemed possible.
More than that, it was a special time to be alive.
The Claudio Caniggia documentary will be available on The Courier from October 8.
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