Claudio Caniggia is still idolised by Dundee supporters some 20 years after pulling on the number 33 shirt for the final time.
Caniggia played what turned out to be his final game for Dundee on April 29 2001 but the affection for the Argentine superstar is as strong as ever.
Caniggia’s career was ultimately revived during his brief spell at Dens Park where he proved on a weekly basis that he was still at the top of his game.
Diego Maradona became a cultural icon in Naples
Award-winning football writer and Dundee fan Patrick Barclay said he is struck by Caniggia’s enduring popularity despite only playing 25 games for the club.
He said the love shown for Caniggia by Dundee fans was similar to Diego Maradona’s standing in Naples where he became a cultural icon in the Italian town.
Barclay was writing for The Guardian when he watched an 18-year-old Maradona play against Scotland at Hampden in July 1979 as the world first awakened to his genius.
Maradona would go on to win the 1986 World Cup with Argentina before he formed a lethal strike partnership with Caniggia.
Caniggia’s goals took Argentina all the way to the 1990 World Cup Final which he missed through suspension and West Germany went on to win 1-0.
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.
Caniggia joined Dundee in October 2000 which lifted the entire city and Barclay compared his short spell to the 16 months spent at Dens by Charlie Cooke.
Charlie Cooke left a lasting impression at Dens
Cooke signed for Dundee from Aberdeen in December 1964 and left a lasting impression before moving to Chelsea for a club record £72,000.
“Where does he rank in terms of the club’s all-time greats?” said Barclay.
“I think the quality of player that he was and standard that he had played at would put him above even the late great Alan Gilzean and Billy Steel.
“Gilzean was my all-time hero so I feel awful saying that but have Dundee ever had another player who has earned his country a place in a World Cup Final?”
Caniggia certainly left his mark during his brief stay on Tayside and scored a total of eight goals in 25 league and cup games before joining Rangers.
“Caniggia brought world class to Dundee,” said Barclay.
“He was brilliant during his short stay but his enduring popularity has surprised me considering he only played 25 games before he took the Ibrox shilling.
“He is adored, utterly adored by the supporters.”
Standing room only when Caniggia returned in 2018
Barclay first met Caniggia after he signed a new three-year contract in January 2001 when Dundee went to Italy for a training camp during the winter break.
“I remember meeting him at the time and he was a super guy,” he said.
“He was very affable.
“The second time I met him was when I joined him on stage at the Whitehall Theatre in 2018 and there wasn’t a single seat in the house.
“He was there to speak about his career and I remember every time Caniggia so much as coughed there were people rolling in the aisles as if he’d made the best joke in the world or clapping or giving him a standing ovation and chanting his name.
“It was unbelievable the love for him and the joy people had for him.
“We didn’t win a trophy with Caniggia and there’s a similarity with Charlie Cooke who was another highly gifted entertainer who didn’t stay with us long.
“Charlie was also quick footed and he went on to star in a European Cup Winners’ Cup Final for Chelsea against Real Madrid in 1971.”
Patrick Barclay will never forget his night with Caniggia
Cooke still remains a hero at Dens Park where a supporters club is named in his honour and a hospitality lounge bears his name.
“The difference was that Charlie packed Dens – when Charlie was at Dens we averaged bigger crowds than we did when Dundee won the league in 1962,” said Barclay.
“It was an extraordinary time and Caniggia was the same although the crowds had gone by then and even with Caniggia in the team we couldn’t pack our small ground.
“I’ll never forget that night at the theatre and I was astonished at the passion for him which was almost like his pal Maradona at Naples on a smaller scale.
“It was extraordinary the love they had for Maradona at Naples.”
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.
“We will still be speaking about him in 20 years’ time,” said Barclay.
“There were people who watched him during their impressionable years so I think he’ll be remembered for generations to come.
“Put it this way he won’t have to buy a pint in the Hawkhill!”
The end was nigh when Caniggia played his final game for Dundee on April 29 2001
March 2001 brought talk of a move to Rangers.
The Ibrox club had gone out of Europe before Christmas; their title hopes were all but gone; and £12m signing Tore Andre Flo was still battling to win over his critics.
Roberto Baggio was linked with replacing Caniggia
Dundee fans were hoping for a miracle when Caniggia looked set to leave but suddenly there was talk of the Divine Ponytail arriving to replace him.
Roberto Baggio was widely considered among the greatest footballers of his generation and Beppe Signori was another star name linked to replace Caniggia.
Caniggia played his final game at Dens against Hibernian when he started alongside Fabian Caballero but it turned out to be a major disappointment.
Hibs were rewarded with the opening goal when Frederic Arpinon cut an accurate pass over the top to the feet of Marc Libbra.
The striker crashed the ball into the corner from 12 yards on 55 minutes.
Hibs then grabbed the second goal on 66 minutes.
Matthias Jack played a ball down the middle and David Zitelli took full advantage of a mistake by Barry Smith with an assured finish to win the game 2-0.
Caniggia helped raise the profile of the club
A transfer fee was finally agreed with Rangers to bring Caniggia’s time to an end and the club was quick to pay tribute to his “outstanding” contribution.
“Dundee Football Club can confirm that a transfer fee has been agreed with Glasgow Rangers Football Club in respect of Claudio Caniggia,” said a club spokesman.
“During his time at Dundee Football Club, Claudio Caniggia has made an outstanding contribution to the team and helped raise the profile of the club to new heights.
“We wish him well for the future but we have also proved this season that Dundee Football Club are bigger than any one individual – even a player of Claudio Caniggia’s world class ability.”
Caniggia passed a medical and agreed personal terms after Rangers and Dundee agreed a package worth just over £1 million.
Only bad luck stopped Diego coming to Dens Park
Caniggia said it was just bad luck that stopped Diego Maradona watching him play at Dens and he invited him to watch his first game for Rangers.
“I haven’t spoken to Diego since I joined Rangers,” he said at the time.
“I simply haven’t had the time.
“It’s been a matter of coming straight back from a family holiday in Italy, and straight into pre-season training with my new club.
“I will, however, be getting in touch with Diego to invite him over for our opening game against Aberdeen.
“He promised to fly over to see me when I played with Dundee.
“But I’d moved from Dens Park before his trip could be organised.
“Maybe we’ll have better luck this time.
“I hope so.
“Diego is a very, very good friend of mine, and I’d like him to see me in my first game for Rangers.”
Sadly Maradona didn’t make it to Scotland to watch his great friend.
He died at the age of 60 in November 2020.