17th July, 1994: Spectators at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena watched with bated breath. Under a blistering sun, Italy and Brazil had failed to break the deadlock. The World Cup final was now down to penalty kicks; Brazil was leading 3-2, and Italy had only one kick left. The player who was about to take it had been Italy’s best attacking player in the tournament. After a short run, he took the fateful kick; the ball went above the goal-post, missing it by a fair distance. Claudio Tafarrel pointed towards the heaven, as celebrations began – Brazil had won the World Cup for a record fourth time. The Italian player cut an inconsolable lone figure.
11th June, 1998: An absorbing encounter was taking place in Bordeaux. In the opening game of group B, Chile were leading Italy 2-1 at the 85th minute mark. The same player had set up Italy’s opening goal, by slipping in a delightful pass for Christian Vieri. With a shock defeat looming around the corner, he earned a penalty for his team. As he stepped up to the spot, Azzuri fans were reminded of the heart-break four years ago. Some of the Chilean defenders tried to intimidate him when he was placing the ball. This time he didn’t miss, as his typically cool finish made it 2-2. Italy had earned a crucial point.
It is not ironical that two of the everlasting moments in Roberto Baggio’s career are related to spot kicks. It is ironical that he is often remembered for a penalty that he didn’t score, given the fact that he was Serie A’s all time best spot kick taker, with an 86% conversion rate. Il Divin Codino was one of the most exciting players to have ever come out of the peninsula, and his performances created a new generation of Azzuri fans. He was able to touch his fans emotionally as only a few players can; it was like Jimi Hendrix’s music.
Born on 18th February 1967 in Caldogno, Roberto’s love for football was passed down from two of his elder brothers. According to one of his childhood coaches, he would never leave the football field until his mother came to take him home. His sublime talent was first noticed during a mini-tournament in his home-town. In 12 games he scored 50 goals; the spectators inquired if he was a Brazilian. Roberto began his football career in Vicenza, making his name in youth teams by scoring 110 goals in 120 matches. His career could have been over even before it started, when he tore some cruciate ligaments on his right knee, which put him out of action for almost two years.
In the city of Renaissance, Florence, Roberto Baggio embarked on a journey which would make him one of the best footballers of all time. He exploded on the national scene after a goal against Napoli. Taking the ball from his own half, he dribbled past the entire Napoli defensive line before rounding up the ‘keeper for a cool finish. Diego Maradona, sitting on the reserve bench, stood up and applauded the goal. Baggio would go on to score tons of similar goals later in his career.
In 1989-90 Baggio scored 15 goals in 30 matches, forming a lethal combination with Stefano Borgonovo. With Ericsson as the coach, Fiorentina reached the UEFA Cup final in 1989-90, before eventually losing to Juventus.
Next season, Roberto would make his controversial move to Juventus. He himself wanted to join AC Milan, and was not informed by his agent till the deal was finalized. Fiorentina was engulfed in riots after the news broke, and 50 people were injured. In Turin, Baggio would rise to dizzy heights, winning some of his most important trophies. He went on to score 115 goals in 200 matches, playing a pivotal role in making Juventus a force in Europe again.
Baggio scored 27 goals in 47 matches in his very first Juve season. He top scored in the Cup Winners Cup with nine goals, but failed to prevent a semi-final exit at the hands of Cryuff’s Dream Team, despite scoring a stunning free-kick in the 1-0 win in home-leg. 1992-93 was his best season at Juventus, when he scored 30 goals in 43 matches. Donning the captain’s arm-band, Baggio led the Bianconeri to their 3rd UEFA Cup title in 1993-94. He scored a brace as Juve thumped Borussia Dortmund 6-1 in the two legged final. This was his first European title at club level, and it would remain the only one he ever won.
His exploits with Juventus earned him the Ballon D’Or in 1993, making him the 3rd Italian player to receive this honor. In the same year, he also captured the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
Next season, a cigar chewing coach named Marcello Lippi joined Juventus. Lippi and Baggio’s clashes would go down as one of most controversial episodes in Serie A history. Baggio played merely 27 matches in Lippi’s first season, rarely making it to the starting XI. Silvio Berlusconi had been trying to net him at that time; he took advantage of this situation and swooped in to sign Baggio in 1995.
Moving to AC Milan would prove to be one of the worst decisions of Baggio’s career. He clashed with two high profile coaches, Fabio Capello and Arrigo Sacchi, again getting benched. After suffering for two years, he moved to Bologna to resurrect his career. Forging a successful alliance with coach Carlo Mazzone, Roberto would have his best Serie A season – scoring 22 goals. A move to a bigger club was just a matter of time, and he duly joined Internazionale.
Inter had built a formidable team that season, with Ronaldo and Zamorano in their ranks. The addition of Baggio was expected to bring them the first Scudetto since 1989. Baggio’s form was indifferent in his first season. His form and Ronaldo’s injury depleted the Inter team, which failed to mount a title challenge. However, Baggio did put on a masterclass performance in an epic 5-4 win over AS Roma, where he assisted three of the five goals Inter scored.
In 1999/2000, his old nemesis Lippi came back to haunt him. Baggio and Lippi’s relationship would reach its lowest point that season. Baggio reportedly told Massimo Moratti that either Lippi or he would stay at the club. Moratti ensured that a failure to qualify for UCL would bring an end to Lippi’s career. Inter faced Parma in the all important UCL play-off match; the Parma team comprised of Cannavaro and Thuram in defence, and a rookie ‘keeper named Gianluigi Buffon. That match remains as one of the highest points of Robby’s career; with Inter needing a win, he turned the match around, scoring two breath-taking goals. Inter qualified for UCL, Lippi stayed, and Baggio’s contract was not renewed.
He joined newly promoted Brescia, reuniting with Mazzone. It will be an overstatement to say that Baggio kept Brescia in Serie A, but the club was known as “Baggio’s Brescia” in that period. With him as captain, Brescia stayed up for 4 seasons – a club record. They also incredibly finished 8th in their promotion season in 2001/02, going till the final of Intertoto Cup next season. It was a perfect swansong for Baggio, who scored 33 goals in 70 matches for Rondinelle. He also reached the landmark of 200 Serie A goals, when he scored against Parma.
On 16th May, 2004 Roberto Baggio stepped on to the field for the last time against AC Milan. A capacity crowd of 80,000 spectators cheered on, as he hugged Paolo Maldini before leaving the field. It was a fitting end to a remarkable career. Baggio retired as one of Italy’s greatest players ever.
Roberto Baggio and Gli Azzuri
With nine goals in three editions, Roberto Baggio is Italy’s joint top scorer in World Cup. His slaloming run against Czechoslovakia in 1990 is regarded as one of the greatest goals in World Cup. USA 1994 was his best tournament, where he scored 5 goals to propel Italy to the final. Despite his heroics, the curious fact was that Baggio was never full fit throughout the tournament. He carried a niggle in Italy’s do or die match with Norway, and was subbed out by Sacchi after Gianluca Pagliuca got red carded.
Baggio rose to challenge in the knock-out stages , much like Paolo Rossi in 1982. Italy were trailing 1-0 against a very physical Nigeria side, with the clock counting down as Gianfranco Zola was sent off. The equalizing goal was a moment of genius – Baggio’s first time shot from Musi’s cross crawled through a three centimeter space between Massaro’s legs and a Nigerian defender. That goal revived not only Baggio, but also Italy. He was heavily involved in the move which earned the winning penalty, converting it himself. Italy again had to rely on Baggio magic to get past Spain in the quarters; he scored a late goal, calmly rounding up Zubizaretta in the 89th minute. Latching on to a ball from Signori, he took it past the onrushing Spanish keeper with one touch before slotting it home.
There was no such drama against Bulgaria in semi-final, as Baggio struck twice in the first 25 minutes with two beautiful goals. Italy won, but Baggio crucially suffered a thigh injury. His fitness was not up to mark for the final, but he still played and lasted for 120 minutes. He was largely ineffective in the final before missing the fateful last kick.
When Baggio scored the penalty kick against Chile, he became the first Italian player to score in 3 world cups. He scored one more goal against Austria, as Italy qualified as group champions. Cesare Maldini however preferred Alessandro Del Piero in the starting XI. Del Piero had missed a large portion of the 1998/99 season due to a horror injury, and he was clearly rusty. Maldini’s decision to bench Baggio would be roundly criticized, as he was the more in-form player at that time. He almost won Italy the match against France after coming on as a sub; Baggio slipped two through balls to Vieri, who was denied by Barthez. Baggio himself almost scored a golden goal, missing the net by inches. Italy would go on to lose to France after another penalty shoot-out.
Baggio made a remarkable recovery just in time for 2002 World Cup and struck a rich vein of form. Giovanni Trapattoni ignored popular opinion and dropped him from Italy’s final squad.
Strangely, he never played in a European Championship. Italy didn’t qualify in 1992, while he wasn’t considered for next two tournaments.
Roberto Baggio scored 27 goals in 56 matches for the national team, and remains the fourth highest scorer for Gli Azzuri.
A Unique Player
Il Divin Codino or the Divine Ponytail was one of the most technically gifted players of his generation. He had amazing close control and an equally incredible cool head in front of the goal. Baggio scored dozens of goals by dribbling past four to five defenders; what made these goals unique was the effortlessness with which he shimmied past his markers. Frail and lightly built, he could suddenly accelerate with the ball. He had a remarkable sense of space and a sublime first touch. He also possessed a quality which only the very best possess – it always seemed like Roberto had an extra-second or two to execute a move. When one on one with a goal-keeper, Baggio would rarely blast it into the net; instead, his trademark was to dribble past the diving ‘keeper and slide the ball into an open net.
Much before the likes of Del Piero and Totti, Baggio had made freekicks and penalty kicks one of the strongest weapons in his armory. When taking a penalty, Baggio didn’t always send the goal-keeper the wrong way. His penalties were hit low and hard, and usually were directed towards the corner. He took 122 penalties in his senior career, converting 106 of them. Even in the World Cup, he converted three of the four penalty kicks – two in tie breakers (Argentina 1990, France 1998) and one against Nigeria (1994).
He was not just a scorer of great goals, but also a great scorer of goals. With 205 goals in 452 matches, Baggio is the fifth all time highest scorer in Serie A – an amazing record when one considers the fact that he was never a proper striker, and that he spent a lot of time playing in smaller clubs or getting injured. Michel Platini, another great #10, defined Baggio’s playing position perfectly. He said Baggio was a 9.5 – a cross between a #10 play-maker and a #9 centre-forward.
Most of Baggio’s goals were about finesse and delicate skills; take this goal for Brescia as an example. With his first touch, Baggio not only traped the long-ball perfectly, but also rounded up van der Sar, before finishing it with his second touch. He always made difficult goals look ridiculously simple. Playing against arguably the best defence of all time, he scored a blinder at San Siro. He started the move from the half line, breaking with a half turn to get past his marker. His sudden acceleration makes it impossible for Baresi to catch him. When one on one with Rossi, Baggio didn’t shoot – something that would have been natural for a player moving with such speed. Instead, he faked the shot, fooling both Maldini and the ‘keeper, before slotting it in. The famous Parma – Inter game showed a side of Baggio that was somewhat rare; for the second goal, he hit a first-time volley with a brutal flourish. The first goal was a trademark free-kick which gave Buffon no chance.
Baggio’s abundance of talent made him a fan favorite wherever he played. Conversely, it was his talent and popularity that saw him clash with high profile coaches – Trapattoni, Capello, Lippi or Sacchi. In his book Calcio, John Foot suggests that Baggio suffered the same fate that naturally talented players suffer in Italy. Strict managers want their player to curb their natural flair, to fit into the tactical plans. Baggio rarely played by the book, and his unconventional style brought him at loggerheads with great managers.
More Than a Good Footballer
Serie A in the 1990’s was characterized by superstars with super egos – players who partied hard and regularly featured in gossip columns. Roberto Baggio, perhaps the biggest superstar of that era, was a sharp contrast. He was a private man, leading a withdrawn life. He rarely gave interviews, and loved to spend time with his family during his free-time.
Some of Baggio’s contemporaries have started coaching, some have gone into films, while others are doing time in rehabilitation. Roberto chose to follow a different path once again. After leaving the game, he championed for social causes, which included joining the UN Food and Agricultural Division. He spends his time and effort to collect funds for building hospitals, while his official site talks about Aan Suu Kyi. Recently he was awarded with the Peace Summit Award, which is given by Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
After Italy’s world cup debacle, Baggio made his long awaited return in football by becoming the head of technical committee of FIGC. He agreed to work for free, provided that he is given the powers to make required changes. Italian football is at cross-roads, and someone like him can make a difference to Calcio.
Roberto Baggio was one of those players who should never be judged on the basis of trophies. He offered much, much more than a piece of silverware. He was an exceptionally gifted footballer – perhaps the best his country ever produced.
On a personal note, I became addicted to football after watching Roberto Baggio in USA 1994. As an eight year old boy, I watched in absolute amazement as a pony-tailed player shredded opposition defences with remarkable ease. I remember crying when he missed that last penalty kick. Thanks for everything, Baggio.
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