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Roberto Baggio: A Love Letter To Italy's Forgotten Genius

by Will O Doherty
19 August 2014 32 Comments

In football, history only remembers the losers. Roberto Baggio’s glittering career is defined by a single penalty miss and that’s not fair: ‘the divine ponytail’ was a player to rank among the greats.

It ended as it started: in Pasadena, with a missed penalty. A calendar month after Diana Ross’ orchestrated shot trundled hilariously wide, Roberto Baggio’s wild spot kick launched over Taffarel’s goal like a stray firework. World Cup ’94, a month of wall-to-wall football, was encapsulated by two strikingly similar moments of failure, one comic and one tragic.

The former summed up Americans’ laughable relationship with soccerball, the latter stained one of football’s greatest careers indelibly.

It’s cruel that Italy’s best ever player is remembered for the moment his gift abandoned him. So ahead of Brazil and Italy’s friendly  tonight, let’s remember just how divine the ponytail really was.

When reflecting on Baggio, it’s easy to cast him as football’s greatest hippie, a man who would not look out of place renting you a scooter while chatting up your girlfriend. If his looks raise chuckles, his Buddhism and commitment to issues such as oppression in Burma point to a rare moral footballing man.

Baggio the footballer won two Scudetti, a UEFA Cup, a Ballon d’Or and a World Player of the Year award; he scored 204 goals in 452 Serie A appearances and 27 in 56 internationals. Four of them tell his story.

17 September 1989: Baggio’s Fiorentina travel to Diego Maradona’s Napoli. He moves onto the ball 30 yards from the visitors’ goal, bringing it immediately under the spell of his right foot. Past the halfway line, he ambles towards the centre back, drops his shoulder as the defender stretches out his left leg, slaloms a second lunging tackle without breaking step and bursts the defence open. With only the onrushing keeper to beat, he makes to shoot and drags the ball left in one move, sitting the keeper down and going past him, before passing it into the net with the next.

The 22-year-old Baggio had been Italy’s great hope for five years, but serious injury had delayed his emergence. In the end, ten seconds was all it took for a star to be born. He did it with a 10 on his back, at the home of arguably the greatest player to ever play the position. Maradona was far from past it, but it marked the beginning of the Italian’s transition to the top of the game and the dawning of a golden age for Italian forwards, with Del Piero and Totti inheriting Baggio’s mantle.

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It was the kind of goal that made fans of La Viola idolise him, and it was their adulation that sparked riots in the streets of Florence when he was sold to Juventus in 1990. Spurs fans burned Sol Campbell in effigy, Fiorentines burned their home town and injured 50.

19 June 1990: Italy host Czechoslovakia at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. With 78 minutes gone, and Italy 1-0 up, Baggio collects the ball on the left touchline, just inside the Czech half. He exchanges a one-two and sets off infield, taking one Czech out of the game and leaving another one tackling air. He drives straight at the opposition defence on the edge of the box, shaping to go left then effortlessly shifting right, tying a petrified defender in knots before sending the ball home with a deft clip.

Like his goal in in Naples nine months earlier, it highlighted his faultless balance and control, his talent for dazzling opponents with changes of speed, teasing them before sticking the knife in. World Cup ’90 was already hyped as Baggio’s tournament but the goal confirmed his arrival as a global star and as Italy’s talisman, a position he would hold for much of the next ten years.

It came after head coach Azeglio Vicini left him on the bench for the hosts’ first two games, a foreshadow of the struggles he would have with coaches, especially two-time boss Marcello Lippi. At Inter in 1999 Baggio says Lippi “declared war on me, without stopping for a minute, without any plausible motivation.”

17 July 1994: Italy face Brazil in the World Cup Final in the Pasadena Rose Bowl, Los Angeles. Scoreless after 120 minutes, Baggio steps up knowing he must score his penalty to keep Italy in it. He takes a long run up and blazes it over. He stands disconsolately as Brazilians erupt.

The moment that will define Baggio forever, the miss is a perfect example of how in football, World Cups especially, what lingers is defeat and ignominy. Successive tournaments are remembered for Schumacher on Battiston, the Hand of God, Gazza’s tears and Rijkaard’s spit, Baggio’s miss, Ronaldo’s ‘fit’, Rivaldo’s dive, Zidane’s head-butt and de Jong’s studs.

Two other Italians missed in the shootout, including the legendary Franco Baresi. It’s a sign of his place among the greats, and Italy’s reliance on him, that only Baggio is considered to have lost the game. And after being recognised as Europe and the world’s best player in 1993, his pre-eminence was no greater than on the eve of the final. What is forgotten in the wake of the miss is just how good Baggio was in ’94. He carried Italy through the knock-out stages on his own, scoring the winner in all three games, and five in total. All that glory was obliterated in a single kick.

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11 June 1998: Italy play their first World Cup game since Pasadena against a strong Chilean side in Bordeaux. With 85 minutes gone, and the Italians trailing 2-1, Baggio’s cross hits the hand of a defender and a penalty is awarded. He bows, hands on his knees, as the memory of his failure floods back. He places the ball on the spot and, with the taunts of his opponents in his ears, levels the scores.

Baggio had been punished for his penalty miss, being largely passed over for the national squad when not fighting his old enemy, injury, but with an assist and his penalty, he would be redeemed, and rewarded for his perseverance.

Beneath his copious flair that was a core of steely endurance. Injury wrecked his career before it began, his knee needed rebuilding when he was a teenager following two serious injuries. He played most of his career in pain, only hitting full fitness for a handful of games a season. Yet for much of that time he was the best in the world, or thereabouts. Above all he loved to play, and played through the pain until he was 35, when he enjoyed the proudest moment of his career, helping Brescia stave off seemingly inevitable relegation.

While Baggio played for all three of Italy’s giants, he spent more time playing for the likes of Fiorentina, Bologna and Brescia than any superstar today would tolerate. But he didn’t need the status or the glamour, and many of his finest moments came in less fashionable colours.

Despite that, and permanent injury problems, a FIFA poll voted him the fourth-best player of all time in 2004. From his jaw-dropping arrival in Naples to his redemption in Bordeaux, over the course of the 90s, no player mattered more than il divin codino. Few had ever mattered more, and few ever will.

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Lorenzo 3:53 pm, 21-Mar-2013

Agree whole-heartedly. He was a fantastic player, the best of the 90s in my humble opinion. The kind of player England (sadly) can only dream of producing.

WorldBull 4:05 pm, 21-Mar-2013

Totally agree - one of the main reasons I got into football.

Owen Blackhurst 8:52 pm, 21-Mar-2013

I commissioned this, and have read it about 7 times since. Loved Baggio, love this article. Makes you laugh and nearly cry, which great writing should. A fitting tribute to Bobby Badger

Harry Paterson 9:41 pm, 21-Mar-2013

Wonderful stuff. Encapsulates all the drama, the tragedy and triumph of the beautiful game. This level of understanding and appreciation is what it means to be truly human. Kudos to all concerned.

D 2:50 am, 24-Mar-2013

can't not mention this goal. unbelievable. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ei5NZ5vEsEM&feature=player_embedded pirlo pass too.

mike 1:40 pm, 25-Mar-2013

baggio was one of the all time greats and a joy to watch

Anthony 7:44 pm, 25-Mar-2013

It started in Soldier Field, Chicago with a missed penalty, not Pasadena

gobby cabbage 9:00 pm, 25-Mar-2013

Nice article, but think you exaggerate the penalty miss. For anyone who was around in the 90's, Baggio WAS Italian football; the penalty a mere footnote.

Mike 9:23 pm, 25-Mar-2013

He is totally underrated now, almost forgotten - but he and Del Piero are two of the best players to ever play the game (not only in the Azzurri colours but of all time). If he'd have won the WC in 1994 we'd be talking about Baggio in the same way people laud Pele and Maradona.

Rayvon 10:00 pm, 25-Mar-2013

Unbelievable player.

Fr Kurt Fahrt 3:48 pm, 26-Mar-2013

Bellissima! A most eloquent tribute.

Patrick 12:12 am, 29-Mar-2013

Enjoyed the article which was flagged up on the Guardian. Baggio was my idol in the 90s and one of the reasons why I fell in love with football.

Sue 9:11 am, 31-Mar-2013

Insightful article about an underrated genius. Great job Will!

Adam Simpson (@yearinthelifeof) 4:27 pm, 31-Mar-2013

How old are you, Will? I was there in the 1990s and all of us who were know how good he was, as do all of my peers. This whole piece reads like someone writing in retrospect about a player they've only ever seen on YouTube.

Egil 7:06 pm, 4-Apr-2013

Excellent article about a truly wonderful player; however on closer inspection I think you find that Diana Ross missed her penalty at Soldier Field, Chicago, not in Pasadena.

Matt 10:01 pm, 4-Apr-2013

Love Baggio, American, went to 4 games as a kid to the world cup and he was my favorite, loved him in victory and defeat. Took it like a man. I had on my wall the photo of him holding his head after the miss. Even the greatest can fail.

rm 2:26 am, 1-May-2013

genious, Yes! forgotten, Never!

Nilesh 2:03 pm, 16-May-2013

and who can forget his equaliser against nigeria, elso Italy was out of world cup 1994, simply brillant

augustine 2:42 pm, 25-May-2013

Baggio is baggio.

anirban Ganguly 4:53 pm, 3-Jul-2013

i cried that day when he missed the penalty...but penalty miss or not he is the best footballer in the world..a true gentleman and an unbelievable player ...my respects....

Doesn't matter 9:19 pm, 17-Aug-2013

That reads as a history piece which is fair enough. Best in the world? I don't know but at that time he was in with a shout, stiff competition then too. Not knocking it at all, I dare say many reading this weren't born at the time so fair dues bringing it to their attention. Those of us who had the fortune to watch him live will never have any question of his ability nor standing in the game.

Ed 4:22 pm, 29-Aug-2013

I can not stress how brilliant he was, a lot of class too. Watching some of the highlights brings back great memories and makes the hair stand on the back of my neck.

BB 5:04 pm, 2-Sep-2013

why does the whole world consider football as the beautiful game? answer is simple players like Roberto Baggio were there, they upgraded that game , to an art form. fortunate are those, whose minds were led by the dancing footsteps of that artist. simply, the great footballer of all time.

Frank 12:10 am, 7-Sep-2013

I'm not sure a day has passed when I do not think of him playing. Lippi was a sack of $&:! Along with most other coaches he had. In Italy the coach is the one to be the Star". They hated him for that. Plus being Bhuddist. The guy hardly played for Italy but could have on any other team eyes closed. Makes me sick everytime I think of how great a talent he was. I'd take him with one leg over anyone!

renzo luci 2:14 pm, 21-Sep-2013

Love the article and the comments. Baggio was one of the greatest players to play the game. Always came to the front on the big occasions. Its disgraceful how he only got 56 international caps. All them Italian coaches who treated him so bad should hang their heads in shame.

zen yoon (malaysia) 4:39 am, 30-Sep-2013

The best in 90s..a great player, but a better person... role model for all footballers earning sky-high income but not contributing to society, Baggio cause in eradicating poverty was recognized by UN..a fitting tribute to the II DIVIN CODINO!!1 Forza Baggio!

Russ George 1:14 am, 19-Oct-2013

Far better than Messi or Ronaldo will ever be

dan newman 10:16 pm, 6-Feb-2014

The only tragedy is stupid writers like you who refuse to let the kick die.

kakungulu qassim 9:27 am, 11-Apr-2014

didn't see baggio in action ooo!! goshi he was the best

clint fouche 6:13 pm, 8-Jun-2014

Roberto to me will always be the best im my eyes better than maradonna and close to pele Baggio for ever

Christina 6:29 pm, 28-Jun-2014

He was not one of the best. He was the best!

Giovanni 10:35 pm, 9-Jul-2014

Absolute Genius.... Flair, Vision, Dribbling, Creativity, Goals... He had it all... For me the best ever and completely forgotten in the media... In England they rave about Zola who was a great player... One that rarely played for Italy because of Baggio.... For me the best ever.. The difference between him, Maradona and players of that ilk... Is they fool defenders with proper skill... They weren't simply too quick... For example...Messi can go left or right and it does not matter because he is too quick for the defender with brilliant ball control... I prefer the player that makes the defender go one way while he goes the other ... True dribbling... And Baggio did that in his Juve days against the very best...Baresi, Maldini etc.... With today's Champions league and media attention Baggio would be worth 100 million and far more appreciated in the media in the rest of Europe....

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