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

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.
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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.

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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 England and Italy’s game 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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