Forget the penalty, Roberto Baggio was divine…

Date published: Saturday 10th April 2021 8:59 - John Nicholson

Roberto Baggio is the subject of this week’s ‘Everybody loves…’ feature. What a hero.

 

Who’s this then?
Roberto Baggio is now 54 years old. Born in Caldogno, Italy, at 5’9″ he was a prolific striker for seven clubs in a remarkable 22-year-long playing career playing 490 games and scoring 220 times.

He began his professional career at Vicenza in 1982. At the age of 16, Baggio made his Serie C1 debut with the club. He had a glorious sort of collapsed mullet at the time. It looks like a poodle fell asleep on his head.

He’d been a prolific goalscorer in his youth career and his 13 goals in 47 games attracted the attention of Fiorentina, who were prepared to pay £1.5 million for him in 1985. But towards the end of the 1984/85 season, he managed to do some serious snappage on his ACL and on the meniscus of his right knee. Ouch. He was just 18 and many thought his whole career was over, let alone his transfer to La Viola.

But the move went ahead anyway and Fiorentina even paid for the medical intervention that probably saved his career. Even so, he was out for over a year, finally made his debut on 21 September 1986 and a week later suffered yet another knee injury and had to go under the knife again, resulting in 220 stitches.

It seemed as though his career was forever stalled but he got going in 1987/88, playing 34 games and scoring nine times. The following season, he was at last firing on all cylinders and scored 24 in 41. Under manager Sven-Goran Eriksson (he’s never far from so much football history), he struck up a great partnership with Stefano Borgonovo and the pair scored 29 of Fiorentina’s 44 Serie A goals.

The following season, despite fighting relegation, they got to the 1990 UEFA Cup final, only to lose to Juventus. His goalscoring feats (he was second in the Serie A goalscoring list to Marco Van Basten that year) as well as his ability to play as a 10, led to his transfer to the Old Lady for a world record fee of £8million. If anyone was worth it, he was.

He was to play more times for Juve than for anyone else, making 200 appearances and scoring 115 times. His first season saw him score 27 in 47 games. He had four fit and healthy seasons and scored over 20 goals in each (30 in 43 in 1992/93). This was peak Baggio. Everyone loved him.

David Platt said of one performance: “Baggio scored four goals in the first 20 minutes and killed the game off. I don’t think I’ve seen a better performance from any player in any game I’ve ever played in. For half an hour, he was on fire. As footballers go, he’s a genius.”

During the 1993 calendar year, he netted 39 goals across all competitions, scoring 23 goals in Serie A, three in the Coppa Italia, eight goals in European competitions and five goals for Italy, helping his national side qualify for the World Cup. He won European Footballer of the Year and the FIFA World Player of the Year awards and the World Soccer Player of the Year Award.

Amazingly, in 1995, he fell out of favour with boss Marcello Lippi. The club wanted him to take a 50% wage cut. The fans were not impressed but even so, he was sold to AC Millan for £6.8 million, somehow managing to resist the come-ons from Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers.

He had an injury-hit first season with the Milanese club but his 12 assists in Serie A made him the top assist provider of the season and he helped them to win the league – his second league title consecutively but with different clubs.

The following season, manager Fabio Capello was offski and replaced by Uruguayan hard man Óscar Tabárez. “There is no place for poets in modern football,” said the manager, no doubt frowning as he did so and smashing his fist into his palm. That was his reason for dropping Baggio. It was an up and down two seasons and led to his transfer for a season to Bologna after a move to Parma was blocked by their manager Carlo Ancelotti, a decision he later regretted.

It was a great season. He cut off his ponytail to symbolise his rebirth, scored 23 goals in 33 games and won himself a World Cup place, before an ill-fated transfer to Inter Milan for two seasons. Unable to really get along with Marcelo Lippi – who seems to have had something against the fella – he left after two seasons for four years at unfashionable Brescia to help save them from relegation, which he indeed did.

Now playing in an advanced midfield role and once again suffering from knee knack, he nonetheless got into double figures for four seasons on the spin, finishing with 46 from 101 games.

In his final season in 2004 he became the first player in over 30 years to score 200 goals in Serie A, and is currently the seventh-highest goalscorer of all time in Serie A with 205 goals.

He played his last game against AC Milan at the San Siro and bowed out in 2004 after playing an amazing (considering the battered state of his knees) 643 games and scoring 291 times.

Internationally, his career is defined by the penalty miss against Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final but he had his Stuart Pearce-style redemption moment, scoring the equalising penalty against Chile in the 1998 World Cup. In total he played 56 games and scored 27 times for Italy.

He’d won the Ballon d’Or in 1993, came second in 1994 and 8th in 1990 (there’s an 8th?!)

 

Why the love?
I am probably wrong but feel that those of us who love Roberto Baggio are in some way, a superior lifeform. We appreciate the finer things in life and are less impressed by the obvious and the mainstream, preferring an artist or a poet over something more tied to hard facts, or God forbid, mere celebrity.

Blink and you’ll miss his genius. It is expressed in his super-quick thinking, in a smooth sweep of the foot, in a shimmy, in his instant control of a ball.

There are few fantastic goalscorers that we would pay just to see touch the ball but Roberto is definitely one of those. Even doing the most mundane of things, taking a pass and laying it off, was done with a certain style and grace. That he made the game look easy and scoring goals simple is a testament to his genius. He could do that most magical of things whereby you control and distribute the ball all in one single move to open up a defence.

There is one clip of him that I’ve not been able to find, but he takes a high ball down and passes it at the same time with the outside of his foot. The effect is devastating because it is as though he’s taken two touches out of the game and thus the defence is two seconds behind as the team-mate breaks away. He doesn’t just make it look easy, either he makes it look like a nonchalant afterthought. That is a genius at work.

While some can claim to be amongst the best of their generation, only a few can make that claim to be the best of all time, but Baggio can. While his recurring injuries definitely stole at least 150 games from him one way or another and with it probably at least 100-plus goals.

ROBERTO BAGGIO JUVENTUS

Of his 205 Serie A goals, 96 were decisive in some way and I think that goes some way to explain why he was so beloved by all of his fans. He made such a difference and didn’t just fill his boots when the going was good.

One thing I’ve noticed watching his reels is how strong he is. You wouldn’t consider him at his height and weight to be so, but time and again, he’ll back into a defender and turn him to lash it into the net. Since he can’t be doing this by brute force, it must be down to great ball control and perfect deployment and positioning of his weight.

He’s one of those footballers who you can recognise just by the distinctive way he runs. How to describe it? It’s as though the air is smoother for him than for us. It does not offer any resistance, quite the opposite.

I’ve featured players who scored more goals and broken more records and won more titles but I don’t think I’ve yet written about a player who was more complete, who could play anywhere from four to 11, in the old way of thinking of positions.

He would’ve got into any side for his goals, but he’d also have got in any side for his passing and assist record. That’s an extraordinary thing to think about.

 

What the people say
It is now 17 years since he retired and you’ll have to be well into your 40s to have seen him playing at his peak for Juve and Italy, but his reputation has spread to younger generations who have sought out clips. This is how it should be. His was not a talent just for a certain age group, but for all time. And if you think about it, he carved out a career in Italian football at a time when defence was king and, in an era when defenders were still allowed to defend by all means necessary, and were not neutered by the laws of the game. Ironic then that he did his ACL for the first time while performing a sliding tackle that would almost certainly be outlawed in 2021.

Anyway, given all of this, it was a full mailbag this week as people flocked to purr over Il Divin Codino.

‘The balls to take that peno v Chile. His performance against Real in the Champions League is one of the most underrated CL performances. Imagine what he could have been like without all those injuries. As Pep stated when he introduced him to Messi: the best he’s ever played with.’

‘Baggio’s one of those players, like van Basten and Papin, whom I actually know better from Championship Manager than real life…I’ve seen plenty about them since, but fell in love with them when they were my stars on CM Italia and CM Italia ‘94 They were god-like.’

‘Sunday mornings watching James Richardson, a footballer who could do some of the most outrageous things whilst looking like he couldn’t be less bothered. Sauntering around the pitch, shirt out, socks down curling the ball into the top corner.’

‘Part of a trinity (pardon the pun) with Don Fox and Laurent Fignon. Objectively among the all-time greats of their sports, but all defined by a high-profile moment of “failure”‘

‘Watch him play for more than about 2 minutes and you will definitely say the word ‘Toooouuuccchhhh..’ in admiring and reverential tones. Astonishingly gifted at making the ball do what he wanted it to do.’

‘As a 9-year-old, he was the major character of the 94 World Cup for me. He terrified me when playing against Ireland and then rooted for him the whole way to the final.’

‘A staple of 90’s football Italia coverage on channel 4, scored amazing goals. I’d love to mock his ponytail but as it’s part of his Buddhist beliefs I won’t. Uses his fame for good causes. That penalty miss though… poor bloke, I bet he thinks about that most days’

‘I had the privilege of being in Giants stadium in 1994 and for 10 minutes he was the conductor of an orchestra – standing in the number 10 position shifting it quickly either side of him – then McGrath sat on him for the rest of the game – a superb duel between those two.’

‘My first ever game of football I watched on TV was the 94 World Cup final when he missed that penalty… the drama of it all… I was hooked instantly.’

‘Always found it interesting that his penalty record was excellent but what will be remembered is THAT penalty miss.’

‘Italian football seemed otherworldly to me at the time, and he was just the greatest thing about it. Seeing him rabona a cross blew my mind.’

‘Elegance, creative, supreme talent. That goal against the Czechs at Italia 90. What he could have been but for the knee injury and the managers who didn’t trust him. The revival at Brescia and that goal against Juve from Pirlo’s exquisite ball. He didn’t deserve the penalty miss.’

‘Collected all newspaper cutouts I could find during WC ’94. That penalty miss was the first time I experienced anguish from a football match but Baggio’s show also cemented my love for the game and the Azzurri. 4 years later, that Owen goal did the same with me and Liverpool.’

‘Without a doubt his return to Florence. After his refusal to put on the Juve scarf at the press conference, he’d already stated he didn’t want to leave Fiorentina. Refused to take the penalty and picked up the Viola scarf upon leaving the pitch after being subbed off.’

‘I cried in admiration when he eliminated Nigeria in ’94 world cup… Two polar emotions at once.’

‘He’s played in 3 World Cups and only lost one match (penalty shootouts not counted)’

 

Three great moments

The boy’s a dancer…

 

Just watch that ball control…

 

And he could take a free-kick…

 

Future days
In recognition of his human rights activism, he received the Man of Peace award from the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in 2010, Unlike many footballers, he’s got a cultural hinterland and a spiritual dimension.

In 1985 while suffering his first major knee nobbling he turned away from Catholicism and to Nichiren Buddhism, and is a member of the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist organisation. This conversion got him a lot of fans in Japan where he remains a popular figure, appearing in many computer games.

Now greying, he looks exactly as he has always looked, only he appears to have someone else’s hair. He’s got his coaching badges but hasn’t yet chosen to use them.

Netflix have just made a documentary about him which is due for release next month.

I think we’ll all be watching that, won’t we?

In the mind’s eye, he is forever taking that penalty against Brazil and instead of putting it over the bar, he sends it down the middle and into the net as the goalkeeper dives to one side. Brazil miss their fifth and Roberto Donadoni scores the fifth to win the World Cup. But maybe winning the World Cup would have reduced, not enhanced Roberto’s reputation. If he’d slotted home the penalty as he’d slotted home so many dead balls in his career, it was just another moment. Not even the winning kick. As it was he lost Italy the trophy and our hearts went out to him for that.

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, Roberto, my son.

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