Portrait of an icon: Roberto Baggio

Daniel Storey

It is mid-afternoon on July 17 in Pasadena, California. Italy’s Roberto Baggio is stood motionless in the penalty area, yellow Brazilian shirts swarming around him in frenzied celebration.  The striker’s penalty has landed in the stands of the Rose Bowl. For a moment, football ceases to be a team sport. Baggio is alone against Brazil, alone against football itself. The defining image of Il Divin Codino has been established. It is football’s iconic moment of individual sorrow.

The World Cup final; football’s pinnacle. Won 19 times, but only lost once.

Across 19 World Cup finals, 14 European Championship finals and 15 Copa America finals there has been a last moment of glory in each, be it the winning penalty scored or triumphant final whistle sounded. The camera immediately pans to the victors, allowing the defeated team a moment of private sorrow on the most public of stages. Only in 1994 was the loser in focus. Forty-nine finals, a moment of failure bringing down the curtain on only one man.

If history is written by the victors, nothing remembers its losers quite like sport. ‘It affected me for years,’ Baggio would write in his autobiography. ‘It the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it. If I could erase a moment, it would be that one.’

If a deep sadness had been revealed, it was combined with no little bitterness. ‘They had to choose one image from the finals and they chose my mistake. For a change. They wanted a lamb to slaughter and chose me. Forgetting that without me we would never have reached those finals.’ Baggio scored 71 of 79 penalties in his career, and six out of seven for Italy. It’s all about timing.

Being renowned for one incident is understandable, inevitable even. But when that one moment is so negative, and eclipses all else, it becomes damagingly reductive. It is time to redress that balance. Baggio has become European football’s forgotten genius.

Baggio was a majestic playmaker. He was a Fantasista in the truest sense of the word, his ability making him versatile enough to excel anywhere in the final third. Labelling him with a position became folly, he was one of very few players capable of both creating and finishing chances with the same breath-taking ease. His striking ability, either in open play or from the free-kicks which made him so famous, was exceptional.

Baggio’s dribbling skill and accomplished finishing was like watching Serie A football on double speed mode, the perfect antidote to the league’s circumspection during the early 1990s. He was the oasis in an Italian desert. ”With football I have the ability to do things differently,” Baggio said. ”That is why I admire Leonardo da Vinci. He was able to create things other people wouldn’t believe in.” It’s a powerful description, for Baggio was unique, different to anything calcio has produced before or since.

Baggio’s landmark goal, against Czechoslovakia in World Cup ’90, demonstrates his powers perfectly. It often seemed as if he was afforded too much space by opposition players, but that misses the point entirely. It was every move of his upper and lower body – every feint, dip and twist – that created time, split-second delays in a defender’s reaction. In football, time equals space. With Baggio, space meant danger.

Not that the joy of Baggio was purely aesthetic. In 2002, he became the first Italian in 50 years to reach 300 career goals, and he was named World Player of the Year in 1993. He is also the only Italian to score at three different World Cups, and is the joint-highest scorer for the Azzurri at the tournament. Baggio is one of 21 different players in the last 50 years to enjoy the title of the most expensive player in the world.

One of the most iconic Baggio moments came in Italy’s first World Cup match after his missed penalty, against Chile in Bordeaux in June 1998. With seven minutes remaining – and at 2-1 down – Italy were awarded a penalty. Their No. 18 immediately bowed over as if trying forlornly to relieve the pressure. Nothing could redress the balance of Pasadena, but Baggio earned his own personal redemption that day. Having scored the penalty, there was no show of emotion, no visible release. He simply ran back to the half-way line, thinking about a possible late winner. “I killed the ghost,” was Baggio’s subsequent conclusion.

Yet Baggio’s most striking attribute lay not in his honours or style, but his powers of recovery. Having earned a move to Fiorentina at the age of 18, he suffered a cruciate injury that threatened to end his career before it had truly started. “I underwent surgery that was very risky at the time,” Baggio explains. “They had to drill through my kneecap and reattach all the ligaments with 220 internal stitches.” He was out for almost two years, after re-injuring the same knee nine months later.

If it seems impossible that these issues could be exacerbated any further, think on. Baggio is allergic to powerful painkillers, meaning that his recovery came against the backdrop of excruciating pain. At such times, bodies and minds bend or break. Paul Gascoigne merits pertinent mention.

The temptation is to curse fate’s cruel hand but, actually, the opposite is true. As the Daily Telegraph’s Paul Hayward wrote so beautifully this week, sport has the power to cause intense pain and anger, but also acts as an eternal source of hope. “I held on because of my passion for the game,” is Baggio’s assessment, far more than glib platitude.

It was not just passion but faith that helped Baggio through. It was at this point that he converted to Sokai Gakkai Buddhism, attracted by the principle that pain and struggle would be better countered with inner peace rather that tortuous struggle. Meditation became an integral part of his daily life.

There is a vast gulf between Baggio’s own personality and the worship he received as a player. Preferring to shy away from the spotlight’s glare, he used his notoriety and riches to fund extensive charity work after his retirement in 2004. He was named as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in 2002, and awarded the Nobel Man of Peace title in 2010 for his charitable work. “This is better than the Golden Ball award,” he told Italian news agency Ansa. “Compared with this, other personal and professional achievements pale into insignificance.”

The most remarkable aspect of Baggio’s career is that he never truly recovered from that initial injury. In his autobiography he describes how he was only ever fully fit for two or three games per season, equating the majority of his appearances to “playing on one-and-a-half legs”. The most tragic aspect of Baggio’s missed penalty is that it came after two hours of constant pain, ending a month of painkilling injections during which he had dragged the Azzurri through. Being ‘match-fit’ was the impossible dream.

For most players, simply making a living after such troubles would be sufficient, yet Baggio reached the pinnacle of his sport. Former Brescia coach Carlo Mazzone has reasons for bias, but claims a regularly fit Baggio would have become the world’s greatest player. It’s a claim easy to dismiss, but impossible to disprove. He ended his career with 220 league goals, one for every stitch in that right knee.

Were this any other player – or anyone of lesser mental strength – this would be a mournful ode, another sporting ‘what if’. Serious injuries are football’s tragic back story, thieving the livelihoods of those too young to cope or readjust. Only Baggio’s natural majesty and strength of character transforms this from a career eulogy to celebration. A beautiful eagle, somehow still soaring with clipped wings.

Baggio’s lasting legacy is one of polarity. He was a flair player with the resolution of a warrior, an invigorating thrill in an era of Italian football when defence was king. He was a player hampered by injury, yet one of one four Italians in over 50 years to be honoured as the world’s best. He was the staunch Buddhist in a predominantly Roman Catholic culture. He was Italy’s greatest ever player, but one whose defining image is associated with failure. The country’s most prolific penalty scorer, known most famously for missing one.

There is one affirmation of which all are in accord – Baggio was one of football’s greatest entertainers. Some players are best described in a few sentences, others demand whole books to reflect the intricacies of their style. When asked to sum up Baggio, former Fiorentina coach Aldo Agroppi nailed it in seven words: “Nelle gambe di Baggio cantavano gli angel.” The angels sing in his legs.


Daniel Storey