All the greatest players have a career defining moment. That goal, match or even a whole tournament which they are associated with for eternity. Think of Maradona and the ’86 World Cup; Marco Van Basten and that goal at Euro ’88; Platini and his domination of Euro ’84; Cruyff and the turn that blew away a Swedish defender and the whole world among many more examples.
Therefore, it is a shame then that one of the most talented Italian players of his and any generation is remembered for the wrong reason.
That man is Roberto Baggio — Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail) — and his moment that stays with the world, is a penalty blazed over the bar in the shoot-out in the 1994 World Cup Final
As a kid just discovering the wider world of football in the late 80′s/early ’90′s, I for one prefer to remember Roberto Baggio for many better reasons. His worldwide breakout came at Italia ’90, with the highlight of his displays being one of the very best World Cup goals ever. Baggio’s one-two with Giannini and then his slalom through the Czech defence topped off with a ridiculously cool finish is an absolute joy to behold every time I see it. Luckily for me — thanks to my mum finding some obscure videos with highlights of the Serie A seasons ’88/89 and ’89/90 – I had already got a glimpse of what Baggio could do. Even so, that goal and some stirring performances through the tournament really showed that this was a player taking a step up to the next level.
As a teenager, Baggio had knee surgery which put his career at risk before it had even begun. However he made his league debut with Vicenza in 1982, helping them to win the Serie C1 title in 1985 and after that title win he was snapped up by Fiorentina.
His Serie A debut came the following September, with his first goal coming against Napoli in a match which saw Maradona’s men claim their first ever Scudetto. It was another year before he made his real breakthrough, making his Italy debut in 1988 and scoring 15 goals from 30 appearances in Serie A for La Viola that season, dazzling defences week in week out.
Baggio always had to make the most of his incredible ball skills, movement and intelligence to make an impact. He certainly wasn’t physically blessed, after all this was a man who was described as a ‘drowned rabbit’ by Juventus’ former president Gianni Agnelli. It’s fascinating to watch a Baggio highlight reel and see how many goals were similar to that masterpiece in the World Cup, exchanging passes with team mates, before setting off on a mazy dribble and topping it off with a cool finish over, under, or around a despairing keeper.
The Juventus Period
His World Cup performances were not the only reason 1990 will stay in Baggio’s memory. This was the year that Fiorentina sold him to their great rivals from Turin, Juventus – a transfer which angered La Viola’s Ultras to the extent that there were full scale riots on the streets of Florence.
Having achieved cult status at Fiorentina, Baggio always seemed reluctant to move to Juventus. When asked about the move, he said he ‘felt compelled to accept the transfer’, hardly a stirring statement of intent. A few months later he would return to Florence as a Juve player and the match is memorable for two moments that perhaps demonstrate how reluctant he was to move.
Firstly Juventus were awarded a penalty, Baggio was the natural choice to take it — despite 1994, Baggio was one of the best penalty takers in the history of Italian football with an 87% success rate from his 122 penalties in Serie A & for the Azzurri – but he refused to take it. Later in the game he was substituted and on leaving the field picked up a Fiorentina scarf from the ground and kissed it. He was later to claim that ‘deep in my heart, I am always purple’.
Despite this less than auspicious start, he found his form quickly for Juventus and over the next decade rightly took his place at the top table of footballers across the world. In 1993, he scored two goals as Juventus beat Dortmund 6-1 on aggregate to win the UEFA Cup. This really was Baggio in his prime and that season he scored 30 goals from 43 appearances across all competitions, winning both the World Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year (Ballon d’Or) awards.
His goal return across his career was fantastic, 205 from 452 Serie A appearances making him the sixth highest scorer of all time in the league. Baggio’s record at international level is even more impressive with 27 in 56 for the Azzurri, fourth on the all-time list. Consider that he was never an out and out striker and this is even more impressive.
His coaches and pundits always struggled to define his position; he was called at times a ‘9.5’, between a true forward and a trequartista. Today he would probably be seen as a false nine, not that it matters. Despite a number of coaches doubting his physique – injuries did catch up with him in the end, but for much of the ‘90’s he was extremely resilient to the abuse his body inevitably received on the pitch — none ever questioned his talent and they usually had no trouble putting him in their team and watching him work his magic.
While the goals flowed throughout his career, silverware more often than not eluded him. That UEFA Cup triumph was his only European trophy, while also at Juventus he won a Coppa Italia and in his final season with them his first of only two Scudetti. His second Serie A title came the following year, Baggio’s first season at Milan.
He became the first player to win back to back Scudetti with different clubs. Aside from that, the only other medals he has are runners-up and third place finish at World Cups and his Serie C1 title way back in the beginning. There were of course the individual honours, the World and European player awards being the highest accolades, whilst he has also been named in FIFA’s 100, FIFA’s All-time Dream Team and is 16th on World Soccers all-time Top 100.
Another feature of Baggio’s career is that despite appearing for all of Italy’s big three (Juventus, Milan and Inter) he is best remembered and best loved at the smaller provincial clubs he played for. Already having iconic status at Fiorentina, his spells at Bologna and Brescia are also highlights.
In 1997 having been side-lined at Milan he made the move to Bologna and despite his short stay at Bologna he is still regarded as a hero. He spent just one season there and had his best scoring season in Serie A, hitting 22 in 30 games. This remarkable effort saw him go to his third World Cup and in scoring against Chile in Italy’s opening game, become the first Italian to score in three World Cups. His nine World Cup goals are also an Italian record, one that he shares with Christian Vieri and ’82 hero Paolo Rossi.
It was an effort to make a fourth World Cup finals that saw Baggio move to Brescia, after his unhappy spell under Marcelo Lippi at Inter. He was taken to the hearts of Brescia fans immediately and never let them down on the pitch, providing them with some pure fantasy football.
The season leading up to World Cup 2002 started with a bang for Baggio as he scored eight goals in the first nine games, then he cruelly suffered a serious knee injury. Belying his increasing years Baggio was to return sooner than predicted, three games before the end of the season but, despite scoring three goals in those games Giovanni Trappattoni considered him too much of a risk to take to Japan and Korea.
In an unheard of move, Baggio even wrote a heartfelt letter to his national coach expressing his love of and desire to play for the national team, but Trappattoni remained unconvinced and left Roberto at home.
Two years later came the end to Baggio’s magical career. May 16th 2004 at the San Siro against Milan, in the 88th minute, Brescia coach Gianni De Biasi substituted Il Divin Codino for the final time and allowed him to take the curtain call, 80,000 got to their feet and gave him the standing ovation that he deserved. Whilst, Brescia announced that their number 10 shirt would be retired in Baggio’s honour.
Always seen as a classy and honourable gentleman on and off the pitch, the Catholic turned Buddhist, continued to represent Italy and himself in the best possible manner as he moved into retirement. Baggio has worked extensively as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, being awarded a World Peace Prize in 2010.
Whilst, that same year also saw him return to Italian football when he was named President of the Technical Sector for the FIGC (Italian FA). As one of the most technically gifted players to ever grace a football pitch that seems a fitting position.
When Roberto Baggio is mentioned, don’t remember one penalty miss in Pasadena. Remember a former World and European footballer of the year; remember a man who gave up his penalty duties at Italia 90 so his friend, Toto Schillaci could take the Golden Boot; remember that were it not for his crucial goal against Nigeria, that Italy probably wouldn’t have made the 1994 World Cup Final; remember his fantastic control, vision, passing ability and him running rings around even the best defenders; remember the ponytail; remember over 300 hundred career goals at the highest level; remember one of the greatest talents Italian football has ever presented to the World.