Few players have contributed as much to the Italian and world game as Roberto Baggio. Sublimely gifted and fiercely driven with it, Il Divino Codino (The Divine Ponytail) enjoyed an exceptional career on both the domestic and international stage, a career he came agonisingly close to capping with the ultimate prize.
Troubled throughout his playing days by recurring problems with his right knee, Baggio lacked nothing in courage in attempting to overcome his injury curse, and made up for a relative lack of stature with flawless technique and an instinctive ability to read the game.
Though he spent his entire club career in Italy, starting with Vicenza in the third tier in 1982 and ending with Brescia - 204 Serie A goals later - in 2004, Baggio had legions of admirers around the world, among them current UEFA President Michel Platini, one of his predecessors as a lethal creator and taker of chances for Juventus. “Baggio is neither a typical No9, nor a typical No10," explained the Frenchman. "He’s more of a No9 and a half."
A country at his feet
Born in the small town of Caldogno, near Venice, Baggio learned his trade in the youth ranks at Vicenza, scoring a hugely impressive 110 goals in 120 matches to earn a place in the first team at the age of only 15. In the final game of the 1984/85 season, against a Rimini side coached by one Arrigo Sacchi, disaster struck when he suffered a serious injury to his right knee. It caused the first of many lay-offs that would dog him for the rest of his career.
Plunged into a deep spiritual crisis during those first 18 months on the sidelines, he decided to convert to Buddhism. “It helps me gather my thoughts better,” said Baggio, who would prepare for every game with a bout of solitary meditation.
Baggio had signed for Fiorentina prior to picking up that initial injury, and would always be grateful that the club did not go back on the deal. He went on to score 39 goals in 94 appearances for La Viola over five seasons before leaving in controversial circumstances for Juventus. Such was his depth of feeling for the Florence club and its passionate fans, however, that when he returned with Juve for a league game in April 1991, he refused to take a penalty and turned to the stands to salute the tifosi who once idolised him.
It was in Turin that he reached the pinnacle of his club career, inspiring I Bianconeri to the Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup trophies in a five-year stay in which he also made the captain’s armband his own, collected the FIFA World Player award and scored 78 goals.
Baggio is neither a typical No9, nor a typical No10. He’s more of a No9 and a half.
However, misfortune would befall him once more after the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, Baggio succumbing to his injury problems yet again in scoring a wonder goal against Padova. Out of action for five months, he looked on helplessly as new Juve coach Marcello Lippi promoted rising star Alessandro del Piero into the first team at his expense.
Sold on to rivals AC Milan in 1995, to the immense displeasure of the Juventus fans, Baggio dovetailed to perfection with the likes of George Weah and Dejan Savicevic to win the Scudetto for the second year in a row. While the goals kept on coming and his technique remained as flawless as ever, the playmaking genius continued to battle against his unreliable right knee and the lack of understanding of his coaches. “There is no place for poets in modern football,” observed Oscar Tabarez when Baggio complained about a lack of first-team action at the start of the 1996/97 season.
Leaving Milan behind, he enjoyed a fruitful, season-long stay at Bologna, scoring a career-high 23 goals for I Rossoblu in 1997/98, before returning to the San Siro for a stint with Inter Milan. In 2000 he made one last move, seeing out his last four years as a professional footballer with Brescia, helping the unfashionable outfit maintain their top-flight status with a handsome return of 45 goals in 95 games. Making his final league appearance in the fitting surroundings of the San Siro against AC Milan on 16 May 2004, he was substituted five minutes from time and left the field to a rousing standing ovation.
Like some of his club relationships, Baggio’s long-running liaison with the national team was a love-hate affair. After making his debut for La Nazionale in a 1-0 defeat of the Netherlands in November 1988, he scored the first of many trademark free-kicks six months later against Uruguay.
Sitting out the hosts’ opening two matches at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™, he was given a starting place for the third and final group game against Czechoslovakia. He made an instant impact, slaloming past a string of Czech defenders to score the goal of the tournament and one of the finest in FIFA World Cup history.
Disappointment was to follow in the semi-final against Argentina, with Baggio once again relegated to the bench and only coming on 17 minutes from time in a match Gli Azzurri lost on penalties. “[Italy coach Azeglio] Vicini said to me that I looked tired but I was only 23,” he later recalled. “I’d have given anything to have started that match.” Some consolation would come his way when he scored in Italy’s 2-1 win over England in the match for third place.
The man with the most distinctive ponytail in football reached the peak of his art in the USA four years later, his goals against Nigeria and Spain and a match-winning brace against Bulgaria sweeping the Italians into the Final against Brazil. Baggio’s injury problems were resurfacing once more, however. He needed a painkilling injection prior to the game and failed to shine on a gruelling afternoon in the heat of Pasadena.
After two hours of largely uneventful football, he lined up to take Italy’s fifth spot-kick in the penalty decider, with the Brazilians 3-2 ahead. A fatigued Baggio could not afford to miss, but miss he did, sending the ball soaring over the crossbar. “I knew what I had to do and my concentration was perfect,” he said afterwards. “But I was so tired that I tried to hit the ball too hard.”
He would enjoy better luck from the spot in a 2-2 draw with Chile in the group phase at France 1998, having earlier set up Christian Vieri for the opening goal. Yet, in a repeat of the Sandro Mazzola-Gianni Rivera selection conundrum that undermined Italy’s hopes at Mexico 1970, Nazionale coach Cesare Maldini decided Baggio and Alessandro del Piero were incompatible on the pitch and opted to rotate them instead.
Baggio nevertheless scored his ninth FIFA World Cup goal against Austria and went on to convert his penalty in the quarter-final shoot-out against hosts France. Sadly for him, team-mates Demetrio Albertini and Luigi di Biagio fared less well as Italy’s spot-kick curse continued.
I knew what I had to do and my concentration was perfect. But I was so tired that I tried to hit the ball too hard.
On the back of his prolific form with Brescia, Italy’s comeback king almost earned a fourth FIFA World Cup appearance at Korea/Japan 2002, only for coach Giovanni Trapattoni to ignore public opinion and exclude him from the squad. In Baggio's absence, the three-time global kings bowed out to Korea Republic in the Round of 16.
Appointed FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) Goodwill Ambassador following his retirement, the Italian legend now travels the world in support of a number of humanitarian causes. It was in recognition of this work that Baggio travelled to Hiroshima in November 2010 to collect the prestigious World Peace Award, presented by the Nobel Peace Prize laureates. “My personal and professional achievements pale in comparison to this award,” he said at the time.
Nevertheless, his links with the game he graced remain strong, and following La Nazionale’s early exit at South Africa 2010 he accepted the Italian Football Association’s invitation to become their Technical Director, a post with a special emphasis on the development of young players.
For once, the whole of the Italian footballing community was in agreement with Baggio’s appointment, an indication of the high esteem in which this diminutive giant of the game is still held.