• 09 Mar - 15 Mar, 2024
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Baggio was the soul of Italian football, a player not afraid to weave his paintbrush on a quiet wall
Today we will be capturing the enchantment of a football icon, Roberto Baggio. It eloquently portrays his journey from capturing hearts and igniting fandom to the poignant realisation of his own mortality. The description of a "Stockholm syndrome of football" vividly encapsulates the emotional connection fans had with Baggio, where even in defeat, he garnered more support than the eventual winners. The narrative skillfully emphasises Baggio's extraordinary influence, illustrating how certain players elevate not only their teams but the entire sport to unparalleled heights. In the realm of gifted athletes who carry nations on their shoulders, Roberto Baggio stands as a beacon of prowess and devotion.

Angels sing in his legs
"There is no place for poets in modern football," once said Oscar Tabarez during Roberto Baggio's time at AC Milan, he voiced dissatisfaction about limited playing time. The Uruguayan coach, known as "The Teacher”, didn't mince words when expressing his disapproval, highlighting the strict nature of their brief stint together. This incident shed light on the Italian football ethos, where the Azzurri, the national team, were renowned for prioritising a controlled style over individual creativity. Baggio, inspired by the imaginative flair of Brazil's Zico since childhood, found himself conflicted, as his free-spirited playing style clashed with the rigid defensive conformity of Italian football.
Roberto Baggio, far from an ordinary footballer, embodied a creative force, showcasing beauty in his play. Despite a career marred by persistent injuries, stemming from a failed tackle during his early days at Vicenza in the third tier of the Italian league system, he left an enduring impact on global football. His journey evoked a mix of joy and sadness. Similar to his idol Zico, Baggio embraced the game's demands as a match-winner, consistently securing victories for his teams. However, there were moments of disappointment, such as the 1994 FIFA World Cup final in Pasadena, California, on July 17.
In the goal-less aftermath of extra time, with Brazil leading 3-2, Baggio faced a crucial moment, needing to score the fifth penalty kick. Unfortunately, under the setting sun, his attempt sailed over Claudio Taffarel's bar, echoing the sentiment expressed in the title of his book: the goal had escaped through the door in the sky. "Before I left for the finals, my Buddhist spiritual master told me that I would be confronted with a lot of problems and that everything would be decided at the very last minute. At the time I didn't realise his prediction would be so accurate," he added.
Few recognise that Arrigo Sacchi's team wouldn't have reached the final without Roberto Baggio's contributions. Notably, Franco Baresi and Daniele Massaro had previously missed penalties in the title clash, but Baggio's efforts were pivotal. Italy's quarter-final and semi-final wins against Spain and Bulgaria, both by 2-1 margins, were a result of Baggio's brilliance in crucial moments. His impactful run began in the Round of 16, scoring both goals against Nigeria in a 2-1 win. In the quarter-finals, he and Dino Baggio (unrelated) found the net, and a brace followed in the semis.

The attacking midfielder won Ballon d’Or in 1993, and came second in 1994
Baggio's claim of divinity in the 1994 final wasn't unfounded, considering his career once faced an early end. In 1985, just before transferring to Fiorentina from Vicenza at 18, Baggio injured his right leg in a match against Rimini, coincidentally coached by Sacchi. Despite doubts about his recovery, the move proceeded, and Baggio turned to Buddhism in the following months. With his extraordinary talent and distinctive hairstyle, he became "The Divine Ponytail," a self-confessed pacifist but far from self-effacing.
Having established himself as one of the finest in the country, Baggio moved to Juventus in 1990 after five years of intermittent action in Fiorentina colours. He did manage to score 39 goals in 95 matches for La Viola. And, the move itself, then on a world record fee of GBP 8 million, resulted in riots.
Roberto Baggio spent another five years in Turin and won the majority of accolades, a period (from 1990 to 1995) that coincided with his rise as one of the greatest. Besides the two FIFA World Cup appearances in 1990 and 1994, he was a regular for Juventus, scoring 78 goals in 141 matches for the Old Lady. Then, there was also the crowning moment of his career, Ballon d'Or in 1993. He was second in 1994. He also won a double – Serie A and Coppa Italia in 1995. The following season, he moved to AC Milan and won the league. Stints at Bologna, Inter Milan and Brescia followed.
In 2004, he retired, having scored 27 goals in 56 matches for Italy. And some of the goals, for both clubs and country, were sublime free-kicks. By some account, he scored 36 goals from set-pieces, including 21 in Serie A. No doubt, his idol was Zico, the owner of 101 goals from direct free-kicks. Roberto Baggio’s football career was much more than his free-kicks, deft touches and magical runs with the ball. He was the soul of Italian football, a player who’s not afraid to paint the dead walls.

Italia 90’: The Goal That Whole Italy Wanted
During the 1990 FIFA World Cup, a talented Italy team aimed for success on home soil, with Roberto Baggio emerging as a key player for the Azzurri. Initially not a regular starter, Baggio's creative skills and partnership with Salvatore Schillaci persuaded coach Azeglio Vicini. The 23-year-old showcased his brilliance with a magnificent goal against Czechoslovakia in the group stage. Italy remained unbeaten until the semi-final against Argentina, where Diego Maradona halted their progress. Baggio contributed another goal in the victorious third-place match against England, emphasising that he was more than just another Italian prospect. In his times of glory, and the moments of soul-crushing pressure, Roberto Baggio was always prepared to put himself on the spot for his country.

Usa 94’: Single Handedly Dragged Azzurris To Final
In the 1994 FIFA World Cup, Roberto Baggio, among the world's best players, aimed to lead Italy to success. Despite a shaky start, the Azzurri advanced to the round of 16 as the fourth-best third-placed team. However, it was in the knockout phase that Baggio truly shone. Dubbed "Il Divin Codino" for his distinctive ponytail, Baggio scored five crucial goals, including a brace against Nigeria, the winner in the 2-1 quarter-final triumph over Spain, and two more in a thrilling semi-final against Bulgaria. This remarkable performance paved Italy's way to the final against Brazil. He truly was a nation's star and a tragic hero.

Heartache In Pasadena
Roberto Baggio reflects on the lowest point in his illustrious career: the missed penalty that dashed Italy's aspirations in the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Despite Baggio’s brilliance throughout USA 1994, his missed penalty in the shootout ultimately crowned Brazil as champions. “I felt myself dying inside,” he later recalled.
The culmination of USA 1994 mirrored its beginning, featuring an errant penalty. On 17 July, precisely one month after Diana Ross's amusing miss in the opening ceremony, Roberto Baggio faced a critical 12-yard opportunity. Failing to find the net would lead to Italy's defeat in the FIFA World Cup final, solidifying Brazil as champions. Football enthusiasts globally recall the pivotal moment that followed, devoid of any humor this time. “It is a wound that never closes,” Baggio said of his notorious miss. “I had dreamt of playing in a World Cup final since I was a little boy, but I never thought it could end like that. To this day, I still haven’t truly accepted that it happened. It haunts me.”
Losing a World Cup through penalties is inherently harsh, and for Baggio, it was especially cruel considering his instrumental role in Italy's journey. Baggio had been the tournament's standout player before the decisive final, contributing crucial goals against Nigeria and Spain, and securing Italy's place at the Rose Bowl with a match-winning double against Bulgaria.
Despite his exceptional performance throughout the campaign, Baggio, typically composed from the penalty spot, made a fatal error during the shootout that ultimately defined an otherwise magnificent journey. “When I went up to the spot I was pretty lucid,” he later recalled in his autobiography, Una Porta Nel Cielo (A Goal In The Sky). “I knew [Taffarel] always dived so I decided to shoot for the middle, about halfway up, so he couldn't get it with his feet. It was an intelligent decision because Taffarel did go to his left, and he would never have got to the shot I planned. Unfortunately, and I don't know how, the ball went up three metres and flew over the crossbar. I felt myself dying inside,” Baggio said of the seconds that followed. “Also, I thought of the reaction my countrymen would be having. It affected me for years. I still dream about it. And if I could erase a moment from my career, it would be that one.”

France 98’: Dead Ball Redemption
Four years later, following impressive displays with Bologna, Roberto Baggio rejoined Italy's World Cup squad under coach Cesare Maldini. In the opening match, at the age of 31, he took a crucial penalty against Chile. This marked his first spot-kick for the Azzurri since the 1994 miss, and notably, he successfully found the net this time. "Certainly, I thought of four years ago," admitted Baggio, who would characterise this moment as "liberating". Baggio scored his 27th and final international goal against Austria, later converting another penalty in the unsuccessful quarter-final shootout against France. However, for Baggio, 1998 became the year of redemption and closure.

Shahzeb Ali Rizvi is a sports aficionado with a keen eye for the intricacies of cricket and football. He can be reached at [email protected]