In Italy, life is slow paced with an infrastructure that is securely efficient, built to last coupled by the artistry that is prevalent in villages and cities up and down the country. Calcio mirrors life; steeped in history, slow paced games in the Mediterranean heat, catenaccio tactics that incite creativity and technical excellence. Roberto Baggio was a product of his environment.
Baggio was nicknamed Il Divino Codino – The Divine Ponytail – in part due to his trademark ponytail and for turning to Buddhism. Born on the 18th February 1967 in Caldogno, Veneto, Baggio made an early impression playing for his local team in Caldogno before being courted by Vicenza. He excelled, scoring over a hundred goals in the youth team before making his Serie C1 debut at 15 years old.
Baggio went on to score 13 goals in 36 appearances for Vicenza before Serie A clubs came knocking for the teenage prodigy. Fiorentina secured the 18 year olds’ services in a deal worth a little more than a million pounds even though Baggio had damaged his knee ligaments on the eve of the transfer.
He would open his Viola account on the 10 May 1987. A low whipped free-kick that the unsighted keeper could do nothing about, against Napoli, on the day Napoli secured their first Scudetto. Baggio never looked back and became a firm fan favourite at the Viola.
In the following three campaigns Baggio cemented a reputation as a dead ball expert. His style of play was eulogised over by the tifosi, with his superb dribbling technique and manipulation of space never more evident than his goal against Serie A Champions, Napoli, in his last season with the Viola. He had scored 17 goals in 32 league games in a team that finished one point from relegation.
Firenze, the city of art and creativity seemed the perfect fit for Baggio but as his stock increased so did the possibility of the club cashing in on their talented youngster.
After missing out on the young prodigy to Fiorentina, Juventus paid a then world record fee of around £13 Million for Baggio, sparking full-scale riots and outcry among the Viola fans. Some fans calling him Judas, their beloved son had left to their arch-rivals Juventus. The deal had been composed via Baggio’s agent which despite his affection for the Viola, he was compelled to accept.
The emotion of the World Cup then took precedence; Italy had a great opportunity for success with a talented team and home advantage. Baggio was inserted in to the starting line up for the Azzurri’s third match against Czechoslovakia. In perplexing the Czech defence and goalkeeper he scored the goal of the tournament on his World Cup debut and announced himself to the world.
Baggio played in the victories against Ireland and Uruguay but was reduced to a place on the bench for the semi-final match against Argentina. He was called upon after Italy surrendered a goal lead. Only a fine save from Sergio Goycoechea denied Baggio from a superb trade mark free-kick in extra time before Ricardo Giusti callously felled Baggio off the ball to receive his marching orders.
The game went to a penalty shoot out in Maradona’s home, the Sao Paolo Stadium; Italy lost 4-3 on a penalty shoot out with Baggio converting his penalty. The Azzurri then played England in the third place play-off with Baggio restored to the starting line-up, he marked his appearance with a composed effort. David Platt equalised for England but Italy had a chance to wrap up victory when Schillachi was felled. Schillachi needed one goal to claim the golden boot yet even as Italy’s top scorer in the competition was nowhere to be seen in the penalty shoot out against Argentina. Baggio the designated penalty taker allowed Schillachi to take the penalty in his act of magnanimity.
At Juventus, Baggio took no time to settle in, scoring 27 goals in his first campaign. He endured an emotional return to Fiorentina that year and after winning a penalty, refused to take it. The penalty was saved and Fiorentina went on to win 1-0. Baggio was substituted and left the field to shrill applause, picking up and kissing a Viola scarf that had been thrown towards him. Later that year, Baggio was awarded the U23 European footballer of the year for his exploits.
In the 1992-93 season, Baggio now captain, led Juventus to glory in the UEFA Cup. In the semi-final, Baggio scored all three Juventus goals in their 3-1 aggregate victory over PSG. He went on to score two goals in the final against Borussia Dortmund inspiring Juventus to a 6-1 aggregate scoreline.
Baggio completed his fine year crowned as Fifa World Player of the Year and picked up the illustrious Ballon d’Or award.
In the 1994 World Cup, Italy’s main strength was their Milanese defence and Baggio. The Azzurri stuttered through the group stages to set up a last 16 tie against Nigeria. Italy went a goal and a man down, looking certain to make an early exit. As the game drew to a close, Baggio found space and passed the ball calmly in to the far corner sending the game into extra time. There, Baggio’s majestic pass caused panic in the Nigerian defence and ten men Italy were awarded a penalty that he made no mistake dispatching.
Italy faced their Latin sisters Spain in a hotly contested quarterfinal tie, which was settled in the final minutes as Baggio rounded the keeper to book a semi-final place against Bulgaria. Baggio again the hero, scored twice as Italy progressed to meet Brazil in the final.
It was a bittersweet moment for the divine ponytail as he was substituted after pulling up with a hamstring injury and was visibly emotional at the final whistle. Despite his injury, Baggio was selected for the final but looked a shadow of himself. The game finished 0-0 after extra time. Baresi and Massaro had missed their penalties and Baggio had to score Italy’s fifth penalty to keep them in contention.
In what would be the harshest cruelty, Baggio saw his shot curl over the bar and hand Brazil the World Cup. Baggio was unjustly largely blamed for Italy losing the competition, to add insult to the pain of seeing his dream of lifting the world cup slip through his grasp.
There was mild consolation as he returned the following year to help Juventus win the Scudetto. He had played a supporting role due to his injury, featuring 17 times in the league, scoring eight goals. Del Piero had proved a worthy replacement and Lippi opted to sell Baggio to AC Milan.
Baggio who had now been shunted aside by the national team fought back to help AC Milan win the Scudetto in his first season. In an uneasy period in his career, Baggio was often used from the bench and after just two seasons transferred to Bologna in a bid to reclaim his place in the national team before World Cup 1998 in France.
At Bologna, Baggio arrived for a fresh start without his famous ponytail. With a career high 22 league goals including a ridiculous goal of the season, Baggio had played his way back into national team as the top Italian goal scorer in Serie A.
He was chosen to back up Del Piero for the World Cup squad but showed greater form and started the tournament. After providing a divine assist to Christian Vieri in the opening game against Chile, Italy went 2-1 down. In the last minute of the game a Baggio cross was handled and an opportunity arose from the penalty spot to salvage a draw. Baggio obliged and coolly converted the spot kick.
Baggio had two goals and two assists in the group stages yet didn’t feature in the 1-0 win over Norway in the second round. Against France in the quarter final, Baggio was brought on for Del Piero who had been largely disappointing.
With Baggio, Italy’s attack improved but the game ended 0-0 and would be decided with a penalty shoot-out. Baggio stepped up first and coolly slotted home. Di Biagio would this time face the agony Baggio had four years earlier, as his penalty struck the cross bar to end the Azzurri’s dreams.
Baggio was in demand and returned to the San Siro to sign for Inter. His highlight being a memorable two late goals he scored to upset Real Madrid in the Champions League after coming off the bench. As Inter failed to meet expectations, Lippi was appointed their coach, which didn’t bode well for Baggio.
He offered his magic but was used sparingly. In his final appearance, he showed his professional attitude and class scoring two audacious goals to give Inter Champions League football the following season.
Baggio took the final chapter of his career to Brescia forming a firm relationship with coach Carlo Mazzone. Just like at Bologna, Baggio was rejuvenated. He helped Brescia first knock Juventus out of the Coppa Italia before scoring a memorable equaliser that proved decisive in costing Juventus the Scudetto. A long ball from a young Pirlo was killed instantly by the veteran who rounded van der Sar, to role the ball in to the empty net.
Il Divino Codino set his sights on another World Cup. The sparkling form he showed made this probable until he suffered a torn cruciate ligament, which ruled him out for the remainder of the season. Baggio miraculously recovered from this to play in the last two games of the season in which he scored 3 goals securing Brescia’s safety.
Italy coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, snubbed Baggio despite mass petitions from the public. Italy disappointed at the World Cup and were dumped out somewhat controversially against the co-hosts, South Korea in their second round match.
Baggio gave Brescia and Italian football two more years of magic, taking his Serie A goals tally to beyond 200; scoring fine chips, volleys, free kicks and directly from a corner kick. Baggio’s goals tally was impressive considering that his main functionality was to engineer his team’s attacks from deep. He redefined the role of the fantasista, a position that he had no equal.
With Baggio, Brescia achieved their longest stay in the top flight of Italian football, four years; they were relegated the season after he retired. He was honoured by Brescia as they retired his number 10 shirt. When Mazzone was asked whether Baggio was the greatest Italian footballer of all time, he responded, “He was one of the greatest, but he was even greater as a man. The man outstripped the player.”
Indeed, Baggio was recognised with a World Peace Award; an annual award bestowed upon a charitable leader by Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Baggio was humbled by the award and claimed that his previous achievements paled in significance. When Prandelli replaced Lippi at the helm of the national team in 2010, he appointed Baggio as the president of the technical sector of the Italian Football Federation bringing Baggio back to football and his beloved Azzurri.
Roberto Baggio is a true Legend of Calcio and a humanitarian who played for passion, competition and joy. He was an example of courage, artistry, excellence and fair play that enriched the world of football. Il Divino Codino was the benchmark as a footballer and the benchmark as a man.
For more Legends of Calcio don’t forget to check out the Classic Calcio section of Forza Italian Football.
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