“Baggio on the bench? It’s something that I will never understand in my lifetime”, said Juventus and France legend Zinedine Zidane, seemingly perplexed as to why Italy’s greatest and most gifted footballer of all time was once again consigned to the bench for a Serie A game.
This was to be a common theme in Baggio’s club and international career, but why was this genius of a footballer discarded, misused and ignored so many times in his career? It all boils down to two things: Tactics and jealousy.
The world of Italian football can be a very strange environment. Throughout the 20th century, Italy produced some marvellous Trequartistas, some of the best the game has had to offer, the list reads like a who’s who of Calcio: Mazzola (Valentino and Sandro), Rivera, Di Bartolomei, Antognoni, Baggio, Mancini, Zola, Del Piero, Totti etc.
Yet Italy’s finest coaches struggled to incorporate these artistic players into their rigid tactics and some of them were eventually forced to move to smaller clubs or were benched. Quite the paradox isn’t it?
Watching Roberto Baggio in his pomp was akin to staring up at the statue of David or reaching the summit of Machu Picchu, with a ball at his feet he was simply breathtaking. He could quite literally execute any maneuver that flashed through his brain and had the ability to score from any position inside the oppositions half, nearly at will.
Take a look at any video of Baggio on YouTube and you will see his vast array of goals; dribbles, volleys, free kicks, outside and inside the box, tap ins, dinks, going around the goalkeeper, inside of the foot, outside of the foot. Hell he even scored the odd header!
His goals were his gift to the world, as he said in a rare interview with Champions magazine two years ago ‘’ I have never really been satisfied with the easily scored goal’’. In Baggio’s mind the football pitch was a blank canvas, and he was an artist ready to paint a picture in the only way he knew how, with grace and sophistication.
Considering how outrageously talented he was, you would be correct in assuming that it would be a no brainer for coaches to embrace him and therefore build teams around him. But Baggio unfortunately was born in the wrong country, or rather, he was born in Italy at the wrong time.
Baggio came into the world on February 18, 1967 in a small town called Caldogno, which is located near Vicenza in Northern Italy. He was born at the height of the Catenaccio era where the two Milan sides dominated not only the domestic scene, but also in Europe; with Inter winning two back-to-back European Cups and Milan also winning two in the same decade.
Even after Johan Cruyff and his sensational Ajax side of the early 1970s demolished the Catenaccio reign as a force on the European stage, it was still used in Serie A for years by virtually every team in the top-flight. Although the system used was a cheap imitation of the actual system perfected by Helenio Herrera’s La Grande Inter side.
Fast forward to Serie A in the 1990s when Baggio was at his peak, the Calcio landscape had changed, but not radically. The cliché of Italian football being ‘defensive’ will no doubt last to time immemorial, but in reality it was in the 90s that teams started to play more expansive football and not focus solely on defending and hitting on the counter, however, teams became more attacking as a collective unit rather than being inspired by individual brilliance.
Ultimately this led to Italy’s flair players being sacrificed. There was no room for Gianfrano Zola in Calcio, he was unwanted by Parma and was shipped to England. Roberto Mancini stayed at Sampdoria longer than he should have because he most undoubtedly recognised that he would not get the freedom that he enjoyed at the Genovese side with any of the bigger clubs in Italy.
By 1997, Baggio was in the same boat as the aforementioned Zola and Mancini. Discarded by Milan aged 30 and seemingly ‘finished’, he had to go to Bologna in search of guaranteed first team football after his deal with Parma collapsed due to Carlo Ancelotti blocking the deal, saying he didn’t need Baggio for his 4-4-2 formation (ironically in his time at Milan, the same Ancelotti fielded Rivaldo, Andrea Pirlo, Rui Costa and Clarence Seedorf in his starting XI’s during the 02/03 season, all of them number tens, at the same time).
ll Divin Codino’s difficulties with managers is legendary in the Italian game, Arrigo Sacchi, Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello, Giovanni Trapattoni and Renzo Ulivieri all had problematic relationships with him, and to this day he still can’t put a finger on why he had so much trouble, but he has a theory.
As he said in a interview in 2011, “ I’ve often wondered why they really wouldn’t consider me, but I never found the real answer. Perhaps they were a bit jealous, as everybody used to love me, even opposing fans. Was I stealing the show, denying them the role of protagonists they were desperately claiming for themselves? Modern football is increasingly dominated by the coaches, their narcissism to put themselves above the team and their players’’
His most intense rivalries with managers were with Lippi and Sacchi.
In the summer of 1994 Lippi arrived at Juventus, claiming he needed to make La Vecchia Signora less “Baggio-dependent”. His cause was greatly helped somewhat by Baggio having an injury plagued season. He made only seventeen appearances in the 94/95 season and didn’t have a major part to play in Juve winning the double. Baggio’s fate was sealed when a certain youngster called Alessandro Del Piero scored that goal against Fiorentina. Lippi realised there and then that he could live without Baggio and when he refused to take a pay cut in the summer of ’95, he was sold to Milan.
According to Baggio however, the bad blood between them only started when Lippi arrived at Inter in the summer of ’99. Baggio had been at Inter for a year and Lippi asked Baggio to report back to him what the other players where saying behind his back, essentially to be a spy. Baggio point blank refused, and from that moment on Baggio hardly kicked a ball for Inter, it was bordering on criminal to see this genius being wasted on the sideline week after week. Baggio unsurprisingly left Inter in summer of 2000, joining lowly Brescia.
To this day Baggio has a particular disdain for Sacchi, the trouble between the pair begun in Italy’s second game of the 1994 World Cup against Norway, when Gianluca Pagliuca got sent off in the 21st minute. Sacchi to the amazement of everyone took off his star player for goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani, Baggio was stunned, and he left the pitch shouting “Ma quello e matto!” (That man is mad!).
As is by this point well documented, Roberto dragged a particularly average Italy side to the final, scoring five goals in the process. Sacchi put Italy’s loss on that fateful day in Pasadena squarely on Baggio’s shoulders. After USA ’94 he only ever played for Sacchi two more times, and wasn’t picked for Euro ’96 as Italy flopped and went home in the group stages.
Sacchi then became Milan manager for the second time in December ’96, again coming into conflict with Baggio. From that point onwards the Divine One rarely got any playing time and his days at Milan were numbered. Sacchi’s short tenure was a failure and was replaced by a returning Fabio Capello for the start of 1997/98.
His time with the Azzurri echoed his club career. Fifty-six caps over a sixteen-year span simply wasn’t enough for a player of his quality. Trapattoni and Zoff ignored him, Ceasre Maldini and Vicini didn’t give him enough playing time and in the end they all paid the price for it.
What if Vicini had started him against Argentina in the semifinal of Italia ’90? And if Maldini had played him from the beginning instead of an out-of-form Del Piero for the quarterfinal versus France in 1998, would the outcomes have been different?
It’s not hard to imagine Baggio scoring one of the two gilt edged chances that Del Piero missed in the Euro 2000 final, or saving Italy from humiliation at the 2002 World Cup at the hands of South Korea. The simple fact is that as majestic as Del Piero and Totti were at club level, they never performed for Italy to the standards that Baggio did.
So why the lack of trust in him? Some managers felt he didn’t possess the intestinal fortitude to show up when the going got tough, that he was weak willed, and so therefore he was often relegated to the status of a bit part player or often just ignored. Baggio rejects the claim, saying that if he didn’t have the mettle he would have quit playing football after his horrendous injury at Vicenza when he was just eighteen years old (when he snapped every ligament in his right knee).
I have always held the view that if the ponytailed genius had been born in 1977 instead of ’67 he would have enjoyed more tactical freedom on the field, as Italian coaches became less rigid in their tactical set ups and formations became more attacking at the start of the 21st century. Number tens like Del Piero, Totti and Antonio Cassano were afforded more freedom than Baggio ever got in his entire career, despite all three of them not possessing his capabilities. Had he been born ten years later, Baggio would not have had to go to the provinces to show his god-like ability. Can one imagine Baggio with an attacking minded coach like Prandelli, Spalletti or Zeman?
When you look back at the career of The Divine Ponytail, two things spring to mind; The first is we were lucky we ever got to witness his brilliance at all, and secondly, how much could he (and therefore his teams) have achieved if managers had just put their entire faith in him? Of course we will never know the answer, but former Italian international Alessandro Altobelli perhaps sums it up best. “Baggio wasn’t the problem, it was the various coaches who were the problem. They weren’t capable of managing someone of his talent“.
For Baggio however, it was never about trophies or money, it was about creating moments that would stay etched in our minds forever, that would transcend time, and he gave us plenty of them.