Emmet Gates1 Comment

THE REDEMPTION OF ROBERTO BAGGIO

Emmet Gates1 Comment
THE REDEMPTION OF ROBERTO BAGGIO

He stood there with hands on his hips, for a fleeting moment he stared aimlessly, as if not quite believing what just happened. His head sunk downwards, the game’s most famous ponytail facing the gleaming Pasadena sun. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Football has the uncanny ability to make heroes out of villains and simultaneously create villains out of heroes. It can be a very cruel sport. And never more so on July 17th, 1994.

Roberto Baggio was the world’s greatest player and prior to the final, he stood on the precipice of greatness. It had been his World Cup; a slow start then shifted into overdrive as he single-handedly drove Italy to the final, scoring five goals to eliminate Nigeria, Spain and Bulgaria. It was the greatest show of individual excellence since another equally majestic number ten dominated the 1986 tournament.

In the sweltering Californian heat, Baggio’s dream slowly unravelled. The final was ludicrously played at midday – to appease TV executives of course – and the weather, combined with two teams that had hardly set the pulses racing throughout the tournament, ensured the encounter wasn’t to live long in the memory.

Baggio put in a poor performance; hampered by a hamstring strain - visible by the strap underneath his shorts – and was scarcely involved in the game. His selection is still a bone of contention amongst Italians to this day, many felt he simply wasn’t fit enough and Beppe Signori should have got the nod. Rumours abound that he was selected due to commercial pressure from sponsors. Before the Ronaldo/Nike myth in 1998, there was Baggio and Diadora.

“I would have played even if they’d cut my leg off,” Baggio said in 2002. Few could blame him. Daniele Massaro, who partnered Baggio that day for Italy, certainly doesn’t. “ It’s simple: he was the guy that got us to the final,” he said in Ben Lyttleton’s brilliant book Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick. By his own admission, due to the precariousness of his limbs, Baggio was never match fit for more than three or four games per season. Knowing this, there is a sense that Baggio felt he could squeeze one final moment of brilliance out of his creaking, severely fatigued legs.

When it came for Baggio to take his penalty, Massaro and Franco Baresi had already missed – a fact often glazed over when dissecting the shootout. Had Baggio scored, Brazil’s next-in-line - never confirmed but most likely to be Bebeto – in all probability would have won the tournament for the Brazilians. Yet what amazed Baggio the most was not that he missed, it was the manner in which he missed.

Baggio remains peerless in the history of the Italian game from the spot. His conversion ratio of 86% is unparalleled. Francesco Totti only very recently replaced him as the penalty king in Serie A. However across all competitions for club and country, the Divine Ponytail stands atop the mountain. He scored 7 from 7 for Italy, and he very rarely, if ever, failed to hit the target.

“I don’t want to brag but I’ve only ever missed a couple of penalties in my career,” Baggio recalled in his autobiography. “And they were because the goalkeeper saved them not because I shot wide.”

Baggio was renowned for extraordinary zen-like calm in penalty situations; he never trashed at a penalty, more often than not he would use remarkable precision and place the ball in either corner of the goal. Usually giving the opposing goalkeeper with little chance. Baggio knew Claudio Taffarel would dive, having faced him at club level. The plan was to “shoot for the middle, about halfway up, so he couldn’t get it with his feet.” The rest lives on in World Cup infamy.

Baggio’s penalty was wild by his standards; it lacked the brutal accuracy that had come to define him. He went for power instead, deviating from his usual MO. Even today, he can’t articulate how his penalty sailed over the crossbar. “I never hit a penalty like that, before or since, I still don’t understand it.”

“It was the worst moment of my career, I still dream about it. If I could erase one moment of my career, it would be that one.” He wrote in his book, a bestseller upon its release in 2001. As Taffarel sunk to his knees in celebration, Baggio stood motionless, and alone, on the penalty spot, in what could almost be viewed as a metaphorical image. A genius misunderstood. Isolated. Underappreciated.

“For Italians of my generation, he is the best Italian player of the last 30 years, maybe ever.” Fabio, a Juventus fan from the city of Molfetta, in the Puglia region of Italy, tells me. “No Italian player could come close to him in the ‘90s, he was so far ahead of everyone else that even managers didn’t know what to do with him,“ he adds.

Following the final, Baggio was vilified in his homeland. “ When he missed that penalty, the relationship between him and public cracked for a little while,” Fabio, 35, recalls. Baggio reinforces this in his book, saying, “they wanted a lamb to slaughter and they chose me.” Why Italy got to the final in the first place seemingly lost on the churlish Italian public.

Pasadena marked a watershed moment in Baggio’s life. In its aftermath, his career was about to descend into free-fall in the ensuing three years, due to a combination of injuries, bad decisions and run-ins with coaches. The season following the World Cup would be his last at Juventus. Marcello Lippi had arrived and vowed to make Juve less ‘Baggio-dependent’.

Baggio’s fragile body wreaked havoc with his season and effectively done Lippi’s job, limiting Baggio to only seventeen appearances in 1994/95. Lippi promoted a young Alessandro Del Piero and despite Baggio’s strong performances in the spring of 1995, most notably in their run to the UEFA Cup final, Lippi had seen enough in Del Piero, who offered greater tactical versatility, to know that he could do without Baggio.

With his five-year contract nearing its end, the Juventus hierarchy in no uncertain terms told Baggio he had to take a salary cut to remain at the new Serie A champions. Knowing full well his value as one of the world’s best players and still only 28, he baulked at their demands. Separation was now inevitable.

When looking at the general arc of Baggio’s career, you get the feeling he picked the right club at the wrong time. In 1990, when it became clear that Fiorentina wanted to auction him to the highest bidder, Baggio didn’t want to leave Florence, but if he had to he thought, the preferred option was Milan.

Then hands down the best team in the world and one of the greatest of all time, Milan made enquiries about adding Baggio to their ranks, with Silvio Berlusconi salivating over a potential Van Basten-Baggio forward line. However, with Juventus enduring a post Michel-Platini barren spell and needing a new hero, Gianni Agnelli shattered the transfer record to sign him. “I was compelled to accept the transfer,” Baggio famously stated over the Juventus move, hardly words of excitement.

In retrospect, given everything that happened between the pair later, and Baggio’s disdain for tactics, it’s intriguing to think how he would have fitted at Milan. Arrigo Sacchi’s relentless pressing machine called for supreme levels of athleticism, something Baggio’s slender body, even if he had wanted to, simply couldn’t comply with.

In July 1995, Berlusconi wouldn’t be denied Baggio a second time. A deal was brokered for around €8 million and was brought in alongside African powerhouse George Weah.

While Milan had reached the final of the Champions League in May 1995, their third consecutive final in a row, the Milan Baggio was now joining wasn’t the revolutionary, dynamic side under Sacchi or the nearly unbeatable side in the early seasons of the Capello reign. Their cycle of dominance was over. A second successive league title for Baggio followed in his first season at San Siro, but it was evident that the spine of the all-conquering sides under Sacchi and Capello were ageing, or being shipped out.

In the summer of 1996, Capello left for Real Madrid and was replaced by Óscar Tabárez, who promised to give Baggio a pivotal role. The results didn’t follow and in the aftermath of their humiliating exit from the Champions League after a 2-1 home defeat to Rosenborg, Tabárez was gone.

Berlusconi turned to Sacchi, in a desperate and shortsighted attempt to relive the glory times at Milanello. This decision wasn’t exactly met with enthusiasm from Baggio, as their relationship deteriorated in the aftermath of Pasadena. 

Sacchi cherished obedient players; there were no star players in his system, the system was the star. He had little time for free-thinking individualists like Baggio. Now sensing there wouldn’t be much of a public uproar by omitting Baggio from future Azzurri squads after the World Cup backlash, he only called upon Baggio a further two times during his tenure.

Baggio hadn’t helped his cause after he attempted to stage a player revolt following a defeat to Croatia in November 1994, and demanded Sacchi resigned. Baggio lost.

Sacchi then ignored Baggio for not only the rest of the qualifiers but for the trip to England for Euro ’96. Where Sacchi’s eccentric tendencies ran amok and Italy exited the tournament at the group stage despite being one of the favourites.

Back at Milan, Sacchi’s second spell was disastrous and short-lived. Predictably, Baggio saw little game time and as he rotted on the bench, Sacchi continually looked like a man out of touch with the game. Modern tactics had bypassed him, and what was revolutionary a decade earlier could not be replicated. Milan ended the season in 11th place. Their worst showing since returning to Serie A in 1983. Sacchi resigned and never held a top position in club football again. A one trick pony that was all played out.

The returning Capello, who initially wanted Berlusconi to sign Baggio two years prior, had now soured on him, persistently telling the media that Baggio couldn’t ‘play for 90 minutes’ during the 1995-96 season. Capello told him quite bluntly that his days as a Milan player were over. “Baggio’s problems with coaches; Lippi, Capello, Sacchi…was that they just wouldn’t let him be; they tried to chain him to a system” Fabio relays to me. Whilst it’s difficult to argue against a trio that has won 4 European Cups and a World Cup, he has a case.

Baggio was now at a perilous crossroads in his career, aged 30 in the summer of 1997 and with the next World Cup less than a year away, he knew his next move had to be a calculated gamble. He needed redemption on the national stage, Pasadena had haunted him for three years and many felt he hadn’t been the same player. Parma emerged as the likeliest destination, with negotiations concluding quite rapidly.

Carlo Ancelotti, however, put the brakes on the deal. In a move he later regretted, Ancelotti has confessed on several occasions that he was, being a disciple of Sacchi, quite inflexible regarding tactics. The Ancelotti of the mid-1990s was a strict 4-4-2 coach, and he wasn’t going to veer off that path for Baggio.

“Looking back on it now, I was crazy. How can you give up on someone like Baggio? I was young and didn’t have the courage to throw myself into something that I didn’t know well enough.” Ancelotti said in 2014.

A week after the Parma deal collapsed, Baggio joined Bologna. Even then, the transfer was fraught with drama. Bought at the behest of Bologna President Guiseppe Gazzoni, the move didn’t sit well with coach Renzo Ulivieri. So low had Baggio’s stock fallen in the eyes of Italian managers that even Ulivieri, a decent if not a brilliant manager, worried about how best to incorporate him.

Baggio’s arrival sparked a flurry of excitement at the club, with the pre-season retreat, usually attended by a couple of hundred fans, now numbering in the thousands. Entire families flocked to see Baggio in Bologna colours. Season ticket sales soared.

Once more the focal point of a team and wearing the no.10, Baggio flourished at Bologna. Surrounded by good players such as the lanky Swede Kennet Andersson and Russian Igor Kolyvanov, I Rossoblu secured a European spot. As a sign of his rebirth, Baggio had chopped off his iconic ponytail shortly after signing for Bologna.

Baggio’s Bologna gamble paid off, and he booked himself a ticket on the plane heading for France. His 22 league goals a career high. The Italian media tried to whip up a frenzy over the supposed ‘rivalry’ with his former protégé Del Piero, current golden boy versus the fallen one for a spot in the starting XI. Baggio gave a diplomatic response when probed, saying he accepted his role as a backup to Del Piero.

However, he was given an unlikely start in the opening group game against Chile in Bordeaux. Del Piero had picked up an injury in the Champions League final and hadn’t recovered. Starting alongside Christian Vieri, it was Baggio’s first start for Italy in three and a half years.

Inside the first ten minutes, he made his presence felt, setting up Vieri for the opening goal with a beautifully weighted through ball. Chile, with the brilliant duo of Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas leading the line, stormed back and went 2 – 1 up.  With five minutes left Baggio - having a fine game - was on the periphery of the Chilean box, with very little options open for him, he chips the ball up towards the hand of defender Ronaldo Fuentes, either by fluke or design, a penalty is given.

Baggio bends down, trying to gain a measure of composure. Enrico Chiesa, on as a substitute, runs over to give him some encouragement but is dragged away by Dino Baggio, leaving his namesake to gather his thoughts. Roberto gets the ball, the only natural penalty taker on the pitch, and heads towards the penalty spot.

In the intervening four years he netted sixteen penalties in Serie A for Juve, Milan and Bologna, but his mind, naturally, flashed back to Pasadena. “I told myself I was going to put the ball in the net this time,” Baggio said afterwards, showing a steely reserve.

The ball’s on the spot and Baggio waits for the whistle; he exhales several times, trying to exude calm. His run up is eerily similar to Pasadena; the slow jog before taking bigger strides and finally hitting the ball with his instep. The ball is hit hard and low, into the bottom corner of Nelson Tapia’s goal. After four years of torment, transfers and exile from the national team, this was a huge, cathartic moment in his life. Demons well and truly exorcised.

“I killed the ghost of 1994 with that penalty,” he wrote in his book. No matter what was to transpire later in the tournament - for both him and Italy - he had righted the wrong of Pasadena, his redemption complete. 

By Emmet Gates

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