The Divine One

As the European Championships loom, I have decided to profile some of the best players from my generation to have been selected by countries that will be involved this year.

To kick things off I have selected Italy’s Roberto Baggio.

Known as ‘Il Divin Codino’ (The Divine Ponytail). Roberto showed me true beauty on a football pitch for the first time.

Aged six years old I was sitting in front of the TV. It was summertime 1990, ‘Nessun Dorma’ was the theme of the season and World Cup Italy hosts were playing their final group game against Czechoslovakia.

In the opening two games Italy recorded 1-0 victories, this meant coach Azeglio Vicini could make a few changes to his starting line up. He decided to bring in 23 year old Baggio and the talented forward didn’t disappoint.

He was a step into the Czechoslovakians half, just off the touchline on the lefthand side. As he receives the Etrvsco Unico ball, he steps back into his own half, plays a one-two with Giuseppe Giannini in between two opposing players. As he gets the ball back he runs past one, then dodges a diving challenge as he cuts in field. He glides with the ball, getting closer to the penalty area. As he enters the box he quickly faints down towards the ball sending a defender the wrong way. Baggio then gives the keeper the eyes, the goalie dives to his left thinking Baggio is going to slot it in at the far away post but  instead Roberto decides to stick it in at the near post. (That goal)

It was a superb run, he almost dances with the ball at his feet. As he goes off to celebrate in front of the home crowd he collapses to the turf in ecstasy and exhaustion.

For me it was the first time a goal took my breath away. The hosts would go out in the semis but I had fallen for the Azzurri what with Baggio’s goal and Toto Schillaci’s passion.

Another momentous thing happened to the divined one in the summer of 1990.

At Fiorentina he was a hero with the Viola fans. He had been there for five years, scoring 55 goals in 103 appearances.

Then Juventus came along offered a record ¬£8m to buy Baggio. The Fiorentina fans blamed Juve for ‘stealing’ their Scudetto in the early eighties and had just lost to the Vecchia Signora in the UEFA Cup final, so the transfer of their best player to their now bitter rivals tipped them over the edge and they began to riot in Florence.

He often returned to haunt Fiorentina as he had the gift of managing to get goals against them.

Baggio had a glorious goal laden time in Turin. He adopted the number ten shirt that Michel Platini had made his own in the eighties. In his first season with Juve he smashed in 27 goals in 47 matches.

In his five seasons with the Bianconeri he only once failed to break the 20 goal barrier. In total he bagged an impressive 115 goals in 234 games.

In 1993 he helped his side win the UEFA Cup scoring a brace in the final against Dortmund.

The World Cup in USA 94 will infamously be linked with Roberto Baggio’s despair he suffered in the Final.

Many forget that after a disappointing start to the tournament in which they struggled to qualify from their group, Baggio would then pull Italy up by their collective socks to help them reach the final. Against Nigeria in the 2nd round game, Italy were one down until Baggio struck twice and sent the Italians through. In the quarters he grabbed the winner that defeated the Spaniards.

Then in the Semi finals it was another Baggio double that dumped out Hristo Stoichkov’s inspired Bulgaria 2-1.

So Roberto Baggio had bagged the winner in all three vital games leading Italy into the final against a flamboyant Brazilian side. In a final that had both Baggio and the exciting Brazilian partnership of Romario and Bebeto the world was expecting goals!

The world was to be disappointed as it ended in a 0-0 stalemate.

Now for the infamy.

Roberto Baggio complete with his ponytail walked up as Italy’s fifth penalty kick taker, needing to score to keep them in the tournament. Miss and it was all over.

He never truly looked confident. He seemed to take an age in fixing the ball onto the penalty spot. He would look nervously at Brazilian goalie Taffarel, then at the ball, towards the ref, back at the keeper, back at the ref then finally as the whistle goes his eyes are on the ball again.

His run up is pretty long, he takes around seven steps to get to the ball, then unconvincingly with his body wide open he skies the ball over the bar and it ends in tears for Italy.

His previous winning strikes are forgotten as are Franco Baresi and Daniele Massaro’s missed penalties.

In 1994-95 he won his first Scudetto which also ended Juve’s eight season wait to become Italian Champions again.

That would be Baggio’s last year with Juventus after Marcello Lippi decided that the club would focus on giving a young Alessandro Del Piero not only Roberto’s position but also his number 10 shirt.

Baggio would go on to have two rather disappointing stints at each of the clubs from Milan.

At AC he managed to win another Scudetto but often cut a frustrated, isolated figure on the Milan bench. He fell out with boss Fabio Capello with the player stating he wanted to play more.

In between his stints at AC and Inter, Roberto rediscovered his magical goalscoring touch at Bologna. In his one and only season with the Rossoblu Baggio scored 22 Serie A goals, his best ever total. He was the focal point to the smaller Italian side and it helped gain him a spot in the Italian World Cup squad for France 98.

At Inter he again didn’t see a great amount of game time mainly due to the appointment of Marcello Lippi as club coach. Lippi would again not see eye to eye with the Italian international. His two seasons with them only saw 12 Serie A goals.

Once again the footballing Buddhist decided to reinvent himself at a smaller side in Serie A.

He spent his last four years playing for lowly Bresica. Once again he was given the number ten jersey, made club captain and was made the focal point in the sides attack.

In his first year he helped the newly promoted side finish in a very impressive 7th spot in Serie A. Injuries hampered his second year but he returned just before the end of the season with three goals in the final three games saving the club from relegation.

Baggio retired from football in 2004, ten years after USA 94. His final game was against former side AC Milan at the San Siro where he received a fantastic ovation.

He had managed to keep Brescia in Serie A for four consecutive seasons, in the term after he quit Brescia were relegated back to Serie B.

He was a leader, often grump and an extremely gifted individual but Baggio’s career seems intertwined with penalties.

Obviously the main one is the one in 1994 but we have had plenty of others.

In his first game against Fiorentina for Juve he refused to take a penalty out of respect to his former fans. He would then score a penalty against the Viola in 1996 that secured Milan the scudetto.

But the penalty that gave me the most joy was Roberto’s against Chile in the World Cup 1998.

It was the Azzurri’s first World Cup game since that fateful miss at the Rose Bowl. Italy were trailing 2-1 with five minutes to go in Bordeaux. Baggio attempted to cross the ball, it struck a Chilean defenders hand and the ref pointed to the spot.

The world looked on, Roberto Baggio looked as if the all world’s problems were on his shoulders. Emotionally he took up the responsibility to test fate.

The pressure was immense.

Now ponytail-less Baggio begins a run up eerily reminiscent of 94 but this time he kept it low, hard and into the back of the net!

Redemption was beautiful. (Feel the emotion)

Roberto Baggio was a footballing genius. He could carry teams, score wonderful goals and lots of them. Not only did he have a keen eye for goal but unselfishly laid plenty on a plate for others.

He was often quick of mind as well as feet, direct and had the uncanny ability to be very precise in his finishing.

Injuries and temper tantrums may have somewhat cursed this former world player of the year’s career but to me he will always go down as one of the finest player I was ever fortunate enough see play football.

2 Responses to “The Divine One”

  1. Serie A wasn’t the same after he retired. You always expected him to do something when he got the ball. He was a joy to watch.

  2. Indeed Rahim, he was a fantastic player.

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