In a new regular feature, Football Italiano takes a look at some of Serie A’s greatest players and examines what makes them a cut above the rest. This week is the turn of Roberto Baggio.
Roberto Baggio was born on the 18th February 1967, in the small town of Caldogno. He started playing at a young age for Vicenza. The lessons learnt in Serie C would remain with him throughout his career. Extremely fast and skilful, lots of players used to kick him and knock him down. But, the young, enigmatic starlet continued to get up, again and again, and proceeded to rise through the ranks of football to a legendary status enjoyed by only a few mortal men.
Born into the number 10 shirt of the classic Trequartista or Playmaker, Baggio’s slight stature and average height enabled his speed and trickery to work in a similar vein to Diego Maradona, the man who pioneered the No.10 role. Baggio’s exquisite ball control, lightning acceleration and pin-point accuracy from free-kicks and penalties saw him score and create many spectacular goals for each and every club he played for.
Here is a great example of a famous Baggio free kick against Borussia Dortmund:
He scored a total of 218 goals in 488 Serie A games, and is still the player with the highest penalty conversion rate with an amazing 86% success rate from over 100 penalties. His technical abilities, whether in dribbling or striking the ball, were flawless, and his composure and balance, matched with his innate intelligence, are ingredients all attacking players crave, yet very few possess.
The great guile and skill Baggio demonstrated for Vicenza alerted the teams from Serie A, and Fiorentina snapped him up while his name was still fresh on the lips of the Italian public.
At that time in the peninsula, Maradona was at the pinnacle of his game, and his affluent Napoli side were a celebrated success in Italy and Europe. However, a defining game in the career of Baggio arrived when his Fiorentina side were pitted against the might of the Azzurri from the South, led by their gifted Argentine. Much in the same way that Maradona inspired Napoli with his individual brilliance, Baggio was becoming notorious for his deep-lying and mazy runs which tore into defences and created numerous goals for himself and other team-mates. He wasn’t feared in the manner of Maradona, yet, but for Fiorentina he was a sacred son and permanent threat to any opposition. The universal fear started to develop from this game onwards though, and even Maradona would remember the name of Roberto Baggio.
Baggio, with his socks rolled half-way down his shins, received the ball just inside his own half and beautifully, easily and utterly gracefully, skipped past a midfielder and then a defender with two short bursts of speed, finding himself one-on-one with the keeper before Napoli, the crowd, or the spectators in their homes could react. With his close control, the ball seemed to stick under his feet, but he slowed and veered round the onrushing keeper, in what was to become his signature style, before gently placing the ball in the net. It echoed Maradona’s spectacular dribble against England in Mexico 86, but was even greater because it was scored by a young Italian against the side containing the great man himself.
Another copy of this goal, with an even sweeter finish, was displayed on the world stage at Italia 90, when Italy beat Czechoslovakia in the capital city. Again it highlights Baggio’s threat from deep positions, and his ability to penetrate strong defences at a merciless pace.
Baggio quickly became a global name before this tournament because of his world-record transfer fee to Juventus for €12 million (about £8 million). After performances and goals like this, he would prove he was worth the money, and the rioting, anger and violent fury demonstrated by the Viola fans upon hearing the news that their divine son was leaving, was understandable. The player who had helped them reach a Uefa Cup final in 1990 had left to join the team which had beaten them in that final – the hated Bianconeri.
In Italia 90, Baggio enjoyed a relatively free midfield role when finally introduced in the Azzurri’s third match. Salvatore Schillaci and Gianluca Vialli were rotated as the most notable strikers, while Roberto Donandoni offered a great threat on the wings. Baggio swiftly teamed up with Giuseppe Giannini, to form an intelligent, elegant attack to complement an almost perfect defence compiled of Walter Zenga, Franco Baresi, Paulo Maldini, Giuseppe Bergomi, and Riccardo Ferri.
It is important, when thinking about Baggio as a man and a professional, to remember his sportsmanship and team ethic, in allowing Schillaci to take the crucial penalty against England in the third-place playoff, to ensure that the little Sicilian won the golden boot with six goals. It is a great lesson, not only in football, but life too, when a man can step aside to allow another to prosper. This selfless display, even at a young age, demonstrated why Baggio was so revered and loved within the game.
After a good World Cup, Baggio started his Juventus career, and developed a position further forward as the second striker, or deep-lying forward, again with Schillaci and later with Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli. As his status grew, so did his hair and his iconic ponytail earnt him the beloved nickname of Il Divino Coda – The Divine Ponytail. His skills were certainly a gift from above, and the number and variety of spectacular goals he scored for Juve were moments of unbelievable magic upon magic in his five-year spell at the Stadio Delle Alpi.
Baggio played 201 games and scored 115 goals in all competitions for the Bianconeri – a phenomenal record of more than a goal every other game. He was the figurehead and club captain, talisman and fantastic Number 10. With Juventus, Baggio lifted the Uefa Cup in 1993 and Serie A Championship in the 1994/95 Season. He also won the highest personal honours within football, by being named as both the European Footballer of the Year (Ballon d’Or), and the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1993.
Baggio was a rising star in Italia 90, but in USA 94 he was the focal point and centre of all Azzurri hopes. However, as Baggio would later learn at club level under Marcello Lippi, Azzurri Coach Arrigo Sacchi was open to sacrificing the Divine Ponytail, in pursuit of a team-based ethic, with a win-at-all-costs attitude.
The tournament started badly as Italy lost to the Republic of Ireland. Baggio was far from 100% fit, with a troubled hamstring, and the watching world started to wonder what all the fuss was about. This was reiterated in the second game against Norway when Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off and Sacchi substituted Baggio for Luca Marchegiani. Baggio was the most surprised, and Sacchi would eventually learn his personal mantra of “team before individuals” did not refer to Baggio. The Divine Ponytail was above that – an individual star with amazing team qualities.
Baggio was never entirely fit throughout the whole tournament, but he scored vital, last-gasp goals against Nigeria and Spain, and two stunning efforts against Bulgaria in the semi-finals, to drag Italy to the final against Brazil. Throughout USA 94, Baggio’s link up with Beppe Signori failed to shine, but his understanding with central midfielder Demetrio Albertini – whose passing skills and vision were sublime – was similar to the relationship he shared with Giannini those four years previously. The game against Bulgaria proved to the world that Baggio was phenomenal.
The events of the final and that penalty miss will never be forgotten, but Baggio needed to miss his spot-kick simply to prove he was human. No man was made perfect, and if Baggio had scored, he would have broken this fundamental rule of humanity. As a World Cup winner, Baggio would have been untouchable, and so it wasn’t meant to be.
With Lippi at Juve, and the emergence of a new Trequartista in Alessandro Del Piero, Baggio left the Bianconeri for Milan and Fabio Capello in 1995, after winning the Uefa Cup, the Italian Championship, the Coppa Italia, and the SuperCoppa Italia.
With his confidence quite low after an emotional World Cup and final season with Juve, Baggio found it hard in his first campaign with the Rossoneri (even though they won the Italian Championship for the fifteenth time) as he was often deployed as a substitute in a team which boasted players like George Weah, Marco Simone, Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savicevic (the team’s great left-footed No. 10). Capello left after that season, and his replacement, Oscar Tabarez, failed to find a winning formula, so Sacchi was reappointed and Baggio was made surplus to requirements as a regular substitute.
Baggio joined Bologna for the 97/98 season and, after cutting off his ponytail (in a paradox to the tale of Samson), refound his strength and goal-scoring ability, with a season-high tally of 22 in his only season for the Rossoblu.
Baggio was recalled to the international squad for the France 98 World Cup after such a fine season with Bologna, and Inter signed him to add creativity and experience to a squad that included players like Ronaldo, Ivan Zamorano, Alvaro Recoba and, in his second season, Christian Vieri. Baggio played Champions League football, and scored some wonderful goals for Inter in Serie A – notably against Parma and Gianluigi Buffon.
The final chapter in Baggio’s career was a great one. He joined lowly Brescia in 2000, was immediately installed as club captain, teamed up with Dario Hubner, and helped to attract players like Luca Toni and Pep Guardiola there, to bring a bit of fantasia to the Biancoazzurri. A young Andrea Pirlo was even fortunate enough to have a spell at the club at the time.
The Divine Ponytail was somewhat grey, but coloured with wisdom and unparalleled vision Baggio continued to amaze and inspire those around him. A defining match and goal came against Juventus, with a piece of skill never before seen. From a long ball, Baggio controlled and dribbled around keeper Edwin Van der Sar with one, immaculate, impossible touch. A whole stadium went one way and Baggio the other.
It was fitting to see the magic and ability was something completely innate within Roberto Baggio. There are too many examples of fading and declining forces in the game. Age seems to get the better of nearly every player, but as Baggio always proved, he was above the constraints and rules of mere mortals, and with a body-swerve or feint, he would send the watching world down one road and then choose to tread the path less-travelled – a pathway to the footballing stars, saved only for the brave and truly gifted.