2 Roberto Baggio
Some players are difficult to categorize on account of their ambiguous or inconstant tactical roles. As writer Alessandro Baricco once put it, Roberto Baggio is hard to pin down because a conventional term such as ‘forward’ seems reductive. It would be like saying that Mozart was a piano player or Napoleon an army officer. Yes, Baggio was comparatively well-defined from a tactical point of view. Yet you cannot say that Roberto Baggio was ‘a forward.’
Technically speaking, Baggio was an excellent all-round attacker and quite simply the most talented dribbler that the peninsula has ever produced, regardless of position or role. Short in stature and therefore capable of deft changes in direction, the repertoire of moves and improvisational skills that he brought to the table was a bottomless well of invention. Supported by a vertiginously elevated technical prowess, these inventions were executed with such grace that the very strenuousness of the athletic performance seemed to fall away, leaving place only for a sense of natural spontaneity of the kind that is the object of Buddhism (of which Baggio was a devout follower). Baggio came before the age of stepovers and similar fancy footwork, but he possessed an inborn talent to produce football so natural and fluid that it made stepovers look redundant. He took impossible actions and made them look easy, even obvious – in this, his ‘football’ had something of the work of art. And a look at any list of his top 10 goals reveals a collection of masterpieces which has no equal in Italian football.
Even though it was Diego Maradona who truly innovated and defined dead-ball situations in Serie A, transforming them from a question of power into one of geometry, Baggio was the first among the Italians to pick up on the trade and include it in the core repertoire of the fantasisti. Coupled with finalising skills worthy of any prima punta, this made him a fulminating threat from any position on the pitch and allowed him to become one of only five players ever (from any nationality) to score more than 200 goals in Serie A, as well as the only Italian so far to have scored in three different editions of the World Cup.
Baggio was the most iconic figure in the national team throughout all of the 1990s. The fact that he never won a World Cup is one of the great and unfortunate twists of fate in Azzurri football – he was benched inexplicably in 1990 and 1998 in the middle of two gorgeous tournaments and injured immediately before the final in 1994. Said injury took enough concentration away from him to make him miss the final penalty, and it is sad to think that such a temporary black-out should have become an emblematic image for the most luminous of Italian fantasisti. Then again, much of Baggio’s career was fraught with misfortune (it is in fact a testimony to his immense talent that he accomplished what he did, including a Ballon D’Or in 1993, against the turning tides of a knee-injury which plagued him throughout the whole of his career). When injuries were quiet, the tifosi were not – almost every time that he changed team (and he did so often) there seemed to be turmoil in the streets. The first demonstrations after he left Fiorentina were particularly memorable, with actual injuries and civil disruptions. Yet what these people seemed not to understand is that Baggio cannot be contained – not in the colours of a shirt, not in the term ‘forward,’ and never on the pitch. The halo of legend that surrounds him is as boundless now as his imagination was back then.
Top 20 Azzurri players of all time