As we celebrate the 52nd birthday of Roberto Baggio this week, I took it upon myself to take a trip down memory lane and share my own personal experience with Il Divino Codino, or ‘The Divine Ponytail.’
Most fans’ favorite players either play for their national team or their club team. Roberto Baggio neither played for Malaysia, my home country, nor Argentina, my preferred national team, nor Huddersfield Town, my favorite club. And yet, he was the one I identified with the most, the man who captivated my attention and love, my favorite player. You could say it was an extramarital affair, but in a footballing sense.
I fell in love with Baggio during his time with the Azzurri in the 1990 World Cup. I still remember his goal against Czechoslovakia like it was yesterday. He dribbled the ball from halfway line, beating several players before firing it with his right foot. It reminded me of Diego Maradona’s goal of the century against England four years earlier.
Over the next four years, I only managed to follow his career distantly, as we didn’t have any coverage of Italian football on our local channel.
Then came USA ’94. By now, Baggio was regarded as the best player in the world. Italy were one of the favorites to win the tournament, but neither him nor the star-studded Azzurri came close to demonstrating their true greatness throughout the first three group stages.
For me, my interest in that World Cup practically ended after Maradona was sent home due to a failed drug test. After his expulsion from the tournament, Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania eliminated Argentina in the Round of 16. But for some reason, I stuck around, and two days later, watched Italy take on Nigeria.
Being the surprise team of the tournament, I wanted to see the Super Eagles go far. They had the likes of Emmanuel Amunike, Sunday Oliseh, Jay-Jay Okocha, and, amusingly, ex-Chelsea sporting director Michael Emenalo. Italy had world-class stars like Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, and Roberto Donadoni, but up until the final minutes, it looked like Nigeria were going to pull the shock upset of the tournament.
Then, Il Divino Codino performed a divine miracle.
After receiving the ball from Roberto Mussi, Baggio struck it with his signature right foot past goalkeeper Peter Rufai to save Italy from humiliation and send the game into extra time. Then, he scored the winning penalty in extra time to send Italy to the quarterfinals.
Slowly but surely, Baggio was beginning to seduce me with his breathtaking performances that made him a Ballon D’or winner. And slowly but surely, I acquiesced to the romantic allure of the Azzurri.
Italy were about to face Spain in the quarter-final. The match was tied 1-1 with almost two minutes left to play, and the Azzurri were on the counter-attack, as Nicola Berti lobbed the ball to an onrushing Giuseppe Signori.
Noticing that he was surrounded several Spain defenders, Signori lobbed the ball to Baggio, who was unmarked on the right side. Baggio had to chase it down before La Roja goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta could clear it. He won the foot race, took a turn down the right past a helpless Zubizarreta, and slotted it into an unguarded Spanish goal.
I can still remember every word of commentary from that goal.
Roberto Baggio! He will get there! Baggio! Still Baggio! He’s got wide!
I still get goosebumps every time I watch that goal. It took a moment of genius and equanimity, something only players with exceptional ability can pull off. Baggio was so talented that he made it look easy.
At this point, Italy had become my adopted team in this World Cup. Awaiting them in the semi-final was the tournament’s biggest Cinderella story, Bulgaria. I bet my friend that Italy would win with Baggio scoring in the 88th minute. However, I ended up losing the bet; Baggio scored twice in the first half to give Italy their most comfortable win of the tournament.
After a substandard start to the tournament, Baggio had come alive, and as a consequence, so did Italy. The manner in which he maneuvered the ball around the defenders with the ball stuck to his foot, the golden technique which ultimately crowned him as the game’s best, that divine skill was shining through. Baggio’s performance in the last three games put me to the point of seduction and hypnotization. He was everything I loved in a footballer, elegant yet lethal.
With the Final beckoning, the Azzurri were set to face the favorites: Brazil. On paper, it didn’t look like a balanced encounter, based on each team’s performance at this World Cup and each team’s quality. But there was always that surprise element that could emerge out of nowhere. Brazil, unquestionably, were the more consistent side, but Italy still had plenty of game-changers who could decide the fate of the tournament.
In the end, there was a surprise element after all. Except it wasn’t a victory to the underdog, but a penalty shootout to decide the Final for the first time ever.
By the time it was Baggio’s turn to pick up the ball and take his spot kick, Brazil were already 3-2 up. Baggio was carrying the hopes of every Italian on his shoulder. This determined everything, this was for all the marbles. Every single word of commentary from that moment is still entrenched in my head after 25 years.
Roberto Baggio, who has to score. The man who took Italy to the World Cup final now must save them, and he……
As they say, the rest is history.
In the most paradoxical way, Italy’s fate of winning the World Cup didn’t get the divine intervention it needed. Baggio struck his penalty to the heavens rather to the goalpost.
I had never rooted for Italy up until a few days prior, but the sight of Baggio looking down into the ground after his failed penalty…it shattered my heart. My teardrops started to flow down as if the monsoon season had just arrived.
But even in the moment of sadness, I couldn’t help but think about the joy that Baggio gave me during this tournament. After one football god, my idol, was sent home, it made me despondent, hurt, and cynical. But within a few days, Baggio made me believe in magic again. To this day, USA ’94 remains one of my favorite World Cups ever.
In the years to come, Baggio’s career took him to AC Milan, Bologna, and Internazionale, before he retired at Brescia. For Italy, he only played sporadically due to his falling-out with then manager Arrigo Sacchi, which ultimately lead to his absence at EURO 1996.
He made a return to the national team under Cesare Maldini, and was selected for the 1998 World Cup in France. Italy were down 2-1 against Chile in the first group stage match, but had a penalty awarded in the 84th minute. Many others would have rejected penalty duty and passed it on to someone else, but not Baggio. He wanted redemption. He wanted liberation.
I was a nervous wreck: memories from four years ago still clouded in my head, and there was nothing I wanted more than Baggio to redeem himself. Baggio equalized, and eventually, Italy went through.
Italy’s tournament ended in the quarterfinals in a penalty shoot-out to France. Baggio and Zinedine Zidane made the first spot-kicks, then Bixente Lizarazu and Demetrio Albertini both missed. Both countries converted over the next two rounds, but when Luigi Di Biagio’s penalty slammed off the top crossbar, Baggio’s last chance of winning anything with the Azzurri was killed.
Baggio failed to crack into then manager Giovanni Trapattoni’s younger Azzurri sides, but in 2004, with the legendary forward set to retire, Trappatoni gave him his send-off by calling him up for a friendly against Spain. He wore the captain’s armband and wore his iconic #10 shirt, and when he exited the pitch in the 85th minute, he was thanked by a standing ovation at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.
Thank you Roberto, for blessing us with your magic.
By: Sivan John
Photo: Rick Stewart/Allsport