Roberto Baggio is considered by many football experts and fans to be one of the greatest players Italy has produced, if not the greatest. In a senior career spanning 22 seasons, the Caldogno native scored 291 goals in 643 competitive matches at club level and found the back of the net 27 times in 56 games for his country before retiring in 2004.
Internet streaming service Netflix released a biographical film about Baggio in May 2021 called ‘Baggio: Il Divin Codino’ (‘Baggio: The Divine Ponytail’ in English) but the movie does not do the Italian great justice or persuade people of his greatness. Although Andrea Arcangeli cannot be faulted for his portrayal of the former Italian international, the directing from Letizia Lamartine as well as the writing from Ludovica Rampoldi and Stefano Sardo were disappointing to say the least.
‘Baggio: Il Divin Codino’ starts with a montage of a young Baggio practicing a penalty kick at home as a boy, with the footage then altering between that childhood moment and his run-up for the fateful penalty kick in Italy’s 1994 World Cup defeat to Brazil in the penalty shoot-out in the final. Before the ball is kicked, the film then switches to 1984, when he is at Vicenza and he is interviewed by the local press.
Immediately after that concludes, the movie goes to 1985, when he tells his family that he has signed for Fiorentina – much to the disapproval of his father Florindo – and he then injures his knee playing for Vicenza against Rimini, who were coached by his future Azzurri coach Arrigo Sacchi.
After his knee surgery and arrival at the Florentine club, ‘Baggio: Il Divin Codino’ moves into 1988, when he is struggling to establish himself with the Viola and converts to Buddhism. His form improves and he discovers that he has been selected for the Italy squad for the first time before the movie jumps six years ahead to the 1994 World Cup.
There is adequate film time dedicated to the tournament, but then the movie moves forward another six years to the year 2000, just after he has left Inter and he tells his manager that he wants to play at the 2002 World Cup for Italy. After recovering from another injury and rediscovering his form at Brescia, Baggio becomes enraged after Azzurri coach Giovanni Trapattoni has not included him in the final squad.
The film concludes with his father telling him that he was proud of him and he is stopped by a number of adoring fans at a petrol station, followed by a montage of actual Baggio footage. At one hour and 32 minutes, ‘Baggio: Il Divin Codino’ has its brief highlights, but it also has so many voids. Considering the career the Italian forward had, a significantly longer film duration or splitting it into a two-part series in order to include many key moments of his career.
Writers Rampoldi and Sardo should not have made the big leaps in years for the storyline and Lamartine should have taken the film in a different angle instead of portraying Baggio’s relationship with his father as being as strained as it is here. One of the concepts in the movie is that Florindo told Roberto a story of how Italy lost the 1970 World Cup Final to Brazil and that Roby promised his father that he would win the final for the Azzurri against the Seleção one day. Eventually, he learns that this was a lie because he was sleeping when the final was played and his father told him he did it to motivate him.
The penalty kick montage is an interesting concept as it emphasizes on the most infamous moment of his career and showcases a part of his youth. Another idea that could have been included is how he became enamored as a boy. In a tribute to former Vicenza and Italy striker Paolo Rossi, who passed away in December 2020, Baggio wrote in an article for La Gazzetta dello Sport in which his father – who idolized Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx as mentioned in the film – and they would ride bicycles from Caldogno to Vicenza to watch “Pablito” play.
“The Divine Ponytail” also wrote that he wanted to become a hero like Rossi did at the 1982 World Cup when he scored a hat-trick against Brazil in the second phase but he was not able to do the same 12 years later. Rampoldi and Sardo could have focused on the irony and the failure to achieve that particular goal. Instead of focusing on a fabricated story, the writers might have realized that the truth could have been better incorporated into the film.
Although the scenes in Florence focus on Baggio’s conversion to Buddhism, the football aspects could have also made a great impact in ‘Baggio: Il Divin Codino’. After two seasons of trying to recover from knee injuries, the forward scored his first-ever goal for Fiorentina near the end of the 1986/87 Serie A season in a 1-1 draw against Napoli.
The Florentines mathematically sealed survival while the Neapolitans with the legendary Diego Maradona sealed their first-ever Italian league title. Despite both players being at different stages of their respective careers, Lamartine as a director should have used a moment like that to portray that moment as a clash of titans. Baggio became a hero in Florence and took Fiorentina to the 1990 UEFA Cup Final, which they lost to Juventus. Viola president Ranieri Pontello sold the then 23-year-old to the Bianconeri for 25 billion lire (approximately €12 million in today’s money), prompting riots around the Tuscan capital.
There was already bitter hatred between the two clubs after the Gigliati lost the 1981/82 Serie A title to La Vecchia Signora in seemingly controversial circumstances and losing a player like Baggio to a rival would have put more fuel on the fire. Shortly after, Italy became swept in “Baggiomania” after he scored an incredible solo goal against Czechoslovakia in the group stage at the World Cup. Although the Azzurri did not win the tournament on home soil, his goal remains iconic up to this day.
This was one of the reasons the jump from 1988 to 1994 was excessive. 1990 was one of the most important years in Baggio’s career but Rampoldi and Sardo did not make a footnote of it. Events from this particular year contributed to the Italian’s iconic status in the sport and his time Florence was vital in his transformation from an adolescent trying to find his way in the world to a mature and wiser man.
He spent five seasons at Juventus and this period was glaringly omitted from the movie. During this time, he captained the Bianconeri to the 1993 UEFA Cup, won the Balon d’Or in the same year, and he won the Serie A title in 1994/95. It was during this time that he refused to take a penalty in a 1-0 defeat away to Fiorentina during the 1990/91 Serie A season – Luigi De Agostini took the kick instead and had it saved – and the Viola fans threw their scarves at him as a mark of admiration for their former hero.
In his final season, he was coached by Marcello Lippi, another coach that he had issues with. Lippi preferred the younger Alessandro Del Piero and Baggio was then sold to AC Milan. Despite ample time being focused on the 1994 World Cup, the match sequences look amateurish and tedious. Lamartine does a poor job in trying to recapture the adrenaline, drama, and passion involved in those moments. Those scenes did not give the impression that the audience were getting a close-up of Baggio on the pitch during those matches.
Compare that to a film like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, especially when Queen had to perform at the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium in 1985. It was like viewers were experiencing how the band members came onto the stage and then interacted with the crowd. In ‘Baggio: Il Divin Codino’, the crowd atmosphere felt too unnatural and computer-generated.
As for viewers who did not watch the tournament live or have not read about it prior to watching the film, they would not be able to get a sense of how Italy got to the final or the struggles they had to endure. Perhaps some graphics or better captions with details of the Azzurri’s schedule would have provided great information and insight.
Another issue with the screenplay and direction of “Baggio: Il Divin Codino” is the tension between Sacchi and Baggio with the Italian national team. This perhaps should have been the angle Lamartine should have focused on in the film. Tension between coaches was a common theme in Baggio’s career and this could and should have added more drama to the film in a similar way the animosity between Managers Don Revie and Brian Clough was a key factor in the film “The Damned United”.
The concept of Baggio the hero and Sacchi the villain was not emphasized enough and it probably would have happened if another company produced the film. Mediaset, which is owned by former AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi, produced the movie and it surely would not have approved of a Rossoneri legend like Sacchi being poorly portrayed.
Baggio only played twice more for Italy under Sacchi, and despite winning the 1995/96 Serie A title with AC Milan, he was not included in the Azzurri squad for the 1996 European Championship. After carrying the Italians to the World Cup Final two years earlier, la Nazionale was eliminated from the first round of Euro ’96 and Gianfranco Zola had a decisive penalty saved in their final group game against Germany.
Karma is a fundamental part of Buddhism but this is only briefly discussed in the early scenes of “Baggio: Il Divin Codino”. Instead, this too should have become a fundamental part of the film. Italy being eliminated from Euro ’96 was like karma for Sacchi for not taking Baggio to the tournament. The duo would work again at AC Milan in the 1996/97 season but the coach was not able to replicate the success of his first spell in which he won a Serie A title and two European Cups. The Rossoneri finished 11th in the league and the two of them left the club at the end of the campaign.
With Sacchi no longer coaching Italy, Baggio had a chance to return the Azzurri squad for the 1998 World Cup and he did so after scoring a career-high 22 goals in Bologna throughout the 1997/98 season despite an uneasy relationship with Felsinei tactician Renzo Ulivieri. Italy coach Cesare Maldini selected “The Divine Ponytail” for the tournament and the forward scored twice, taking his overall tally to nine World Cup goals. Along with his teammate at France ’98 Christian Vieri and childhood hero Paolo Rossi, no other Italians have scored more goals in the competition.
One of those goals was a penalty in the opening game against Chile. The Azzurri were 2-1 down and Baggio redeemed himself by scoring the equalizer from the penalty spot. It’s moments like this that made the jump from 1994 to 2000 outrageous. He atoned for that miss in the 1994 final and displayed the courage to take another penalty.
This too would have enhanced his character. He could have been ridiculed if he missed again and become a greater pariah but he instead produced another moment that added to his iconic status. Although Italy lost on penalties to France in the quarter-finals and Baggio missed a chance to score a golden goal before the shoot-out, he still made history.
Baggio played for Inter from 1998 until 2000 and he played under Lippi in his second season there. The work relationship was tense again but Baggio scored twice in a UEFA Champions League play-off against Parma. This was not enough for the Nerazzurri as he was allowed to leave on a free transfer but their start to the 2001/01 campaign was atrocious without him. Swedish club Helsingborg eliminated them in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League and Reggina defeated them 2-1 in the opening round of the Serie A campaign.
Lippi resigned after the poor start to the season so this moment could have also been portrayed as a moment of karma in the film. Baggio was shown the door despite what he did on the pitch but things got worse for the Italian giants without him. Although the scenes of Baggio at Brescia focus on his relationship with Rondinelle coach Carlo Mazzone and how he revives his playing career, this part of the movie could have been shaped differently.
Despite scoring 11 times in 12 Serie A matches in the 2001/02 Serie A season, Giovanni Trapattoni did not take Baggio to the World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. Despite the controversial refereeing in the 2-1 defeat to South Korea in the Round of 16 of the tournament, this could have been portrayed as karma for not selecting “The Divine Ponytail” for the competition. The ending of ‘Baggio: Il Divin Codino’ could have been different too if they did not focus on his relationship on his father and they could have chosen a different place than a random petrol station.
A short piece of footage is shown before the credits roll of his final game as a footballer, when Brescia lost 4-2 to AC Milan in the last round of the 2003/04 Serie A season. This could have been the real focus of the film ending instead. He was taken off with five minutes remaining, hugged by former Italy teammate Paolo Maldini, and given a standing ovation.
AC Milan had already sealed the scudetto and it was a chance for the Rossoneri fans to celebrate a league title. At the same time, they paid tribute to a star saying farewell to the game. Despite the success of their team, they still showed admiration for a football legend, and once again, the writers missed an opportunity to properly highlight another part of his career.
Unfortunately for English-speaking fans, there are very few documentaries about Baggio in English and the best material available is in Italian. Lamartine, Rampoldi, and Sardo squandered a glorious opportunity to introduce Baggio to a new generation of football fans and the movie did not add anything new for anyone who watched him play.
One hour and 32 minutes was too short of a time frame to compile the best moments of Baggio’s career as well as provide some insight into his off-field life and what was present as an end product was uninspiring. Roberto Baggio deserved a better homage than ‘Baggio: Il Divin Codino’.
By: Vito Doria
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Michael Steele – EMPICS / PA Images