Roberto Baggio is one of the greatest football players of all time, but we never saw him at full fitness and are fortunate we got to enjoy him at all.
Words: Greg Murray
It is perhaps one of football’s great injustices that Il Divin Codino is best known globally for his penalty miss in the Final of the 1994 World Cup against Brazil. For fans of Serie A, Baggio is recognised as the best of his generation, despite a career that was blighted by injury and clashes with his Coaches.
Born in Caldogno in 1967, the young Roby was scouted at the age of 13 by Vicenza, with whom he made his professional debut just two years later. As his influence with the side grew, Baggio played an instrumental role in his side’s promotion campaign, winning the award for Serie C’s best player. This form warranted the attention of Fiorentina, who paid £1.5m for his services.
Just two days after accepting the transfer, Baggio suffered a devastating ACL injury, which was to haunt him for the rest of his career. La Viola decided to place their faith in their new prospect’s recovery, during which the young Italian converted to Buddhism.
It was with Fiorentina that the forward’s career flourished, with his first goal unsurprisingly coming from a characteristically immaculate free-kick. During Baggio’s five-year spell in Florence, he became renowned for his composure on the ball, drawing comparisons to Diego Maradona, who he outscored in a number of seasons.
During this period, Roby earned his first Italy cap (which he marked with an assist), scored his first Azzurri goal (from a free-kick), and won the Bravo award for the best U-23 player in Europe.
The hype surrounding the player drew the attention of Juventus, who coughed up a world record fee to sign the forward. Despite receiving £8m, the transfer was not well received in Florence, with fans rioting in the streets, and the chairman reportedly taking refuge in his office.
Baggio made it very clear he wasn’t too happy about it either, refusing to take a penalty against his old club. The spot-kick was missed and Juve lost the game.
It didn’t take long however, for Baggio’s elegant playing style to win over the Bianconeri faithful, with his solo-goal for La Nazionale against Czechoslovakia certainly helping.
Coming into the 1994 World Cup on the back of a strong season, the competition seemed Baggio’s for the taking. After a slow-start in the group stages, the Ballon d’Or winner burst into life, scoring five on the route to the final. Having pulled his hamstring and played on pain-killers in the semi-final, Roby was risked in the Final against Brazil.
What followed was the self-confessed worst moment of the player’s career, when he missed in the penalty shoot-out, ending their World Cup hopes. Of course, having already missed two, Italy were on the verge of losing anyway, but the final kick high over the bar always sticks in the memory.
The following season was one characterised by further injuries for Baggio, with Alessandro Del Piero thriving in his absence. After a fall-out with Coach Marcello Lippi, Il Divin Codino moved to Milan, despite protests from Juventus fans.
Roby had mixed success with the Rossoneri, helping them to win the Scudetto and being voted fans’ player of the year, but arguing with Fabio Capello. Despite the club changing Coach, Baggio failed to lock down a starting role in his second season with the club, with athleticism prioritised over creativity. Following the return of Capello, he was transferred to Bologna.
Having suffered through an indifferent three seasons, Baggio enjoyed his highest-scoring season in Bologna, notching 22 goals. The famous ponytail was cut off to signify the player’s rebirth and, having been signed to help avoid relegation, Roby fired Carlo Mazzone’s underdogs to an eighth-place finish.
Once again, the Italian saw an exceptional season lead to a big move, this time to Inter, and once again, he was unable to replicate his form. Numerous reasons were cited, with frequent coaching changes, his physical fitness and being played out of position the major ones.
His problems with Lippi were well documented, and Baggio decided after two years not to renew his contract with Inter. Instead, he moved at the age of 33 to the newly promoted Brescia for a reunion with Mazzone.
In his following four years with the club, Baggio enjoyed a renaissance, bagging 46 goals to become the club’s leading goal scorer, and treating fans to their best ever Serie A run.
Retiring in 2004, it has been suggested that Baggio was a victim of the era in which he lived. As player with transcendent creativity, but physically fragile, he struggled to fit into his Coaches’ plans during a time when tactics and hard work were everything.
Had he been born in the current era, where players are far more protected, he would perhaps have achieved even more. It’s heart-breaking to think what we missed out on, but we’re also grateful to have experienced the Divine Ponytail at all.