Roberto Baggio looked back over his career, through injury nightmares, the Fiorentina riots, Bologna, Brescia and why 2002 hurt even more than the 1994 World Cup.
The Divine Ponytail sat down on stage during the Festival dello Sport in Trento this afternoon to discuss his career.
“When I was a kid, we used to play with a tennis ball and smash so many windows… What today’s kids are missing now is the joy of playing football anywhere, even in the street.
“The most important thing in the career of a football player is humility, because that way you are not afraid of defeats, because you already know how to get back on your feet in life.
“I always experienced the affection of the fans by putting myself in their shoes. I know what it means to meet your idol one day, so I realise how important it is to dedicate some time to those supporters. I played my football in a desire to pass on joy to others.
“It was a dream for me just to wear the Vicenza shirt. I arrived at Fiorentina after a serious injury, so I didn’t play for two years and in the third I still wasn’t fully recovered. The injuries were a nightmare. The day after the first operation on my knee, I asked my Mother to kill me.
“When I did play well, I felt that I was in debt to those fans who waited for me. A profound bond was created with the Fiorentina fans and I tried so hard to remain with the Viola, but everything had been decided for me. I just wish they’d been clearer.”
There were riots in the streets of Florence after news emerged Baggio had been sold to bitter rivals Juventus in 1990.
“There were three days of chaos, the fans did not accept the situation and I felt guilty at being the cause of all this, even if I was the last to blame. I always said the truth, but what really happened only emerged after 20 years.”
Baggio went on to win the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards in 1993.
“I didn’t expect them, as I was thinking about the team and Juve really struggled to be in Serie A at the same time as the Grande Milan side.
“I went on to win the Scudetto at Milan in 1995-96 and play with many great champions. Bologna was an important step, because at Milan I risked not playing consistently and missing out on the 1998 World Cup, so decided to move on. I discovered a fantastic city in Bologna and I played, which made me happy.
“I was very pleased to wear the Inter jersey, as they had already tried to sign me the previous January, but I could not betray Bologna by leaving mid-season.
“With Brescia, I was looking for a club closer to home after three months of training by myself. I had hoped Vicenza would call, but they didn’t seem to work that out… One night, the phone rang and Carlo Mazzone wanted to talk to me about Brescia. That’s where the fairy-tale was born. Mazzone had no interest in conflict, he’s a wise man.”
Baggio had a very strong rapport with Mazzone, but his career was mostly overshadowed by tension with various Coaches.
“People loved me and when I didn’t play, they would protest, so that obviously made the situation difficult for managers. I had a good rapport with Arrigo Sacchi too, before things went wrong.”
They still managed to reach the 1994 World Cup Final, even with open irritation between player and Italy boss Sacchi, until missing a penalty in the shoot-out.
“I have never fired a penalty over the bar in my life, only that one time. It wasn’t the last spot-kick, but it was the coup de grace. Many times before going to sleep, that moment still appears in my mind.
“As a child, I dreamed of playing a World Cup Final between Italy and Brazil. The only thing I didn’t dream was that it could end with me missing a penalty.
“I would’ve given anything to make up for the 1994 tournament. In 2002, I had hope, but was left at home. Perhaps I might seem arrogant, but I believe that I deserved to be called up for that World Cup, even if some had doubts on my fitness.
“I deserved to be there and football owed it to me. Perhaps that too is why I stepped away from the sport,” confessed Baggio, choking back tears.