“I told my mother, ‘If you love me, then kill me.'”
An allergy to painkillers meant that Roberto Baggio felt every one of the 220 internal stiches to re-attach the ligaments in his right knee – and it looked as though a football career that had barely started was already over.
Baggio was just 18 when he suffered his first serious knee injury. The year was 1985, and he’d recently agreed to join Fiorentina from his local club Vicenza in Serie B, but he was told he’d never play again.
It would be the first but certainly not last time he was written off.
After defying doctors to return to the game within 18 months, he suffered a relapse shortly into his Fiorentina career – the Viola had honoured the agreement to take him to Florence despite the terrible injury – and would undergo another operation.
In his first two seasons at the club he managed only five Serie A appearances.
Whilst critics continued (and would continue) to question the art of Baggio, the player perfected the Art of War.
When he appeared at his most vulnerable, he was usually at his most deadly. When he appeared subdued, we would often pluck a moment of brilliance to decide a game. When it looked as though the light had dimmed, it would return just as brightly as ever before.
If war was a means of attaining tranquillity or freedom for the converted Buddhist, so be it.
His knee continued to affect him throughout his career – Baggio would later admit he was not fully fit for more than three or four games a season – but in the two seasons leading up to Italia 90 he was sensational. With Italian fantasistis at a premium, his arrival provided fulfilment for millions.
Italy’s Catenaccio-inspired World Cup win in 1982 had strengthened a belief that playing with panache and verve was not strictly necessary, with perhaps the dashing forays of Bruno Conti providing the only fantasy in that team.
Foreigners like Platini, Maradona and Zico were providing it domestically, but Italy had not seen one of their own doing it since Gianni Rivera had retired.
The quality and variety of the goals Baggio scored must have been prominent in the thoughts of Azeglio Vicini when deciding to select him for his final World Cup squad.
Whether it was arriving in the box at just the right time, arching shots from distance via live or dead balls, or his speciality of dribbling past opponents whose responses to stop him ranged from rugby tackles to cynical fouls, Baggio’s repertoire was extensive.
He was selected with a caveat added by Vicini: “Baggio is a timebomb for the opposition. But that’s not necessarily to our advantage.”
Baggio made an indelible mark at that World Cup, scoring the goal of the tournament (a speciality dribble), but his role was very much as the go-to man from the bench. He was not yet the star.
By this point, Baggio had caused waves by agreeing to join Juventus. Fiorentina were heavily in debt following the upgrading of their stadium to World Cup standards in order to be able to host tournament games, and Juve pounced.
At the time, the Bianconeri were in the doldrums, with both Milan clubs, Napoli and even successful newcomers Sampdoria winning the available domestic and European honours ahead of them. Baggio was expected to take up the No.10 mantle relinquished by Michel Platini in the 1980s and lead Juve back to glory.
This was an altogether different mission for a player who would soon be sporting the ponytail which gave birth to his immortal nickname: Il Divin Codino – The Divine Ponytail. Once again a new Baggio was born.
At times, as the fulcrum of the side, Baggio’s brilliance almost confined his quality team-mates (Vialli, Paulo Sousa, Ravanelli, Moeller, et al) to mere supporting cast members. He displayed virtuosity at frequent intervals and often without the support of a conductor.
Looking at a compilation of his goals while at Juve, brilliant though they are, is not enough without considering the quality of Italian football at that point, and the teams and defences that Baggio had to negate.
That he was able to do so is testament to his genius, but despite winning the Ballon d’Or, European and World Player of the Year awards as an individual, Baggio was only able to help Juve win the UEFA Cup before the World Cup in America in 1994.
At this point, Baggio was also the fulcrum of the national side, beating off stiff competition from Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Mancini and Bepe Signori to be afforded pride of place in Arrigo Sacchi’s side.
Truth be told, it was more a marriage of convenience between the two, Sacchi recognising the brilliance of a player who though not suited to his usual pressing system was simply one he could not afford to do without.
After Italy had sneaked through to the last 16 on goal difference from a weak group, it would be when on the verge of elimination against Nigeria in the last 16 that the Divine Ponytail finally came to life, scoring a late equaliser and then a penalty in extra time to send Italy through.
And despite Italy being outplayed for much of the quarter-final against Spain it was that man again who won the game late on, taking on goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta one on one late on to send Italy through to the semi-finals.
Against surprise package Bulgaria, Baggio was on a higher plane for the first half hour of the game, scoring twice to help ensure Italy’s progress, but there was a sting in the tail as he picked up an injury that meant he made little impact in a turgid but absorbing World Cup final against Brazil and the other great player of the tournament, Romario.
The drama, of course, came in the penalty shootout as Baggio missed the spot kick which handed Brazil their first World Cup in 24 years.
The picture of Baggio, hands on hips, head bowed, became the defining image of him. The Icarus of Italian football whose greatness took him and Italy close to the sun but which ultimately burned one of the country’s greatest players.
Worse was to follow. Despite being at the zenith of his career, new Juve coach Lippi did not see Baggio as a linchpin of his new-look side, trusting instead in a young Alessandro Del Piero to team up with Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravenelli up front.
Injuries and the substitute bench would afflict a player who had just starred in the World Cup. Less than 20 league starts and eight goals was Baggio’s contribution to Juve’s first title win in a decade.
Juve’s progress to that point – and Baggio’s immense contribution – almost seemed forgotten as the club now wanted the player out. They had offered the World Player of the Year a new contract with a 50% pay cut to stay – as clear a message as any.
Baggio’s legion of admirers included AC Milan. Remarkably, Juve allowed Baggio to join their chief rivals.
The combination of joining his colleagues in the national team (Baresi, Maldini, Albertini, etc) along with the arrival of the explosive George Weah, whose pace and enterprise would surely give Baggio greater freedom between the lines, made it look like a match made in heaven.
However, despite winning Serie A in his first season – and taking it away from his old side in the process – Baggio’s net contribution fell below the standards he had set in all but his final season at Juve.
There were still the moments of virtuosity which were the hallmark of Baggio’s career, but they were more intermittent, something which the player himself seemed all too aware. Anger seemed to have prevailed over the previous state of zen he had inhabited during his peak at Juve.
Milan’s title success owed much more to the inspired moments of the summer signing from PSG rather than the one from Juve.
Baggio won two titles in two seasons with two different clubs, but his inability to own these two successes appeared to have marked his cards. He would never win another Scudetto.
That summer, the man who brought him to Milan, Fabio Capello, would depart for Real Madrid to be replaced by Oscar Washington Tabarez.
Baggio started the 1996-97 season in good form alongside Weah, but early elimination from the Champions League, a major dip in league form and a failure of the club’s summer signings to shine would lead to Tabarez being sacked. He was succeeded by Baggio’s former Italy boss, Sacchi.
“I feel like a Ferrari being driven by a traffic warden” was how Baggio described his limited involvement with the first team from that point onwards. It ended up being Milan’s worst season for years.
Capello returned to Milan after one season in Madrid but let Baggio leave on a free transfer. In just three years, his stock had fallen significantly, far greater than is perhaps fair.
The fluency of his play had not been in evidence as previously, but he had still won two league titles in three years and was hardly a bystander during these successes. But at 30 years of age, Il Divine Codino was written off again, for good this time.
Baggio moved to Bologna after being rejected by Parma boss Carlo Ancelotti, aiming to reclaim his place in the Italy side for the 1998 World Cup.
At the time, such an aim seemed fanciful. With Del Piero, Zola, Vieri, Inzaghi and an emerging Francesco Totti, who needed Baggio?
“Football has a very short memory,” Baggio said. “Of those currently playing, I’m still the one who has scored the most goals for Italy and I’ve hardly played for them in the last three years.”
The ponytail disappeared as he emerged for Bologna. Some sought symbolism in such an act as a demonstration of re-birth, but Baggio downplayed it: “There was no specific reason for doing it. I got tired and decided to cut it.”
Either way, the 1997-98 season proved to be perhaps Baggio’s finest. The extended solo goals and gallops may have receded, but this new incarnation of Baggio would prove to have greater efficiency and sting.
He still radiated calm in possession, and his ability to work in tight spaces remained undiminished. But with lesser sightings of the ball at Bologna, his use of it and decision making ensured few potato peelings when the Rossoblu did have possession.
Playing further forward then he had previously, Baggio formed a superb ‘little and large’ partnership with the giant Swede Kennet Anderson.
Feeding off his knock downs and hold up play, Baggio was now the one in the partnership that ventured beyond rather than being the link man to the centre-forward.
That season saw Baggio score his highest total ever in a single Serie A season, outstripping Gabriel Batistuta and Del Piero at their peaks. The ingenuity was also back in consistent evidence, with some sublime chips, free kicks and dribbling round goalkeepers all on show.
Many now clambered for Baggio’s return to the Azzurri, including a number of converted detractors. Cesare Maldini decided to include Baggio in Italy’s World Cup squad, and Baggio had done exactly what he had set out to do.
“I believe I transformed all the suffering into something positive,” Baggio said. The pathway was open for him to erase the painful memories of USA 94.
Italy were knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals, but there was indeed some redemption for Baggio.
Late on in Italy’s first game against Chile, they were awarded a penalty and an opportunity to rescue a point. It was Baggio’s first spot-kick for the Azzurri since the Rosebowl in Pasadena, and thankfully for all those watching – except for Chileans, of course – he scored it.
Baggio would never play at another major international tournament, but with that one penalty he did at least gain some solace.
Baggio would then spend two seasons at Inter where he provided flashes of rather than consistent genius before he found a home at Brescia, where he would see out his career over the next four years.
His performances were so good that there were calls for him to be included in Italy’s squad for Euro 2004, but his time had come. And after the endless cycles of repeated deaths and rebirths, Baggio only reached Nirvana once he retired.
“When I hung up my boots for the last time, it was like being liberated,” he told Corriere dello Sport.
— Superb Footy Pics (@SuperbFootyPics) April 2, 2017
Baggio had struggled to walk for days after a game, but to play for almost 20 years after being written off at 18 was no mean achievement.
For a player whose achievements including winning the Ballon d’Or in 1993 (a trophy he would auction off to raise money for Italian flood victims in 1994), there seems something almost perverse about the number of occasions he was written off by detractors.
But the irony is that a man who chose a religion which does not worship gods, he effectively became one to millions of fans around the world. He still is.
By Leon Wilde