Roberto Baggio

This article first appeared in Issue 20 of The Football Pink fanzine

In 1994, he was the best player in the world, Italy’s talisman. But in the heat of Pasadena, Roberto Baggio’s legacy as one of the modern greats would be forever tainted by one moment of misfortune. Are we wrong to remember him this way? PAUL GRECH remembers the Divine Ponytail.

Shirt untucked.  Hands on hips. Head bowed.  The lasting image was that of a defeated man.

For the previous forty days, Italy’s hopes in the World Cup of 1994 had rested on his shoulders.  And, time after time, he had delivered.  Thanks to him they had made it all the way to the final; a result that few had predicted before the tournament kicked off and that had looked unlikely at various points during the competition.

And yet here he was, a symbol of their ultimate failure. 

In one of the drabbest finals in the competition’s history, where neither team seemed willing to take any form of risk, the game between Italy and Brazil had dragged over the course of 120 minutes before being settled on penalty kicks.  It all looked set up for the most Italian of successes before their star player had stepped up and skied his finish.

The title was Brazil’s.

All that was left was for him to reflect on what had just happened.

Shirt untucked.  Hands on hips. Head bowed.  Roberto Baggio was a defeated man.

Although he had just led Fiorentina to a UEFA Cup final (lost against Juventus), Baggio’s true rise to international prominence had come during the previous World Cup where they had been hosts.  Italy had started that tournament as favourites, but Baggio was not expected to feature too heavily.  And yet he had become a star after desperation led manager Azeglio Vicini to throw both him and another unlikely striker, Toto Schillaci, on and the two had driven Italy all the way to the semi-final.

Italia ‘90 was a brutal World Cup where defensive tactics reigned supreme.  Even Brazil adopted a cautious approach (although this tactic fit them so badly that they were almost immediately eliminated) so there was little to get people excited.

Given this mood, Italy were never going to be too cavalier.  After all, Vicini was a disciple of Enzo Bearzot, the man who had led Italy to a World Cup win in 1982 thanks to the ability of their rear guard to snuff out threats.

Vicini thought the same and yet playing at home placed an additional level of pressure on them.    Winning was crucial but there had to be a level of entertainment along the way.  Baggio helped deliver the former but, above all, he helped satisfy the demand for the latter.  He could weave his way past defenders and leave them floundering in his wake.

Perhaps his finest moment came in the second round against Czechoslovakia.  Given the ball near the touchline on the halfway line, he quickly exchanged it with Giuseppe Giannini, before running through the whole Czechoslovakian defence and hitting it past the goalkeeper.  It is arguably one of the finest goals in World Cup history; not simply because of aesthetics, but also as the defenders simply couldn’t get close to him to put in a meaningful tackle. 

It was beautiful to behold.

Ultimately, however, it wasn’t to be for Italy.  They made it all the way to the semi-finals but could not overcome a dogged Argentina side who won on penalties.  For Baggio there would only be the meagre consolation of scoring the opener in the third/fourth play-off against England.

Over the following four years, Baggio’s reputation continued to grow.  He had moved to Juventus just before the World Cup and despite the move coinciding with a fallow period for the Turin side, he still shone. 

He finished as the league’s second highest scorer in his first season, despite the chaos caused by the appointment of Gigi Maifredi as coach that ultimately resulted in Juventus failing to qualify for European competition.

It was during this same period that the first doubts about Baggio started to emerge.  Specifically, there were constant questions regarding his best position.  Giovanni Trapattoni had taken over as manager in his second season at Juventus and pushed Baggio further forward, something that the player was not too enamoured with.  A school of thought began to emerge that, for all his talent, Baggio was a luxury who was hard to fit into the tactical rigidity of Italian football.  Sure, he scored and created play, but his presence could not lift Juventus out of the mediocrity that they had slid to.

Still, Trapattoni eventually made Baggio his captain, and while in the league Juventus still failed to deliver, the move was rewarded with a win in the UEFA Cup.  At the time the final was still played over two legs and Baggio scored twice as well as set up another in a 6-1 aggregate win over Borussia Dortmund. 

It was a masterclass.

So, when the 1994 World Cup came along there was a lot of expectation hanging round the neck of Baggio.  Arrigo Sacchi had taken over from Vicini and the belief was that he was going to seamlessly transplant the system that had been so successful at AC Milan into the national side.  With Italy, however, he was missing the trio of Dutchmen – Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten – who had been fundamental in Milan’s success.  Replacing them proved tough.

Still, Sacchi wasn’t about to trash his principles.  The Italian team was going to play how he wanted it; a rigid 4-4-2 with players that pressed hard and were always looking for quick breaks.  Results were to be achieved his way or not at all.

Initially, the latter looked more likely. Sacchi’s instructions weren’t getting through to the players and the oppressive heat in which most games were played made it even more difficult for them to stick to his rigid tactical diktat. The result was an abysmal performance and surprising 1-0 defeat against Ireland followed by a 1-0 win over Norway that had seen the Italians reduced to ten men.  A 1-1 draw against Mexico in the final group game allowed them to progress as one of the best third placed sides. Hardly a resounding success.

Baggio had been quiet for most of those games, lost in the fog of the Italians’ mediocrity.  His ponytail was the only element of flamboyance that he managed to showcase in those opening games.  The sole moment of note was actually a negative one, when Sacchi chose to sacrifice Baggio as his team went down to ten men against Norway.

And then came Nigeria.

The Super Eagles team of 1994 is considered as the finest ever African teams to play in the World Cup – and with good reason.  With the likes of Stephen Keshi, Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Finidi George, Daniel Amokachi and Rashid Yekini available to him, the Dutch coach Clemens Westerhof had even claimed that the only team which worried him was Brazil.

In the group stages they had romped to easy wins against Bulgaria and Greece, albeit these two results sandwiched a 2-1 defeat against Argentina.  Even so, they went into the second round confident that they could progress even further.

They played that way too, at least initially with Emanuel Amunike giving them the lead midway through the first half.  From then on, however, Sacchi’s pressing began to kick in and slowly the Nigerians were starved of the time on the ball they needed to dominate. It became a slog, but they seemed on the verge of surviving it until Baggio stepped up.

With two minutes left to play, Roberto Mussi drove into the penalty area from the right side before picking the perfect pass to Baggio who, afforded a little freedom, picked his spot and slotted beyond the outstretched arms of Nigerian goalkeeper, Peter Rufai.  In extra time, the Italians continued to press despite the unfair dismissal of Gianfranco Zola.  They got their reward when a penalty was awarded in their favour and Baggio slotted it to perfection.  Italy were through.

More significantly, they were gaining in confidence.  In 1982 Italy had won the World Cup despite a rather abysmal start.  Could this be a repeat?

Those thoughts were soon to be amplified further.

Against Spain in the quarter finals, Sacchi made it clear that he was betting everything on Roberto Baggio. Striker Beppe Signori was dropped to the bench in favour of an additional midfielder so, even though Sacchi fielded a side that was at least nominally 4-4-2, it included one striker – Daniele Massaro – who Sacchi valued largely for his tactical discipline and willingness to press hard. 

This Italian team had only one creative outlet.

The Spanish realised this and proceeded to place two (and, on occasions, three) players to shadow Roberto Baggio wherever he went.  Yet this opened up space for the Italians, allowing them to press high and try to exploit whatever gaps emerged.  Which is what the side’s other Baggio – Dino – did in the twenty fifth minute when he received the ball just outside the Spanish penalty box and had all the time he wanted to hit the ball hard past the outstretched arms of Andoni Zubizarreta.

From then on it was all Spain.  Caminero scored the equaliser midway through the second half and Spain kept going close without managing to get that crucial second goal.  Like a boxer struggling to remain in the fight, the Italians were spending whatever energies they had purely to stay on their feet.  Not even the introduction of Signori and Nicola Berti could revive them.

And then, with three minutes to go, a flash. A lapse in concentration placed the ball at Signori’s feet who intelligently waited for the two Spanish defenders to close in on him before lofting the ball into Baggio’s path. The Codino Nazionale (National Ponytail) once more proved his divine skills by sidestepping Zubizarreta and, despite the tight angle, firing into the net. 

Italy had won it.  Roberto Baggio had won it.

As with most other sides, Bulgaria had realised during the competition that Baggio was Italy’s big danger and so they too opted to man mark him in the semi-final.  Everywhere the Italian went on the pitch, he was followed by Zlatko Yankov.

But not even that was enough to stifle him.

In truth, Sacchi’s men were carrying out his orders to perfection.  The midfielders were pressing high up the pitch leaving little time for the Bulgarian midfielders to dwell on the ball.  This in turn, kept the defence on the back foot and constantly under pressure.  So, by the time Baggio got the ball from a throw-in in the 21st minute, they were already retreating, providing him with that little bit of space that he needed to turn.  It was their downfall.  He skipped past two defenders and then, from just outside the penalty box, curled the ball past the grasping hands of Borislav Mihaylov and into the net.

Four minutes later, a lifted pass by Demetrio Albertini found Baggio’s run into the penalty box and he smashed it home. 2-0.

Before the half was over, Bulgaria obtained a foothold through a penalty but from then on, the Italians defended resolutely and kept the score at 2-1. They were in the final for the first time since 1982 but all was not well. 

Midway through the second half, Baggio had pulled up and, after trying to run the niggle off, he had been forced to leave the field. For the rest of the game he cut a disconsolate figure on the Italian bench and the tears at the final whistle hinted that perhaps it was all over for him.

A final between Italy and Brazil was not one that many had predicted but perhaps the one that featured the competition’s best players in Baggio and Romario. For Baggio was there, struggling against the pain of his injury but still there.  The oppressive heat, not only in which the final was played but also that to which the players had been subjected during the previous weeks, took its toll and with everyone afraid of making the mistake that might cost their team the World Cup, the result was a final almost completely devoid of any excitement.

The Italians in particular seemed completely lacking in energy and interested only in taking the game to penalties. Without a fully fit Baggio they simply could not function. 

Even so Baggio stayed on for the full ninety minutes and into extra time.  He was there in the list of players chosen to take a penalty but by the time his turn came, two other Italians (Baresi and Massaro) had missed.  He knew he had to score.

Instead he skied it over the bar.

It was a cruel moment that unfairly followed Baggio throughout his career.  During the World Cup, Juventus had brought in Marcello Lippi to replace Trapattoni and the new manager wanted to make the team less dependent on Baggio. This, along with the injuries that limited his appearances that season and the emergence of Alessandro del Piero, helped bring to a close his career at Juventus albeit with the satisfaction of winning the league.

Baggio moved to AC Milan where he won another title without ever fully convincing.  From there he had a season at Bologna, two at Inter and, finally, four at Brescia.  It was at this small provincial side that he rediscovered his best form.  Away from the huge expectations and the rigid tactical requirements of big clubs, he could fully express his genius and play with the liberty that his talent required.

It was whilst he was at Brescia that Italy rediscovered its love for Baggio. Wherever he went everyone was eager to see him play.  His trickery – and the goals that followed – earned the plaudits he deserved.

And yet, Baggio had become the last of a dying breed of players.  This was an era where athleticism was everything, where teams valued a player’s ability to dominate physically more than anything else. Baggio was a throwback to a different age, a luxury that the big teams could not afford.

The 1994 World Cup in America became the symbol of his career.  During those six weeks he had carried a good Italy side on his shoulders, bringing them within inches of winning the competition.  Yet they had lost.  When heat and exhaustion robbed the Azzurri’s finest players of the lucidity to perform, their reliance on him had proven to be their downfall.

For many, that was the lesson to take from Italy’s 1994 World Cup campaign; that players of flair might win you a few games, but you needed more than that to win big.  That is what the image of a downfallen Baggio, head bowed and hands on his hips, came to represent.

Until a Barcelona team built around another player of flair came along and changed perceptions once more.