In celebration of Roberto Baggio: the divine ponytail

In celebration of Roberto Baggio: the divine ponytail

“Only those who have the courage to take a penalty miss them. I failed that time. Period.” These are the words of a man who has been forced to defend his reputation on the back of one kick of the ball. Numerous players have had their careers tarnished by just a single act – a Zidane Google search ranks ‘Zidane head-butt’ above ‘Zidane skills’.

Roberto Baggio, a European and World Footballer of the Year with multiple Serie A and European medals to his name, will be remembered by most people for two things: that miss, and his haircut. This is not only a disservice to his illustrious career, but glosses over one of football’s most intriguing stories.


I. The boy who incited a riot


There is no love lost between Juventus and Fiorentina. It’s a rivalry borne out of bitterness, as accusations of thievery, cheating and spite have been thrown back and forth over recent decades. None of this was aided by the 1990 sale of Roberto Baggio from Fiorentina to the Turin giants.

Juventus had been close to securing the precocious talent five years earlier, only to be beaten to the punch by the Fiorentini. Despite being only 18 and playing in Serie C-1, the transfer was seen as a huge coup, with the young Baggio becoming hot property already.

His rise was nothing short of meteoric. Born in the small town of Caldogno, he started turning heads at an early age, played for his local club at nine-years-old and was being scouted by several Italian clubs by 11. An incredible scoring record of 45 goals in 26 games, including six goals in one game, finally persuaded Vicenza to snap him up for the whopping sum of £300. Baggio continued his rich vein of form in the Vicenza youth set-up, and was quickly promoted to the senior squad.

It soon became clear that Robi was destined for even bigger things. In the 1984-85 season, he finally broke out in style, having only appeared a handful of times in the previous two seasons. That year he scored 12 goals and played an instrumental part in Vicenza’s promotion to Serie B. Juventus and Fiorentina fought for the signature of this lower-league gem, but it was the team from Florence who won the race, paying around £1.5 million for the now 18-year-old. Diego Maradona had been a world record transfer only a year before at £5 million.

One can only speculate to what heights his career might have risen had he avoided what came next. On May 5, 1985, only two days after having signed the deal with Fiorentina, Baggio suffered a career-threatening ACL injury. Even though he eventually made a miraculous recovery, the injury would stay with him throughout his career. His love for the game, however, kept him going until 37. He later admitted that if he had played only when he was fully fit and without pain, he would have played football maybe two or three times a year.

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tumblr_lwhoshMOOa1qfxktpo1_1280In action for La Viola

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While recovering from his injury, young Baggio would have been forgiven to give up hope on several occasions, but chose to persist due, mainly, to his undying desire to continue playing football. Periods of intense pain, due to his allergy to powerful anaesthetics, coupled with a crisis of a spiritual nature, leading to him converting to Buddhism, both defined this difficult moment in his life. It would also continue to define both his playing style and personal life for the rest of his career.

Baggio’s bond with Fiorentina was cemented during those early years at the club, when he played little to no football but was fully supported by the club and fans. In choosing to honour the deal with Baggio, with the very real possibility of never seeing any return on their investment, Fiorentina took a massive risk on placing this amount of trust on a teenager, but would soon be rewarded.

He only scored his first goal in May 1987; a delicious free-kick against Maradona’s Napoli that was vital in Fiorentina’s survival that season. It was to be the true beginning of Baggio’s career in Serie A. During the next three seasons, Roberto Baggio vowed his fans around the world with his skills and spectacular goals, and was key in Fiorentina climbing the ranks of Serie A.

Unfortunately for a player of his quality and class, this period at Fiorentina would prove to be one of few respites in a long career filled with injuries and opposition. The 1990-91 season was another such period of transition and challenges. La Viola endured a difficult season on the domestic front, finishing a disappointing 13th, despite an impressive tally of 17 goals for Baggio. Abroad, however, they had managed to reach their first and only UEFA Cup final – in which they incidentally faced Juventus.

If Fiorentina fans had not suffered enough with their side’s defeat to their arch enemies in that final, there came a final blow to their collective egos when their star player was sold off to the Turin giants. Despite the fact that it was an economically-forced world-transfer record, the Viola faithful were so incensed that they started a riot on the streets of Florence – the chairman became a prisoner in the stadium as he genuinely feared for his safety after pushing through the deal.

The blame was not solely laid at the door of the chairman, with some fans branding Baggio as a villain and a traitor. He was then attacked by Juve fans for apparently refusing to wear the club’s scarf during his presentation. A difficult season for Juventus, wherein they finished seventh, did nothing to warm the fans to Baggio, but it was one particular match on April 6, 1991, which had many Bianconeri ultras fuming.

Juventus and Fiorentina had already met in December in the league, and while that match went off relatively peacefully, the return match was anything but. Baggio started the match against a backdrop of a stunning Fiorentina choreography portraying the city’s skyline – perhaps showing him what he’s missing – before enduring a difficult game surrounded by purple-tinted jeers. A key moment in the game came when Baggio earned his side a penalty, but then refused to take it. The penalty was missed by De Agostini, and Juventus’s eventual 1-0 loss made that decision even harder to swallow for the fans. Things went from bad to worse when he picked up a Fiorentina scarf thrown at him immediately after his substitution, and hundreds of fans showed up to protest his actions at Juve’s training ground a couple of days later.


II. Too tired for the World Cup


By this point Baggio’s form had alerted the nation to his talent, and as such he could not be ignored for the Azzurri’s 1990 World Cup squad. Having already debuted, and scored, for La Nazionale, and given his form for Fiorentina, some would have considered Baggio as a no-brainer for a starting position in the line-up. Instead, he sat out the first two matches of the tournament.

Finally given the chance in the third game against Czechoslovakia, the stage was set for Robi to make his mark. Starting alongside his new Juve teammate, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci, Baggio helped secure an impressive 2-0 result. More memorable, however, was his goal in that game, which has gone down as one of the finest in World Cup history. Starting the move at the halfway line, Baggio plays a one-two before dancing past the Czech defenders and sending the ball beautifully over the keeper. With the ball glued to his foot, he makes it look so simple.

Many would have been forgiven for thinking that this would cement his place in the Italian side, but much like his club career, Baggio’s relationship with the national team was one of the love-hate variety. Playing an important role in Italy’s two subsequent knockout victories over Uruguay and Ireland, Azeglio Vicini decided that Baggio would be rested for the semi-final against Argentina.

“Vicini said to me that I looked tired, but I was only 23. I’d have given anything to start that match.” His disappointment was clear for all to see, and the fans were equally surprised. Although Italy took the lead, the Argentine’s equalised and would eventually win on penalties. Baggio came on, and scored on his penalty, but to no avail. Italy were out. He would go on to score a goal, and win a penalty, in the bronze win over England, but many were left to wonder ‘what if?’

The next years of Baggio’s career would arguably be his best. Finally settling down in Turin, he would win over all doubters with his electric playing style, as he went from strength to strength in the black and white jersey. Playing behind the main strikers, as a “more of a No.9 ½” in the words of Michel Platini, he would arguably reach the pinnacle of his career, as he guided a young Juventus team to their first Serie A title after an uncharacteristically long title drought for the Bianconeri.

He would also win the Coppa Italia that same year, but it was their UEFA Cup victory in 1993 that would be his greatest achievement. Scoring five of his six goals in the tournament in the semi-final and final of the competition, Baggio made a forceful impact, which heavily contributed to him winning World Player of the Year that same year. The world seemed to be finally recognising, and rewarding, Baggio’s undeniable talents.


III. Breaking the crossbar


The world’s eyes were on that run-up. Attempting to hit the ball with enough force to split the crossbar in two, the shot went wide of the goal. The embarrassment still endures today, and experts will probably never stop referring to it as one of the World Cup’s most embarrassing moments. Diana Ross’s penalty miss should have been the lowlight of the 1994 World Cup, but Roberto Baggio’s misfortunes would not be outdone.

That summer should have been Baggio’s time to shine, and in many ways it was. As Graham Caygill summed up, the five goals that he scored “does not do his role in Italy’s run to the final justice”. Hristo Stoichkov has often been lauded as the most impressive player at the ’94 World Cup, with his role in Bulgaria’s run to the semi-finals, but it was Baggio who appropriately prevailed when the two met in the competition’s penultimate game. Robi was everywhere for his side in every game, as he dragged Italy through round after round, with the rest seemingly hanging onto his majestic ponytail. Il Divin Codino, or The Divine Ponytail, had come through again for his country on the big stage.

The Azzurri had endured a stuttering start to the tournament, and only qualified after scoring one more goal than a conservative Norwegian side. The thoroughly awkward Group E made World Cup history, with all teams finishing on four points, and Italy qualifying as the fourth best third place team. Complicated stuff, but it set up the inevitable Italian revival. There were further stutters, however, but Baggio’s gumption and three late goals ensured the Italians would stumble past Nigeria and perennial bridesmaids Spain.

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Read  |  Baggio vs Lippi: the anatomy of a feud

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Franco Baresi’s penalty miss in the final is rarely remembered. If you search for ‘Baresi penalty’, the first result reads: ‘Franco Baresi heroics – World Cup final 1994’. I would not dream of dragging his reputation down, as his performance in the gruelling Pasadena heat was nothing short of brilliant. The point, rather, is that Baggio was one of three players to miss their penalty for the Italian side, but just as Alexis Sánchez’s penalty celebration will be the image of Chile’s historic 2015 Copa América victory, Baggio’s disconsolate figure will always be the face of Italy’s 1994 World Cup.

Playing for two hours after an exhausting tournament would have been enough for any footballer, but the fact that Baggio did that on the back of a painkilling injection after the Bulgaria game said much about his character. His injuries had begun to trouble him again, but after missing out on the semi-final in the last tournament, there would be no stopping Baggio from taking part in the final. By the time the penalty shoot-out came around, he was beyond exhausted. “I knew what I had to do and my concentration was perfect. But I was so tired that I tried to hit the ball too hard.”

Although the following season with Juventus was the one with his first and only domestic double, Baggio missed out on a large chunk of it after injuring himself following a goal against Padova in November. During his lay-off, a young player by the name of Alessandro Del Piero began to stake his claim for Baggio’s position. The appointment of Marcello Lippi that season did nothing to aide Baggio’s case, who had decided that the number 10 did not fit into his tactical system. At the end of the season, and to the dismay of the Juve faithful, Lippi announced that Roberto Baggio was no longer needed at the club.


IV. No room for poets


Being forced by the new Juventus management to take a 50 percent pay-cut was the official way the player was pushed out, as he was coming towards the end of his contract. Several sides were happy to take advantage of Juve’s seemingly nonsensical move, and finally AC Milan acquired the player’s services for £6.8 million in the summer of 1995. Despite being key in Milan’s run to their Serie A title, linking up beautifully with the likes of George Weah and Dejan Savićević, Baggio never seemed to quite fit in at the San Siro.

Injuries certainly played their part in his difficulties at AC Milan, but it was largely due to his relationship with the managers. Fabio Capello and Óscar Tabárez, who was brought in the following season, often benched Baggio because of his perceived lack of fitness, which, predictably, did not go down well with the ambitious player. The style of play chosen by both managers also favoured more athletic players; hardly conducive to Baggio’s philosophies. Tabárez famously said, after Baggio had complained about a lack of playing time, that there was “no room for poets in modern football”.

Baggio’s troubles continued even after the Uruguayan’s dismissal, as Silvio Berlusconi decided to bring in Arrigo Sacchi halfway through the 1996-97 season. Despite having performed such a crucial role in Italy’s World Cup run under Sacchi, the pair never got on. In Italy’s second group match against Norway, Sacchi opted to substitute Baggio just after goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca had been sent off. “The man is mad!” Baggio shouted for all to hear, echoing the voice of his countrymen. It then came as no surprise when Sacchi firmly laid the blame of the final loss at Baggio’s door. The Italian manager even excluded Baggio from his Euro 1996 squad where Italy were knocked out in the group stages.

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tumblr_lufeboH3UF1qfxktpo1_1280Better times alongside Arrigo Sacchi

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A horrid season for Milan signalled the end of Sacchi’s reign, as Capello was brought back to restore the Rossoneri to former heights. Yet again, however, Baggio was seen as dispensable in achieving this target and was offloaded to relative minnows Bologna. Carlo Ancelotti famously turned down the chance to sign Baggio that summer, believing that the likes of the former Juventus star and Gianfranco Zola – who he had sold off that same summer – did not fit into his preferred 4-4-2 formation. “Big mistake”, he would later admit.

Losing the ponytail, a relieved and “reborn” Baggio would go on to have his most prolific ever season at Bologna, scoring 22 goals and finish in eight place (two places above Capello’s Milan). Playing again in an unshackled role at Bologna, the 31-year-old seemed to have regained his mojo, and was called back into the Italian side for the 1998 World Cup. With Sacchi finally gone, he would have been forgiven to believe that this would be his redemption for ‘94.


V. “Baggio on the bench?”


Italy, unlike the time before, started the 1998 World Cup with a bang. Baggio struck late in the first match against Chile to secure a 2-2 draw, but the Italians would go on to become clear winners of the group with two wins in their next matches. Baggio struck again in the final game to secure a 2-1 win over Austria.

For the next two knockout round matches, Baggio was dropped to the bench in favour of Juventus’s Del Piero. Manager Cesare Maldini had decided that the two were incompatible and as such must be rotated. Del Piero’s poor form in the competition, especially versus France in the quarter-final, meant that this decision has been heavily criticised since, especially given Baggio’s form that season. Coming on for Del Piero in the France game, Robi could only contribute by scoring from the spot in the penalty shoot-out, but Albertini and Di Biagio’s misses ensured eventual-winners France would progress. It would be Baggio’s final appearance at an international competition.

What waited for him after France 98 was unfortunately not any better. After impressing at Bologna, Baggio decided to take one last crack at a big team: Internazionale. The first season was far from an unmitigated disaster, Baggio contributed 10 assists and five goals, although his playing time was again limited by injuries. Several coaching changes did the team, and the player, no favours either.

The following season would be even worse, as Massimo Moratti hired Marcello Lippi. Having not seen eye-to-eye at Juventus, this was never going to be a great match, and any hope to the contrary was quickly destroyed when Lippi asked Baggio to spy on his team-mates for him. When Baggio refused, Lippi unceremoniously dropped him from his team and the enigmatic Italian rarely played for Inter again.

Baggio has never held back in his criticism of Lippi’s management at Inter. One journalist attributes Baggio as saying that “the Lippi I had at Inter declared war on me”, highlighting one incident in a match, where Baggio’s 40-yard assist to Christian Vieri was applauded by his team-mates, was scorned by Lippi. It seems crazy that a player of this much talent would be wasted on the bench at not just Inter, but Juventus, AC Milan and the national team. Baggio’s clashes with his managers are one of the defining characteristics of his career. After he had ended his career, Baggio stated:

“I’ve often wondered why they really wouldn’t consider me, but I never found the real answer. Perhaps they were a bit jealous, as everybody used to love me, even opposing fans. Was I stealing the show, denying them the role of protagonists they were desperately claiming for themselves? Modern football is increasingly dominated by the coaches, their narcissism to put themselves above the team and their players.”

Journalist Emmet Gates ponders whether the Divine Ponytail was simply born at the wrong time, as he perhaps would have been afforded more tactical freedom if he had played ten years later. As Gates points out, what would Baggio have done in a Zdeněk Zeman side? Most football fans are now drooling at the mere thought of it. It is true that Baggio was, for some reason, seen as a burden by some managers; not having the necessary grit or tactical nous to fit into their strict regimes, and as such was relegated to the role of a bit-part player. That sort of thinking seems ludicrous to the rest of us watching, and Zinedine Zidane was attributed as saying: “Baggio on the bench? It’s something that I will never understand in my lifetime.”

It is to Baggio’s credit that he never refused to play when he was met with such adversity, and goes a long way to counter the criticism levelled at him. A famous example was in his final match for Inter against Parma. The game, a Champions League qualification playoff, was won by a late brace from Baggio, and his celebration for the second, whether fuelled by joy, anger or a bit of both, is as genuine as they come. The additional factor to this is that Lippi, the man who held him back on so many occasions, had been promised the sack had Inter failed to reach the Champions League. For once, karma seemed to be on Baggio’s side, as Lippi was given the boot regardless.

Many believed they had seen the last of Baggio when he announced that he would be moving to newly-promoted Brescia on a free transfer at the age of 33. This was never going to be the case. Despite two serious injuries, one keeping him out for four months in his second season, the number 10 played four seasons for the Biancoazzurri. He would not be there only to make up the numbers either, with his first two seasons being so impressive, despite his injuries, that he was consistently one of Serie A’s best offensive players and had a real shout of a 2002 World Cup spot. Giovanni Trapattoni believed Del Piero and Francesco Totti were enough to carry the Italian side. Italy were knocked out by South Korea.

Finally, on May 16, 2004, Roberto Baggio played his final match. Having been told as a teenager that he would never play football again, retiring at the age of 37 and having been recognised as the world’s best player has to be applauded at the very least. It is also telling that Brescia were relegated the very next year, after finishing the 2003-04 season in 11th place. That is the effect that Baggio still had at 37.

His subsequent charity work after retirement with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation in Haiti and Burma, has continued to earn him praise and admiration across the world. Il Divin Codino is a majestic nickname for a majestic player, but also for a majestic man. He gave everything he possibly had on the pitch, and that was clear to see. He might have clashed with several people over his career, but somehow he always emerged with his reputation intact. He had his naysayers, but almost every football fan loved him. Roberto Baggio was their hero; whether they wanted him or not.

By Tryggvi Kristjánsson. Follow @DrHahntastic

With thanks to Daniel Nyari for use of his Baggio illustration. Check out more of his great work here and follow him on Twitter here.

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