per Alessio Fiorini - Benvenuto al Mondo
Imagine yourself in a small town somewhere in rural Italy, and you walk into a small back street art gallery. There, among the nameless pieces hanging on the wall, you spot the Mona Lisa. You’d have to ask how an obvious masterpiece can be kept in such a place, where nobody gets to see it. Yet Roberto Baggio—perhaps the most gifted forward Italy has ever produced—played out most of his career away from the big cities of Rome, Milan and Turin.
He played at seven different clubs, over 24 seasons, yet he only earned 56 caps for his country, scoring 27 goals. Il Divin Codino became the fifth highest goalscorer in Serie A history, yet won only two Scudetti. The 1993 World and European Player of the Year had a career ultimately defined by penalties.
He first came to prominence in Florence, scoring his first goal in a game which saw Napoli secure the 86/87 title. From there he earned hero status among the Viola faithful, and went to the 1990 World Cup where he scored the goal of the tournament against Czechoslovakia. In the Third Place Playoff he stepped aside to allow Toto Schillaci to score a penalty which secured him the Golden Shoe.
The two men would be reunited in Turin, but not before Baggio’s transfer from Fiorentina caused a riot in the Tuscan town. On his return to Florence with Juventus, Baggio refused to take a penalty and pulled on a Viola scarf, kissing it as he left the field.
He led his new team to glory in the 1993 UEFA Cup, the first trophy in a spell of dominance which lasted almost the entire decade. Baggio played some sublime football during his five years in Bianconeri, doing more than anyone to overcome the monopoly Italian football had become under Silvio Berlusconi’s Milan. His touch, finesse and vision were unparalleled. Roberto Baggio truly was a player blessed from above.
Then came the 1994 World Cup and THAT penalty.
In a performance perhaps only bested by Maradona in ‘86, Baggio single-handedly carried Italy to the Final, scoring five goals in the knockout rounds. He was openly carrying an injury as the final got underway, yet in intense heat he lasted the whole match—plus extra time—before chipping the final penalty high over the bar, handing the World Cup to Brazil. Italy’s most prolific penalty taker of all time remembered forever around the world for the rarest of misses.
This hurt Baggio and his form dipped which, combined with the continued emergence of a young Alessandro Del Piero, convinced Marcello Lippi to sell his Captain to Milan. His last season in Turin saw the club secure the title, and Baggio won lo Scudetto in his first season in Rossoneri too. It would be his last major honour.
Two seasons spent in Milan were ultimately disappointing for Baggio, who moved to Bologna in order to reignite his career. There he scored a career best 22 goals, earning a move to Inter ahead of going to the ‘98 World Cup as part of the Italy squad.
At the World Cup he and an unfit Del Piero fought for one place, Baggio clearly the man in form. A penalty against Chile made him the first Italian to score in three World Cups. Italy were again eliminated in a penalty shoot-out loss, this time to hosts France, but Baggio scored the opening kick to exorcise his own demons.
Yet a different part of his past would return to ruin this new beginning as Inter appointed Marcello Lippi that same summer, despite obvious difficulties in the past between coach and player. After a poor two years he was on the move again, this time to Brescia.
Here he found a real home at last, and was reunited with coach Carlo Mazzone, who was at Bologna earlier in Baggio’s career, an ideal situation for Baggio. A sound midfield platform—provided by a young Andrea Pirlo and Luigi Di Biaggio (later joined by Pep Guardiola)—allowed the number 10 to flourish at his enigmatic best. He scored some truly memorable goals (taking him past 300 in his career), and created numerous opportunities for his teammates.
Injury robbed a rejuvenated Baggio of the opportunity to play in the 2002 World Cup, Giovanni Trappatoni unwilling to risk an unfit striker in his squad. Brescia retired his number in fitting tribute of the man when his playing days finally ended in 2004.
But those distinctive Brescia colours do not define him, nor does the famous Viola shirt of Fiorentina. The man cannot be defined by the historic striped shirts of Milan, Inter or even Juventus. When conjuring memories of the great number ten it has to be in the distinctive Azzurri shirt of his country, for Roberto Baggio truly belongs to all of Italy.