The mullet. The number ten. Echoing cries of ‘è fino di Baggio’ from high up in the gantry. Signs that are symptomatic of a 34-year-old Roberto Baggio.
Eight years after he scared Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi shitless at the San Siro, Baggio simply drifted beyond legendary Juventus centre back Ciro Ferrara, latching onto an exquisite Andrea Pirlo through pass (Yes THE Andrea Pirlo) before unleashing one of the greatest first touches of all time. Not only did he distance himself from the encroaching defenders, but he also made Dutch icon and future four-time Premier League winner Edwin van der Sar look absolutely ridiculous. Nikos Dabizas should count himself lucky.
Accompanied by the whimsical words of Dancing by Elisa, this goal encapsulates the career of Roberto Baggio. Majestic yet so incredibly rugged. He was known as ‘Il Divin Codino’ across Italy. The Divine Ponytail. And he was a proper striker…
Roberto started his senior career for Vicenza in the summer of 1983 as a bright 16-year-old. What began in the northeast corner of Lombardy was something special, something Italy craved. They hadn’t had a ‘fantasy’ player, someone that would get the crowd on their feet, since Gianni Rivera. But would this magical little man, at such a young age, have his career severed at the knees (literally)?
They say that childbirth is the most painful thing that you can experience, but shattering your Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) is certainly up there. The loud pop you hear is the ligament tearing away from the bone, the cartilage shredding to pieces. Roberto Baggio was only 18-years-old when his knee collapsed from underneath him and an allergy to painkillers meant that he felt all two-hundred and twenty stitches in the attempt to piece it together.
The doctors said he’d never play again. The promise of a glittering career had capitulated in front of his own eyes after just one slide tackle…
A long, hard eighteen months later and Baggio stood infront of seventy-thousand people at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples. He had just found the top left hand corner, beating Napoli ‘keeper Raffaele Di Fusco with ease. The return of Roberto Baggio after a year and a half out will go down in the folklore of Italian football. Not only did he halt title-chasers Napoli infront of their own fans, but he did it, perhaps symbolically, in the presence of Diego Armando Maradona.
The Argentinian had just been upstaged by a kid that was in a wheelchair whilst he was lifting the World Cup. What was striking was the post-match comments from Fiorentina legend Miguel Montuori: “More productive than Maradona; he is without doubt the best number ten in the league”. Perhaps a stretch but what Montuori and everyone else had seen before them was a player of miraculous quality.
The presence of a dynamic goalscorer, equally lethal on both feet and with the brightness of mind to not only find a needle in a haystack, but play the needle through on goal in the UEFA Cup Final made managers dedicate weeks of work on simply stopping him. Defenders would take red cards in a futile attempt to slow ‘Il Divin Codino’ down. Roberto Baggio was always one step ahead. Celebrating a hattrick whilst his opponents were still working out which foot is his strongest…
The Italian watched his knees fall away in front of him, yet he still went on to make 605 appearances. A missed penalty in the final of the 1994 World Cup drew tears across the entirety of the footballing world but Baggio revolted, winning the double with Juventus the following season. A tale of resilience to say the least.
Roberto Baggio scored 276 goals and created 111 assists in his career. He is highly regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, winning the Scudetto for Juventus in 1995 and then again for Milan in 1996. He won the Ballon d’Or, the most prestigious individual award for a footballer possible in 1994 and sits fourth in the 1999 FIFA poll of the Best Footballers of the Century. A hero to all.
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