Roberto Baggio: Il Divino Codino
“The Angels sing, in his legs” Aldo Agroppi, Fiorentina 1985-1986
“His legend was not built on titles, but on moments ”
There are legends for every club. Every Calcio side has it’s own demi god, the faces and numbers that are often as recognisable as the colours and stadia. They are the human representation of the passion that football conjures, icons to their fans, hate figures to their rivals.
Very rarely, if ever, does a player come along that transcends these rivalries, and connects people for the simple love of the game. Roberto Baggio was such a player. Blessed with a talent so universal, all followers of Il Calcio tended to join in celebration whenever he scored.
Beginning his career for Vicenza in 1982, he quickly became a teen prodigy, and therefore a hot transfer target for many Serie A clubs, the 18 year old Baggio scoring 13 goals in 36 games for the provincal side. He arrived at Fiorentina under little fanfare(the last time in his illustrious career) and became a fan favourite among the Viola faithful for his tight, weave like dribbling style and mindbending dead ball ability.
Baggio enjoyed 5 years in the famous city of art and culture, capturing hearts and minds all around the peninsula for his performances. However, the Firenze adventure ended in 1990 when the mighty Juventus came calling, paying a world record 13m fee for Baggio, sparking riots on the streets of Florence. Alas, the anger was too late. Baggio was gone, and would never return.
Just as Roberto’s play had enticed Juve, the same skill and vision rightly warranted a call up for Azzurri ahead of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, being placed in the starting XI for the first time in a game against Czechoslovakia, during which he scored the goal of the tournament; a wonderful dribble past several players, exhibiting frightening close control, before a looping finish past the despairing goalkeeper.
Italy crashed out in the semis on home soil, but Baggio had arrived. Upon his return to Turin, Baggio lit up Serie A and the rest of the world, scoring 27 goals in the first campaign for the Bianconeri. The game against Fiorentina heralded a moment that signified Baggio’s class not just on the field, but his humility and respect off it. Juventus won a penalty, but Baggio, overwhelmed with affection for Fiorentina, refused to take it. When Baggio was subbed off, he made his way to the crowd and picked up a Viola scarf and put it around his neck. It was a gesture of peace to the fans of the club Baggio felt so much for, and a real measure of the man.
Baggio enjoyed half a decade at Juventus, playing for the Bianconeri at the height of his powers, winning the Balon D’or in 1993 before being slowly phased out by Marcelo Lippi, who put his faith in youngster Alessandro Del Piero instead. Lippi was never a fan of Il Divino Codino, a feud that would persist throughout the Italians career.
However, despite the problems persisting around the later years of his time in Turin, Baggio’s most famous moment came for Italy at the World Cup in 1994. Italy were facing an early exit from the tournament in the group stages, before Baggio dragged the Azzurri to the final with a series of wonderful performances, notably the goal and assist against Nigeria and two goals in the semi final versus Bulgaria, during which he injured himself and clouded his selection in doubt, presenting Arrigo Sacchi with a dilemma.
Saachi put faith in his star man, who played despite clearly putting up with the pain throughout the final, and lasted the whole 120 minutes as Italy played out a tight game against Brazil. The inevitability of penalties arrived, and Baggio was left with the key spot kick, a situation that he had mastered during his club career as a set piece specialist, but a combination of exhaustion, pressure and and fatigue took its toll on the number 10, who blasted his effort over the bar. The image of Baggio, standing solemnly in the Pasadena heat, has since become a defining moment in world football, and sadly, the most famous moment of Baggio’s career.
After Juve, Baggio moved to Milan at the request of Silvio Berlusconi, who made it his personal mission to bring Baggio to Via Turati. Again, Baggio was a success, leading Milan to the Scudetto, and became the first player to win the league title consecutively with two different clubs(A feat arguably never repeated, depending on your view of the Calciopoli trial in 2006).
In 1996, Italy went to the European Championships without Baggio who was left out by Saachi(who recently came out and explained his decision, putting it down to injury) and was strangely exiled from the national side and Milan during this period, with Saachi playing a part in both, only utilising the forward from the bench, frustrating Baggio, who left for Bologna to attempt to resurrect his national career.
Baggio had arguably his best ever season for Bologna 1997/8, scoring 22 goals in Serie A alone(A career high, and won him the capoconnoniere title) including some wonderful free kicks, typical Baggio dribbles and lots of well taken penalties. Baggio succesfully won back his place for Italy, and started ahead of Alessandro Del Piero. Baggio was Italy’s man of the tournament, performing excellently against Chile with a goal and a stunning assist, and ending the group stages with 2 goals and 2 assists. Baggio did not feature much outside the groups, to the dismay of many an Azzurri fan, playing back up to a disappointing Del Piero, and Italy crashed out in the Quarter Finals.
After the World Cup, Baggio moved to Inter, and once again started well(including this goal as Inter shocked Real Madrid), but the arrival of Marcelo Lippi soon ended Baggio’s stay at the Nerazzuri, the two figures not seeing eye to eye, Roberto found himself on the bench again.
Baggio took the hint and ended his career with a marvellous spell at Brescia, forming a Calcio fans wet dream of a partnership with a young Andrea Pirlo, who had just found out that he was perhaps better as a regista, and together they supplied Brescia fans with some wonderful moments, notably this goal, where Pirlo beautifully picks out the veteran who takes a sublime touch to beat the goalkeeper and slot home.
Il Divino Codino ended his career in 2004 at Brescia, after an illustrious career built on truly inspiring moments of magic and unerring skill. Many legends are judged by what they have achieved, how many medals adorn their walls, so it is a testament to Baggio’s effect as a footballer that he is held in such high regard despite never picking up a career defining trophy. But such were these moments, these glimpses of pure joy, that all the seemingly petty thoughts of success and position matter little. At the end of it all, Baggio represents a somewhat lost art in Sport, and notably Calcio; the simple joy of a goal. We were just lucky to witness it.
Sam is on Twitter. You may as well, you got this far.
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