Roberto Baggio turned 50 in February this year. The footballing icon retired in 2004 having played for some of Italy's top sides. Baggio is held in the highest esteem in his homeland. He also had a huge impact on a young football fan in Aberdeen...
Everyone remembers their first World Cup. When you're old enough to properly appreciate it that is. Wallchart at the ready, sticker book well on the way to completion. For me it was Italia '90. Scotland qualified and going into the tournament their games were of utmost importance. It wasn't a Scottish player who captured my attention though.
One goal, that's all it took. Italy v Czechoslovakia. The host nation were leading 1-0 in their third group game. Twelve minutes remained when Roberto Baggio collected the ball on the left of midfield. After a one-two with Giuseppe Giannini the number fifteen set off on a run to the penalty box. Once there, he dummied a Czech defender before finishing past the goalkeeper. As the Stadio Olimpico erupted around him, Baggio fell backwards to the turf. One of the greatest World Cup goals of all time. A ten year old in Scotland was transfixed. This would be the goal and celebration to be copied and imitated all summer when having a kick about with my friends. Roberto Baggio was my new favourite player.
Two years later and Channel 4 started to cover Italian Football. My Baggio admiration became an obsession. Every time Juventus played I had to watch to see my new hero. Serie A had some of the best players in the world at that time. I enjoyed watching every team but always hoped Juventus would be chosen for live coverage. Baggio and Italia ’90 were the reasons I started watching Italian football. A league I still follow closely today.
I started to follow the Italian national side too. They kind of became my international 'second team'. The Azzurri went to the USA '94 World Cup after winning their qualifying group. Scotland never made it out of that same group so it was a no brainer as to who I would support at the tournament.
Italy were far from amazing in the tournament. In fact, they were probably better in 1990 when they fell in the semi-final. One player was amazing though. Italy’s number 10, the 'Divine Ponytail' almost singlehandedly dragged his country to the final. Italy struggled, but finally qualified, from a group including Republic of Ireland. A last minute Baggio equaliser sent their first knockout game against Nigeria into extra time. Roberto then scored the winner in the added period.
I was beside myself when an 88th minute winner against Spain in the quarters again saw Baggio become Italy’s hero. He continued his brilliance with both goals in a 2-1 semi-final win over Bulgaria. It was becoming Roberto's tournament. Scoring winners in three knockout matches in a row to lead his country to a World Cup Final.
The Final itself was a poor spectacle. Baggio was hampered by a hamstring injury suffered in the semi. Italy and opponents Brazil both struggled in Pasedena’s sweltering heat. Goalless, it would go to penalties. Everyone now knows Roberto missed. What isn’t often remember is the fact Italy had already missed twice in the shootout. Indeed, even if Baggio scored, Brazil would have had a pen to win it. I was gutted nonetheless. Football has never made me cry. Emotional yes, but not pushed to tears. I was close that night though. The great man didn’t deserve that. His heroics all through the tournament ripped away by one penalty miss. Football was cruel. Somehow the miss made me admire him even more.
Four years later. The World Cup in France. Italy are there again. I was desperate for them to win it for him. Victory wasn’t to be but Baggio would get some redemption.
Baggio had been recalled to the Azzurri squad during the qualifying stages of the tournament. His international career had looked over but his brilliant performances for Bologna couldn't be overlooked.
Italy were 2-1 behind to Chile in their first group game. I had been listening to the game on radio at work due to its afternoon kick off. The second half I watched on a mini TV on the bus home. A penalty is awarded with five minutes remaining. Only one player was going to take it. I was almost shaking with nerves. Everyone knew what this meant. Roberto, back on the biggest stage, standing over a penalty.
Imagine what must have been going through his mind. Four years after missing a penalty in the planets biggest game. I cheered out loud on the bus as he found the net. I instantly felt emotional, so happy for Baggio, so relieved that he scored it. Strangely, the closest to tears football has ever pushed me. As an Aberdeen fan all these years, I’ve had plenty reasons to cry too! This was my favourite moment following the great man. Only winning the tournament could've have been better. This was a fitting piece of redemption though. A bit of footballing karma.
I continued to follow Roberto Baggio through to the end of his career. Always buying the Diadora boots he wore and the shirts of Italy and the teams he played for. I contemplated learning Italian in order to read his autobiography as it was never published in English. I stopped short at growing a ponytail but I did think about (seriously) back in 1994. My one regret about it is that I never saw him play in person. I still watch some old clips on YouTube. Still have a replica of his captain’s armband framed on my wall. Still hope to meet him one day.
Roberto Baggio will never know the influence he had on me. He opened my eyes to a different kind of football. A different kind of player. One of the all-time greats. Il’ Divin Codino.