The Rise and Fall of Roberto Baggio
Few players divided opinions quite like Roberto Baggio. Beloved by some, hated by others; unquestionably talented, yet rarely utilized to his full potential. Baggio was one of the best players to ever set foot on a pitch, but his entire legacy has unfairly been tarnished by one particular blemish.
The Divine Ponytail
Baggio’s rise to stardom was nothing short of meteoric. After playing an instrumental role in Vicenza’s promotion to Serie B as a teenager, he was snapped up by Fiorentina. The ink on his deal had barely dried when he suffered an ACL tear that would haunt him for the rest of his career, forcing him to play virtually every game on painkillers thereafter.
Fiorentina kept the faith and was handsomely rewarded. After regaining his fitness, Baggio developed into one of Serie A’s deadliest players, earning the nickname Il Divin Codino (the Divine Ponytail). In 1990, he led La Viola to its first UEFA Cup final, where it was defeated by hated rival Juventus, the team Baggio would join for a world-record sum of £8 million that same year, inciting a riot in Florence in the process.
After a difficult start to life in Turin that left many Juve supporters questioning his commitment, he eventually came good and hit his peak. Baggio was renowned for his eye for goal, but perhaps his most iconic asset was his free kick technique; it even became the premise of a video game. His rise to superstardom was complete when he fired Juve to the 1993 UEFA Cup and won the Ballon d’Or as a result.
Il Divin Codino carried his form into the 1994 World Cup, scoring five goals, being named the player of the tournament, and leading Italy to the final. However, these accolades mattered little after what transpired in the showpiece game. After a grueling 120 minutes in the California heat, he stepped up to take the decisive penalty. Instead of being his usual composed self, he smashed the ball over the crossbar and handed Brazil its fourth World Cup.
He soon suffered another devastating injury and was deemed surplus to requirements by new Juventus coach Marcello Lippi. AC Milan took a punt on him, but he was regarded as a luxury player and saw his game time dwindle. His surprising decision to join Bologna turned out to be a shrewd move. At the age of 31, Baggio enjoyed the most prolific season of his career. What was supposed to be one last hurrah with Inter quickly became a nightmare. Fitness issues continued to plague him, and when I Nerazzurri hired Lippi, it spelled the end of Baggio’s time with Italy’s elite clubs.
His real redemption came with lowly Brescia, where he recaptured his form and remained one of the best players in Serie A until the age of 37. Despite the constant setbacks, Baggio was one of the most prolific Italians to ever play the game. One can only imagine the heights he could have reached had he been allowed to flourish properly.
Illustration by: inakivector