We return to the summer of 1995 with issue number 10 (naturally) of football magazine FourFourTwo, then still in its infancy, publishing this fantastic, in-depth interview with Baggio in the wake of his World Cup’94 tribulations.
Despite dragging Italy to that final and remaining the undoubted star of the national team, cracks in the relationship with coach Arrigo Sacchi were beginning to irreversibly widen, as this very interview hints at.
At this point in time Baggio was about to win his very first Scudetto with Juventus, and was looking forward to starring in a new period of dominance with the Old Lady alongside rising talent Alessandro Del Piero, whilst enjoying a seemingly cordial relationship with new coach Marcelo Lippi.
Little did he know that just a few months later, he would be treated as a disposable commodity by the club’s hierarchy and sold to rivals AC Milan.
Originally titled: We Talk to the World’s Greatest Player
FourFourTwo June 1995 (issue 10), interview taken from Onze Mondial reporter Thierry Hubac.
Q: Could you live without football?
When you choose a profession which binds you for a long time, your life is pretty much mapped out for you. A footballer’s career is a short one, but life still has many surprises in store for me.
Q: How do you see your future?
The important thing is to win. The Championship, then the World Cup. I have great hope.
Q: Do you still enjoy the game?
Yes. When you set up a goal, or score one yourself, the pleasure is truly complete.
Q: And how do you feel after 90 minutes?
At the end it’s victory that matters. When you have done everything to achieve that, you can take pleasure from it. As for the game, you have to be certain you have given everything you possibly could to fashion a victory, that you have no regrets. You have to be enthusiastic, too. That’s what I’ve tried to get across to my teammates.
Q: Going back to USA ’94, it all started badly for Italy against Ireland.
Yes. Ireland got the chance to score very early on. That goal totally upset our game plan, and from that moment onwards we found it much harder to play our natural game. And we were under huge psychological pressure.
Q: Was it hard for your team to change your game plan?
Ireland set out to put us under great pressure and prevent us from playing the way we like to. Whenever they got into trouble they were quick to break the rhythm of the game, with their keeper and defenders pumping long balls into our half.
Q: It got even harder against Norway when you were substituted so your team could replace Pagliuca after he’d been sent off. How did you feel?
A footballer never likes having to go off, especially before having the chance to show what he can do. When you’re talking about the second game in the World Cup, and you’ve lost the first, it’s even worse. I just couldn’t believe that it was happening. But I had to think positively and concentrate on the next game against Mexico. It is vital that you always have the belief that you can win the World Cup.
Q: So how did you react?
I became even more determined. The competition was so important to me and I really believed we could do well. But we had to be more attacking. Until then I hadn’t been able to prove my worth to the side. The ball wasn’t running for us. We were finding it hard to create goalscoring opportunities and therefore to score. In our first matches we only scored one goal from open play and another from a corner.
Q: So you became the leader of the team then?
At the time I felt I had a lot to say to the other players. It was important for them, as it was for me, to be able to express what they had to say. We had to somehow find enough inner strength to get ourselves out of the situation we had got ourselves into.
Q: So that led to ‘the Nigerian miracle’?
The more time passed, the more I said to myself: ‘It’s not possible. We simply cannot lose against this team.’ Returning to Italy after a defeat against Nigeria was simply not an option. In spite of having cramp I was urged to do something to reverse the situation. And, two minutes from time, I scored. I had always believed that I would.
Q: Having been slagged off by the fans and by the press, what was it like to be in favour again?
That’s football for you. You easily go from one extreme to the other. If things are going badly, they want you out; if things are going well you’re a hero.
Q: You raised your game when it mattered. Is that the difference between being a good player and a brilliant player?
A brilliant player always makes the difference. But the most important thing is to feel you have given everything. It doesn’t matter what everyone else says. You have to feel it within yourself. Perhaps that’s what makes the difference between me and the other players. Even if I did lose the final in Los Angeles.
Q: How can you be so close to the World Cup final, yet only really start playing well 30 minutes before the end of the game against Bulgaria?
It’s all about the experience and the result. Against Bulgaria, for the first time, we managed to play a more direct style, something we had never got to grips with before.
Q: Why the change?
It was a completely different game. We were playing for a place in the final. We all felt responsible, enthusiastic, ready to give everything.
Q: That wasn’t the case before?
The pressure was even greater, but after a topsy-turvy run we had reached the semi-final so were let off the hook slightly. And after that match the final was beckoning. We sensed it, very close.
Q: Why did you miss the penalty?
The most important factor in scoring from the penalty spot is that you should be totally focused. When I took my penalty I wasn’t. I had never shot over the bar when taking a penalty before in my career. I’d hit the post, I’d shot wide, but never skyed a penalty. It was an indication that things weren’t right for me, that I wasn’t focused. And by that time I was incredibly tired.
Q: So, were Brazil worthy winners?
Whatever the result I find it astonishing that after four long years of preparation for the World Cup, you end up deciding so important a title on penalties. Perhaps I say that because I lost the World Cup. But whether Brazil or Italy deserved to win, regardless of their performances, it is no way in which to decide the world champions.
Q: What are your main memories of the World Cup?
There are a lot of things I remember. I will remember becoming a more determined player, scoring five goals and then, at the key moment, at the end of the final, carrying an injury and missing the penalty. It is enriching to experience all these emotions: from being so high to being so low in so few days. But I will always feel a sense of loss. It’s hard to get so close to something so sacred knowing you might never have the opportunity again.
Q: Did you ever consider not playing in the final?
Never. Even if I’d have had to play with one leg, I would have done.
Q: How has USA ‘94 affected your performance in the European Championships?
We have begun our campaign badly and have had to make many changes. The Italian championship is draining, and the players who were involved in the World Cup have not had the chance to recover. And we are paying for that.
Q: A good example of that would be the defeat by Croatia.
Yes. That was the final straw in our terrible European campaign [a draw in Slovenia, victories against Estonia, a defeat in Palermo against Croatia and a win against the Ukraine]. But that hasn’t deterred us. I really want to take part in the European Championships, even if our task has been made much harder with Croatia having got four wins and a draw so far.
Q: Why did you criticise Arrigo Sacchi after that defeat?
When things go badly there are always problems to contend with. But this is the kind of situation where I prefer people to judge for themselves, not through the eyes of the press.
Q: You demanded a more adventurous team?
I didn’t demand it. The tifosi and the journalists did. That’s different. Me, I just want to win.
Q: What does the future hold for the Italian team?
Every team needs time to rebuild, to settle into a style, and to find the conviction and strength to get results. We need that time to make sure we reach our peak in time for the next World Cup.
Q: How important are the European Championship finals in 1996?
They are our top priority, particularly in terms of preparing for the next World Cup. If we are going to do well in France in 1998 we will have to play in England in 1996. Above all it’s essential we have time to get things right, essential that people stop getting on our backs for the least little loss.
Q: Why is it that, since 1982, the Azzurri haven’t won anything while Italian club sides have done very well in Europe?
We’ve had some good results in the World Cup: eighth in 1986, third in 1990, second in 1994. And in France in 1998, we will be world champions!
Q: is it fair to say that Juventus, like the Azzurri, are going through a transitional phase?
I believe this season we are back on the right track. There have been changes at club level, at director level, and especially on the field. Everyone wants to work, to play as one. We are hungry again.
Q: With Baggio back in form, Vialli back to his best and Del Piero improving with every game, do you think Juventus can go all the way?
Definitely. We are on course for winning the championship. We have the players with the ability to reach the top but actually doing that is another matter.
Q: This year a new young player called Alessandro Del Piero has emerged. Is he the next Roberto Baggio?
I don’t know. He certainly has all he needs to become a great player. He has the advantage of playing for a club like Juventus at the age of 20, and although that’s not necessarily easy he will learn to cope with pressure very quickly.
Q:With Roberto Baggio?
With or without me. We have already proved we can play well together.
Q: With Ravanelli and Vialli up front, isn’t there a chance you will be pushed further back?
No. It all depends on the game. I decide where I will play. I mean, if I have to play up front, who will support the strikers?
Q: You have freedom of movement on the pitch.
Left to my own devices, yes. It is my job to make the difference, to create and to score. A team is a complex balance. To reach my goals I have to make the best use of the work done by the other players. The keeper, the defenders, the ball winners. The strikers too because they offer me solutions, make the gaps open up for me. All the players allow me to express myself fully. Without them I am nothing. A goal is only important when it’s a winning one.
Q: What are your goals at Juventus?
To win. That is the most important thing. Even when I’m not selected, my objective is still the same.
Q: Would you say AC Milan are in decline?
You can’t say Milan are in decline. They are a great team with great players. When a team has won a lot it is quite natural for it to have some time to reassess its goals; it’s the hardest thing to get results consistently. After winning a title you have to start questioning things. Stay confident but, at the same time, start again almost from nothing. After winning the European Cup and another championship it’ll be hard for Milan to do a repeat performance. But neither the quality of the players nor the team is in doubt. It’s essentially a psychological problem. When everyone is used to you winning, people can’t understand how you can lose.
Q: How can Roberto Baggio improve?
In every way. I don’t feel that I have completely fulfilled my potential. There are still so many things I want to do, to work, to develop further. I will only reach the end of my career when I no longer feel any need to make an effort. That’s the day I will stop playing. But I am not there yet. Today, I still really want to give my utmost.
Q: Has football changed your personality?
Yes, because of all the experiences I have had. Positive and negative. It s true that, when things are going well you don’t have the time to appreciate them, take them in and analyse them. When things aren’t going well, you have to stand back a bit. Only then do you really understand what’s happened to you. That’s the way you acquire maturity. As with every other profession, there are good and bad things, but the most important thing is, whatever happens, to be at peace within yourself. You meet so many people that you’re not going to get on well with everyone. You have to make your choices. And stick by them.
Q: How would you describe Roberto Baggio?
That is a very delicate subject. I am a normal person, no different from anyone else except that I am a professional footballer. It is very difficult to say what my qualities are. Or what my faults are. There are too many of them.
Q: As a Buddhist, what do you see as your nirvana?
Being a Buddhist allows me to find joy. On and off the pitch. When I stop playing I want to be happy with my wife and my children. That, for the time being, is my conception of happiness.
Q: You promised that when you won the championship with Juventus, you would cut off your ponytail.
[Laughs] That was four years ago and is no longer valid. Today I would prefer it if it reached down to the bottom of my back.