For me, like countless others around the world no doubt, it was cemented on a balmy night in Rome – June 19 1990 to be exact, at approximately 10:33pm.
That was when Baggio-mania, already in full-swing across the Italian peninsula, left those shores and surged around the globe with such velocity that it instantly buried itself deep within the soul of an impressionable 12-year old from Liverpool.
From the moment 10 seconds of magic culminated in Italia 90’s ‘goal of the tournament’ during Italy’s final Group game against Czechoslovakia, my footballing idol was confirmed: Roberto Baggio.
Like me, every football fan has a player they hold most dear: the one who you relentlessly follow, ensuring every minute of every match he features in is watched as you wait excitedly for every touch of the ball he gets. If no pass is received every time his team is in possession you curse his team-mates: ‘give HIM the ball!’ you constantly demand. In your eyes, he can do no wrong – and you instantly jump to his defence if anyone dares suggest otherwise.
I can’t quite describe why Baggio, of all the players, had such an impact on me, but it probably had a lot to do with the Azzurri and the magical number 10. I’d long decided that Italy was my adopted country when it came to international football, with certain family ties no doubt influencing that decision.
Nor was it solely down to that goal – though what a goal it was! My interest in Baggio had initially began prior to 1990’s tournament when mutterings of a fantastically gifted young Italian reached me through family discussions and smatterings of media reports – as well as good old copies of World Soccer.
Today anyone can be a virtual world scout with just a few clicks of a mouse-button and even pre-teen amateurs have digital dossiers uploaded for the masses to view. However, in the pre-internet/Sky Sports/Youtube era, when UK football fans had little-to-no access to watching overseas talent – major tournaments apart – if a young foreign player was making waves it was generally for special reasons.
My interest in number 10s had already been perked by stories of players who could do something different with the ball; ones who stood apart from the rest with a seemingly magical ability fascinated me. Additionally, an uncle had long been obsessed with a certain Argentine number 10, hailed as the world’s best – his room adorned with a plethora of Maradona memorabilia; the ultimate shrine to his greatness.
As a staunch Liverpool FC fan, John Barnes was my favourite player; another who stood apart from the rest with his ability to bewitch his opponents wearing the sacred 10 – but now Baggio now stood above all.
Suffice to say in the years that followed Italia ’90 my pride grew exponentially with Baggio’s rise as he fulfilled his massive potential; culminating in his coronation as Europe’s (and the world’s) best player at the end of 1993 – making official to the rest what I already knew. My room was now the premier shrine in the family.
No sooner had he reached his peak, a cruel twist of fate would see him topple from his perch on the biggest stage – but never in my eyes. No penalty miss would ever see me forsake the player most responsible for Italy’s presence in the 1994 final. Others didn’t see it that way – shunned and hung out to dry by Sacchi who clearly made Baggio the sacrificial scapegoat in his place – I seemed the lone heretic in the years that followed.
During this time I remained steadfast and loyal throughout, however a blot remained against my name. Despite all the pictures, posters, press clippings, videos, magazines, football shirts and boots I’d amassed in his name, I was yet to actually see my hero in the flesh, being too young to make a pilgrimage to Italy.
My closest association came through my uncle (the very same who worshipped Maradona) who met him through business whilst at AC Milan, immediately sending me a picture of them both. So near, yet so far…
Fate and irony then cruelly combined to offer the ultimate opportunity, teasing with one hand but quickly snatching away with another, as Italy were drawn to play two of their Euro 96 group games at Anfield. My idol would be playing in my city at my team’s home – perfect! Sacchi quickly put paid to that however; opting to take Del Piero and Zola instead whilst Baggio remained an outcast.
Italy flopped and I was glad; Sacchi would get his comeuppance. I had become spiteful, wanting Italy to do well whilst paradoxically wanting failure – thus proving the team needed my idol and not these fugazi number 10s wearing his shirt.
From 1997 things began to change again. Cesare Maldini was the Italian Don and with another World Cup on the horizon, the calls for Baggio’s return to the Azzurri grew louder with each passing week as he performed sensationally for Bologna. And although Del Piero and Zola were obvious talents at club level, neither proved prolific or galvanised Italy like Baggio did.
Maldini Sr could resist the public no more, recalling Baggio for a decisive World Cup qualifier v Poland. His faith was instantly repaid as Italy ran out 3-0 winners with a sumptuous goal by Il Divin Codino. With the first phase of his redemption completed, Baggio was now back where he belonged – on the world stage, booking his place in the Italian squad for France ’98. This was something I couldn’t miss.
Then, by a severe stroke of luck, the CEO of a company who had secured a corporate box for the group stages of the World Cup at the Stade de France owed my uncle a favour (the same uncle mentioned above) – and as Italy had been drawn to play their final group game in Paris, he decided to call in that favour. I would finally see my idol play live, at long last. Or would I..?
Del Piero was now seen as Italy’s preeminent number 10 and Baggio, a fading force the wrong side of 30, despite his re-emergence. What’s more, the Juventus talisman was coming off the back of his own sensational season, firing in 33 goals as Juve defended their league title, reached the European Cup final and the Coppa Italia semi-finals.
All this was of little consequence to me, of course; I knew Baggio was his superior, particularly when it came to the Azzurri. The debate raged in Italy as to who deserved a starting role with it deemed impossible for both to play together – sparking memories of Mazzola v Rivera circa 1970.
Unfortunately for Del Piero, he’d picked up an injury towards the end of Juve’s campaign ensuring Baggio got the nod for Italy’s tough opener against Chile. Carpe diem. After assisting Bobo Vieri superbly to score Il Divin Codino then went through mental anguish with Italy 1-2 down, by first winning, then taking a late spot-kick in his first World Cup appearance since that penalty in Pasadena. With the ball hitting the net, four years of purgatory was lifted – not just for the man himself, but for me, sitting at home hundreds of miles away, elated. Surely now, Baggio could not be dropped.
In the next game against Cameroon Baggio demonstrated his worth by supplying yet another goal as the Azzurri eased to a 3-0 win. Regardless of Del Piero’s recovery my idol must have done enough to cement himself into the starting XI ahead of my pilgrimage; two games, two assists, one goal and qualification virtually assured.
Only, Cesere Maldini had other ideas.
In the days prior to my journey, rumours gathered that Del Piero would be restored. ‘Surely not?!’ I thought as I excitedly travelled to Paris, remaining confident that Maldini would not bow to pressure in selecting Italy’s new golden boy.
Arriving at the Stade de France I was warmly greeted by a French business delegate who was befuddled as to why a young Scouse lad had chosen come all this way to watch an Italy v Austria group match in the World Cup. Upon informing him of my reason he shot me an awkward look; “…Baggio has not been selected, I’m sorry…”
Devastated, I quickly sought further confirmation. Rushing to my seat out through the front of the corporate box I saw the printed team-sheet. Cesere Maldini had crushed my dream.
The match wasn’t a great spectacle, of that I’m pretty sure. However it had become secondary to me once the first whistle blew. My eyes were consistently drawn to the opposite stand where the teams benches were located, hoping to catch glimpses of my idol. Italy scored and even though the creator was the Azzurri number 10, it was not the one I had dreamed it to be. Cesare had seen to that.
Some small hope remained though as whilst Italy were ahead, they were far from convincing. I, along with the rest of the Italian fans in attendance knew the reason for this of course, as we all began to chant: “Baggio! Baggio! Baggio!” – but was Cesare listening? On 72 minutes he finally acknowledged he understood. The number 10 being replaced by the number 18 on the giant scoreboard signalled the arrival of my idol. Mission complete.
Whilst there were a few neat touches here and there from him, Italy remained under pressure, sporadically trying to counter-attack. Not that I cared, as right before my eyes, after 8 years of dedication – championing, celebrating, trying to emulate and defending him to the hilt – Roberto Baggio was live in front of me, dazzling.
Although Francesco Moriero soon felt my wrath as he chose not to square a golden opportunity to Baggio for a certain goal, I/Baggio was not to be denied. With the clock ticking down, an intelligent dummy from Pippo Inzaghi led to a one-two between the two of them culminating in a goal for Baggio. My dream reality now had the perfect ending in the 89th minute. There was still time for Austria to convert a penalty and for Baggio to embark on a run – straight from the kick-off – dribbling past one, two, three players, almost scoring in a similar fashion to the Czechoslovakia goal all those years ago.
And there you have it – I was elated as the game ended 2-1, finally witnessing my idol in action and scoring the winner, but in that moment and my thoughts about the journey in the years since, in the end it all seems perfectly uncanny…
It had all begun watching him for the first time ‘live’ on TV in Italy’s final group game of the 1990 World Cup, scoring his first ever goal in the tournament. Now, like some supernatural cosmic symmetry, the stars had aligned for me to watch him LIVE for the first time in Italy’s final group game of the 1998 World Cup, scoring his last ever goal in the tournament – which proved to be his last ever goal for Italy.
Grazie, Roby. Sempre Baggio.