Paul Simpson, former editor of FourFourTwo wrote that “We all have a World Cup that feels less like a tournament than a rite of passage, introducing us to idols, emotions and intrigue we will remember for the rest of our lives..” For me that World Cup was Italia 90 and the idol I was introduced to was ‘Il Divin Codino‘, Roberto Baggio.
As a player, Baggio will be remembered as one of the all-time greats in Italy. Following his controversial transfer from Fiorentina to Juventus in 1990 the Viola fans rioted on the streets in Florence and anyone that witnessed his performances for the Azzurri during Italia ‘90 can see the reasons for the outcry in Florence. His solo effort against Czechoslovakia was perhaps goal of the tournament and demonstrated to the entire world exactly why Juve broke the world transfer record to sign him.
His performances for Juve justified his hefty price tag and one of my fondest memories of Baggio as a Juve player was his performance in the first leg of the UEFA Cup Final against Borussia Dortmund in 1993 which led to Juve lifting the trophy after the return leg in Turin. The beauty of Baggio was his ability to make everything look so easy, especially his trademark move of rounding the keeper at the last second and slotting the ball home, a skill that is rarely seen nowadays. Every time he received the ball you got the feeling that something special was going to happen.
This was no more evident than at USA ‘94 when he almost single-handedly carried Italy to the World Cup Final. Following a disastrous start to the tournament which included him being substituted against Norway after Italy were reduced to 10 men, Baggio returned to save Italy’s blushes against Nigeria and consequently scored the winner against Spain in the quarter-finals before his man of the match display against Bulgaria in the last four. When Baggio pulled his hamstring in that game Italy’s heart sank. Sporting a heavily strapped thigh he did go on to play in the final only to have the misfortune of being the man whose tragic penalty miss led to Brazil’s triumph in a game that he was never fit to play in.
During Baggio’s rollercoaster career which included a career-threatening knee injury at a young age, winning various titles with Juventus and Milan, the heartache of missing that World Cup Final penalty, being crowned European and World footballer of the year and becoming a legend with provincial club Brescia (a club that in his honour retired the number 10 jersey), Baggio always remained a very humble man and a true role model.
Outside of football Baggio led a very normal life. He avoided the limelight that so many footballers choose to become a part of. He married his childhood sweetheart, remained a real family man and spent his spare time enjoying hobbies such as hunting – on occasion with his good friend Gabriel Batistuta. It is hard to believe that someone capable of producing such magic on the pitch remained such a modest and normal person. A veritable legend of the Italian game, Baggio is truly deserving of the ‘Il Divin Codino’ moniker.