Words: Sam Diss
Images: Offside Sports Photography
The Pro-Direct Soccer store in Carnaby Street must’ve been about a hundred degrees inside. Under hot house lights, the shop was fit to burst with sweating fans young and old fighting to sneak a glimpse of a middle-aged man who hasn’t played pro football in thirteen years.
But he’s there, they can feel him in the building; his aura. Several fans clutch 8x10 photographs of his face and big, fat Sharpies; another cradles a framed picture of his rear profile and the gilded words ‘Il Divin Codino’, yet another holds out a subscriber copy of MUNDIAL issue two that bears his face on the cover. I smile at the Mundial fan, but he’s busy. He’s focussed.
I watch four kids surrounding a display of new boots, the Diadora Match Winner—premium black leather, fluro-yellow detailing, a number 10 and a signature on the heel. One of them picks up a pair, reverently, and inspects it before catching eyes with security and gently putting it back down. Another does the same. Then the other. Then the other. It’s like they just want to touch the boot, just enough before they’re thrown out, like they’re touching the feet of the man himself.
It’s hot. I’m despo for a bottle of water, fanning myself with my notebook. A middle-aged man sidles up to me. “Did you meet him?” he asks, noticing how flustered I am. Yeah, I say. Just now. Just spoke to him. And he just stares at me and he shakes his head. “I just can’t believe he’s here.”
When I meet him downstairs, he’s standing as those around him sit. Clad in Diadora’s new, quintessentially 90s tracksuit—part of a new ‘Made In Italy’ capsule collection that features his signature embroidered in gold—and his hair is… Wait, where’s the ponytail gone? He laughs. He just smiles, shrugs. It’s gone. Finito (for now). Something so iconic—he’s the Divine Ponytail!—and to him it’s nothing. He can cut it off if he likes, grow one back again. No big deal. Just like the things he did on the pitch: what you might think is special to him is just normal. He’s Roberto Baggio.
And yet people just want to ask him about the penalty. That penalty. Against Brazil. The World Cup final, Roberto, you might remember it. We don’t need to go into it—it was a very sad moment, it’s safe to say. “I think about it every day,” said Baggio to reluctant interviewer and translator James Richardson, he of pink newspapers and espressos on Channel 4’s Football Italia, back when he used to call Roberto ‘Bobby Badger’, forced to ask the question everyone’s thinking in the Q&A element of the launch. “How can you not? I’ve had penalties saved, but I’ve never missed. I’ve never done that before.”
Before I met him, I watched each of Baggio’s twenty-seven goals for the Italian national team. Consider it the best homework assignment imaginable: transporting yourself back to the Azzurri’s technicolour heyday, blue bleeding across the screen, lush green, white nets, this genius with a rat-tail dancing through gruesome defenders, leaving them staring at his boots. And of his goals, there’s barely a straightforward one in the bunch. Now, I ask him, in the basement of this shop, does he ever go back and watch his highlights? You know, just for old time’s sake. “Every once in a while,” he says, sitting down next to me finally.
“You scored so many beautiful goals, Roberto. Did the pretty ones ever mean more to you than the simple ones?”
“It all depended on the moment,” he said. “Sometimes you might score a goal, but it’s important for you and for the team. If you create a masterpiece and you lose 8–1, it doesn’t count. My most important goal was the last-minute winner against Nigeria in 1994. It probably wasn’t so beautiful to look at, but it was useful because it got [Italy] through.”
A pragmatist off the pitch but an undoubted aesthete on it, for all Baggio’s modesty, he rarely did things the ugly way. From his debut goal, a curling free-kick into the cestini superiori in a friendly versus Uruguay, he never looked back. I look at my notes and see ‘Bulgaria, 2nd goal, 1989’: probably not a goal that springs immediately to people’s minds (certainly not one I knew well before finishing my homework) but watching it now, you get a full picture of what Baggio would become. Picking up the ball on the halfway line, he bursts past one and lays it off to a teammate who cuts inside as Baggio rounds him before laying it back into his path. He’s running flat-out, gliding, into the penalty area, straight at the goalkeeper and then stops. The goalie crumples to the floor. “Oh!” the commentator shouts as Baggio drops a shoulder, rounds him, and slots it. “Golazo di Baggio!”
“Yes,” says Roberto, eyes smiling. “I remember it.” Of course, I say to myself. How could you not?
But it wasn’t all about him. I overheard him earlier saying he enjoyed his assists almost as much as his goals.
“Was that true, Roberto?”
“Well,” he said, gently scratching his stubble, “it was definitely a great pleasure, and it was definitely a great joy to assist. I knew what it meant to score and so it meant a lot to me to know that my teammate could feel that kind of joy as well… But really, it was just about passing to whoever was in the position to score. It wasn’t necessarily anything deeper than that.”
“If there was an opportunity to pass to someone else or score which one do you feel you would go for?” I asked.
“It would depend on what I was thinking about in that moment. In the moment there are so many variables. Usually it was trying to understand what the easiest way to score was. So it wasn’t about ego or anything, it was just about doing the most useful thing I could.”
“That’s ironic,” I said, “because in quite a lot of your goals you take it around the goalkeeper. Especially for Italy, I’ve seen you do it quite a few times, taking it around them, it seems like a more complicated way to score…”
“I didn’t think it was that sort of thought process like showing off or anything,” he said. “It seemed to be the easiest way at that moment, but then it became more and more difficult as time wore on because after time it became super difficult to actually get in close to the goal without three defenders being all over you. So it sort of changed my game as well. My game actually became about trying to score as fast as you could instead of trying to do the most beautiful thing. You just had to do whatever you could do.”
It is a testament to his drive that Baggio managed any kind of career at all, let alone played to the point where it needed three defenders to keep him quiet. At age 18, in his final season at his hometown Serie C1 club Vicenza, and on the eve of a move to Fiorentina, he shattered his ACL and meniscus. Doctors told him he’d never play again. Fiorentina kept the faith and signed him anyway, patiently working with him through his rehabilitation. He proved the doctors wrong and finally made his Serie A debut for Viola on September 21st, sixteen months since his first career-ending knee injury. Then Baggio suffered another career-ending knee injury just seven days later, an injury which necessitated an operation requiring 220 stitches to have it rebuilt. The pain was excruciating, almost unbearable, and worse still because of his allergy to painkillers.
“I was in agony,” he told Corriere dello Sport. “I even told my mother ‘If you love me, then kill me.’” It was the desperation of a lad who was suffering and saw the dream of a lifetime floating away, having touched it with a fingertip.
In the two weeks following the operation, Baggio lost almost two stone in weight, unable to eat from physical and emotional pain. He was out for most of the season... And yet he came back. Again. “The angels sing in his legs," said former Fiorentina manager Aldo Agroppi. He finally scored his first league goal from a free kick on 10 May 1987, eight months later, in a 1–1 draw against the eventual Serie A champions, Maradona's Napoli, his equaliser saving Fiorentina from relegation.
He’d go on to play for Juventus—who broke the world transfer record to sign him in a move that saw riots on the streets of Florence—and Milan, Bologna, and have a frustrating spell at Inter, before flourishing for plucky Brescia in the years before his retirement.
While injuries plagued his career, “Every game could have been my last,” Baggio once said. “I had to run in straight lines because every change of direction was a trauma.” He still went on to be regarded as the best Italian player of all time. You knew that. Upon signing Baggio, Juventus owner Gianni Agnelli compared him to Renaissance painter Raphael, a grandmaster renowned for his work’s clarity of form, ease of composition, and visual achievement. Not a bad fit, Gianni.
Despite his colourful domestic career, he remains a singular phenomenon in calcio, rising above club affiliation.
“The other day I was talking about Roberto with my friends,” said the typically stylish Diadora CEO Enrico Moretti Polegato at the launch, “and we were thinking: ‘How do you remember Baggio? Which version?’ And everyone said: ‘I don’t recall him wearing this team’s jersey or that team’s jersey. I remember him in the blue of the national team.’ He’s an icon. He belongs to all Italians.”
“And now Roberto is not only an icon for Italian sports, he’s an icon at Diadora,” Polegato added. “We share the same values; sport isn’t just about talent; it’s about passion, it’s about having fun, it’s about commitment. That’s something that means a lot to us as a brand.”
“We wanted to bring back the Match Winner to support our values when we relaunched Diadora in 2009. We wanted to refocus on sports and authenticity. Roberto was the natural spokesman: he typifies everything good our country has ever done in sport.”
One thing he did as good as anyone was score goals. While his average of a net-nestler ever 2.07 games for the Azzurri might not be on the stratospheric levels of Messrs Messi and Ronaldo, the average quality was certainly right up there. Back down in the basement, I sought to grill Il Divin Codino on his favourites. One stood above the rest.
“Czechoslovakia?” I said.
He smiled. “I just kept going and going...” he said, nodding, eyes taking him back. “It was my first game [at a World Cup]... It was very special.”
And he wasn’t wrong. Italia ‘90, versus the Czechs, Baggio picks up the ball at the halfway line. (It’s always the halfway line, isn’t it?) He checked and lays it off to Giuseppe Giannini, who plays it back into his path first time. (The old one-two again; so selfless, ain’t he?) The crackle of electricity is in the air. “Baggio…” said John Motson on comms. He takes it past one, a sprawling Ivan Hašek, the Czech captain. “And still Baggio…” He drives at the heart of the defence with gusto. They’re sitting ducks, here. He powers one way, steps over with his right, and darts off in the other direction. “He's taking them all on!” With just the keeper to beat he sends him the wrong way, lashing one into the bottom left. “That’s a fantastic goal!” Yeah, too right, Motty. One of the all-time best. “That’s the goal they’ve all been waiting for!” Baggio takes a few steps in celebration before collapsing on his back to the floor, lying prostrate on the pitch, eyes to the sky. That’s the moment he becomes divine.
At the end of the launch, as James Richardson says his thank yous to the crowd and assorted members of press, there comes the deluge. Roberto Baggio was now available for pictures, to sign autographs, to sign your broken-arm cast, your T-shirt, your copy of Mundial. The mass of bodies in the shop surged forward. I tried to catch the eye of the guy who came up to me earlier, the one who couldn’t believe it. Believe it now, eh? But he was locked in, focussed. Driving forward, jinking one way then the other, breaking through the line. I left him to it.
I looked over once more at the small fella with the curly grey hair in the tracksuit top who used to be the best in the world, smiling for the cameras, mobbed by old and young, each trying to touch his shoulder, touch someone so few could on the pitch.
I bet nobody cares about that penalty now.
The Diadora Match Winner is available from selected retailers
This feature was from Issue 11. Did you like that? You should probably subscribe to our quarterly magazine, then. You won't regret it.