We have finally made it through 11 weeks laden with talented ‘cult’ footballing legends from almost all corners of the world, some well-known, others slightly less so. Whether you agree with the selections or concur with the final placements I am sure you can appreciate that ‘cult’ status is completely in the eyes of the beholder and should not be mistaken for a simple makeshift list of the most talented footballers. ‘Cult’ footballers are legends in their own right who, regardless of their footballing abilities, raised a proverbial eyebrow or two along their way to unrivalled renown. I hope this list has been both enjoyable and educational to you, as I have tried to depict each player from an alternative perspective and uncover some of the less conspicuous characteristics that often get forgotten with time. This week will be no exception as I reveal my all-time ‘cult’ footballer to the world and hopefully justify successfully why I believe this particular individual deserves the very top honour. Although somehow, I’m not sure that he will turn up to the awards ceremony. This particular footballer single-handedly galvanised my passion for football as my early years were spent following my Dad around the country playing American Football. Football was never my first choice sport until I absorbed myself into World Cup Italia ’90, where this particular player’s stellar performances confirmed that my future passion would be the beautiful game. A player whose abilities saw no boundaries, he was partly responsible for an explosion in popularity of the Italian Serie A and on many occasions became the sole reason for the success and failure of his national team. In some ways he was an oddity, always choosing the road less travelled and dedicating himself fully to the game he clearly adored. Most people will remember him for a solitary blemish in his career but I would argue that is what makes him so special. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the one and only, ‘Il Divin Codino’ Roberto Baggio.
Born in 1967 in Caldogno, Veneto, Roberto signed professional terms with local club Vicenza where he impressed incredibly quickly; becoming an integral part of the squad aged just 16. In 1985 he made the step up to Serie A football with Florence based giants Fiorentina where he scored an impressive 39 goals in 94 appearances from his initial position of attacking midfield. His performances for the ‘Viola’ ensured that he would go down in folklore with the Fiorentina fans who regarded Roberto as a ‘god-like’ figure. Their passion towards Baggio was epitomised after his transfer to Juventus for a world record $13 million, where full scale riots ensued on the streets and around the Stadio Artemio Franchi. With regret, Roberto left Florence for Turin where he enjoyed arguably his finest years in club football, winning a trio of titles including the 1993 UEFA Cup, the Ballon D’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year. Notably, Baggio displayed his passion, dignity and dedication when called upon to take a penalty against former team Fiorentina in 1990. Refusing to comply with the wishes of the Juventus manager, he was subsequently substituted. Upon leaving the field of play, Roberto proceeded to show a distinct act of compassion by kissing a Fiorentina scarf before issuing a post-match statement appeasing many of his former fans; “Deep in my heart, I will always be purple”.
After winning the ‘scudetto’ for the first time in 1995, Baggio transferred to Milanese giants AC Milan; further evidence in support of the claim ‘what Silvio Burlesconi wants he surely gets’. Another reason to dislike Mr Burlesconi I am sure you will agree as rumours were rife of a move to English shores with either Manchester United or recent champions Blackburn Rovers. He achieved the Serie A title yet again the very next year before persistent injury forced him to make a move to Bologna. Resurrection was clearly on the agenda as Baggio managed an impressive haul of 22 goals in 30 appearances and performed excellently in the 1998 World Cup. This earned him a recall to the elite in Italian football with a move to the blue half of Milan; Internazionale. In a two year period, Baggio only managed 41 appearances for coach Marcelo Lippi who singled out Baggio for not complying with a request which would be of detriment to his teammates. In another display of true professionalism, Roberto ensured Lippi’s job remained safe by scoring twice versus Parma, effectively qualifying Inter for the Champions League before leaving Milan to join Brescia. His 4 years at Brescia heralded more brilliant performances despite a horrific cruciate ligament injury. In 2004, he retired, not before a standing ovation from 80,000 fans at the San Siro and the retirement of his number 10 shirt at Brescia.
In terms of a club player, Baggio’s career is nothing short of phenomenal in what was regarded as the ‘best league in the world’ up to his retirement. However, the most significant talking point occurred whilst representing his country where his overall contributions were almost infinitely positive. Roberto remains the only Italian player to score in three consecutive World Cup’s; ’90, ’94 and ’98; the latter made even sweeter as many tipped Alessandro Del Piero to have taken his place but how wrong they all were. Returning to my very first Baggio encounter back in 1990, I recall a group match between Italy and Czechoslovakia at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome where I witnessed the greatest goal I believe he has ever scored. I feel honoured that I had watched this masterpiece live and it gave me the inspiration to get involved in football; little did I know it would become an obsession. Only when I first kicked a ball and witnessed my own deficiencies did I realise I would be incapable of running that far, let alone performing such incredible feats with a ball at my feet.
World Cup USA ’94 could not come soon enough and, what with England’s failure to qualify, I could adopt Italy as my supported team without any feelings of guilt or having to justify the reasons to anyone. Watching the master at work in Italian football was incredibly useful and I’m sure my Dad did not object to me watching such talents as Baggio tended to be the personification of my Father’s teachings. Appreciating possession was Roberto’s biggest attribute in my opinion as he rarely gave the ball to a member of the opposition unnecessarily. His ball control, vision, passing ability and anticipation were unrivalled; the ball just stuck to his feet. In addition, Baggio had quick feet, great balance, controlled aggression and the ability to use either foot in any circumstance. Who wouldn’t have him as their ultimate footballing role model? I was once the proud owner of an official 1994 Italy World Cup shirt, proudly displayed at every PE session at middle school and a pair of Diadora ‘Baggio’ special edition football boots. To this day I regret growing out of those boots as I should have embarked on a self-inflicted programme of Chinese foot binding but I suppose hindsight is a wonderful thing.
*If anyone has as spare £75, click the above image… You now know what to buy me.
I appreciate that we have been here before but on the 17th July 1994 at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, California, Roberto Baggio went down in history for his solitary blemish on his otherwise perfect career. After single-handedly marching an underperforming Italian team through the group phase and the knockout stage, he had the responsibility of keeping Italy in with a chance of World Cup glory by scoring his penalty. What followed his run-up was nothing short of astonishing. A player whose abilities led to him becoming the most prolific penalty taker in Italian football managed to conjure up one of the worst penalty misses of all time. To this day I am still reeling from seeing that ball fly over Claudio Taffarel’s crossbar, handing Brazil a long overdue World Cup title. Without the efforts and goals of Roberto, Italy would never have seen those later stages of the competition as his impressive tally of five goals was in spite of his acute hamstring injury he duly played with regardless. I suppose the injury may have had something to do with the penalty miss or maybe it was the heat? I suppose we will never know and to be honest I don’t think I ever want to.
Despite the setback and permanent blemish of 1994, Roberto played for a further 8 years and despite that penalty miss continued to represent his country until 1999. It is true testament to the legend that is ‘Il Divin Codino’ as regardless of suffering the biggest misfortune in world football he returned every bit as much of the player that preceded that tournament. Baggio has attributed his dedication, passion, professionalism and performance in the game of football to his religion of Buddhism. Inspired by its teachings from a young age, Roberto converted from Roman Catholicism to devote himself to his new religion. If Nichiren Buddhism has conditioned a man as unique as him then I am sure its teachings could be distributed amongst some footballers in this day and age because some surely require it. For just being Roberto Baggio, the epitome of what every footballer should aspire to, he is deservedly THE number one ‘cult’ footballer of all-time.
Keep up to date with Baggio’s latest actions as he ambassador’s for many charities and causes across the world. http://www.robertobaggio.com/en/
Here are some divine moments of Roberto’s beautiful career…
Wind this video forward to see him score with the outside of his right foot from behind the corner flag (3:28 approx)…