Who is Roberto Baggio? - The Divine Ponytail
Who is Roberto Baggio?
In 1967, Robert Baggio was born to Florindo Baggio and Matilde Maggio, the sixth of eight children. Baggio grew up in his birth city of Veneto, Italy, where his interest in football began. His rare talent as a footballer was noticed early on, and at 9 years old, he was picked up by the local football club, Caldogno. Now part of an organised club, Baggio’s skills improved quickly. Within two years on the youth team, he had competed in 26 matches, scoring 45 goals and 20 assists, highlighting his goal scoring prowess.
Unsurprisingly, at 13 years old, he attracted the attention of the Italian club, Vicenza. The team’s Scout, Antonia Mora, bought Baggio for a sum of £300. As part of this team, Baggio continued to showcase his elite skills on the pitch, scoring 110 goals in 120 matches. In 1983, at age 15, his talents earned him a spot on the club’s main team. At the age of 16, Baggio made his Serie C1 debut with the team, and in the following season, he scored his first goal.
During that 1984/85 Serie C1 season, Baggio appeared in 29 games, scoring 12 goals and helping Vicenza gain a promotion to Serie B. As the best player in Serie C, Baggio was awarded the Guerin d’Oro in 1985 and began attracting the attention of larger Italian clubs. Most notably, Serie A side Fiorentina took much interest in the player.
Where it all began
Tragically, Baggio shattered both his ACL and the meniscus of his right knee, just two days before his official transfer deal to Fiorentina had been finalised. Several team doctors feared that he would never play football again, seriously threatening his career. Against all odds, Fiorentina put their faith in Baggio’s recovery, committing to the transfer and funding his knee surgery – a decision that would earn Baggio’s endless loyalty.
For his first season with the club, Baggio’s injury kept him out of the game. He did not appear in that season’s Serie A at all, but Fiorentina finished in fifth place, securing a place in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, where Baggio made his debut. Baggio went on to become extremely popular and is widely regarded as one of the club’s all-time best players. But after successful September debuts in both Serie A and a UEFA Cup match, tragedy struck once again. A second major knee injury forced Baggio out of the game. Requiring 220 stitches, the injury caused Baggio to lose 12kg as he missed most of the season.
The footballer did not step onto the pitch again, until May 1987 – 8 months after he sustained the injury – when he scored his first league goal against eventual Serie A champions, Diego Maradona’s Napoli. Perhaps this is why his former Fiorentina manager, Aldo Agroppi, believed “The angels sing in his legs”. It seemed, no matter the extent of the injury, Baggio always bounced back stronger.
The 1988/89 season, under manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, proved to be Baggio’s breakthrough. He led Fiorentina to a Coppa Italia quarter-final, scoring 9 goals, before going on to score a further 15 goals in Serie A, earning a 3rd place award for the title of top goalscorer. His presence on the team elevated their status – they finished 7th place in Serie A and secured a spot in the UEFA Cup. Former playmaker Miguel Montuori spoke of Baggio’s composure in front of a goal, stating that he was “more productive than Maradona; he is without doubt the best number 10 in the league”.
His composure led the club to the 1990 UEFA Cup Final, even while struggling against relegation during the 1989/90 season, and fans heralded Baggio as a football hero. Fans felt so passionately about Baggio’s role in the team’s success, that in 1990, when UEFA Cup winners Juventus bought him for a record-breaking £8 million, there were riots on the streets of Florence. 50 people were injured, and Baggio issued a statement to his fans, saying: “I was compelled to accept the transfer.” He inherited the number 10 shirt, formerly worn by Michel Platini.
Juventus fans were slow to accept Baggio; he was too loyal to Fiorentina. Ever grateful for the faith his previous club had in him, Baggio claimed: “Deep in my heart, I am always purple”, the colour of Fiorentina. His appreciation for his ex-club shone through: when Juventus played Fiorentina in April 1991, Baggio refused to take a penalty kick. Juventus went on to lose the match after Baggio’s replacement, Luigi De Agostini, failed to score. Even worse, when Baggio was substituted, he picked up a Fiorentina scarf that had been thrown onto the field – a gesture which was endearing to his former club’s fans, but incensed Juventus supporters.
Thankfully, Baggio’s raw talent helped to smooth over his rocky relationship with Juventus fans. In his first season with Juventus, Baggio played a key role in helping the team to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup; the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana.
During his second season, Baggio came to be accepted by Juventus fans, who saw him as a leader around whom the club’s play revolved. He was thus appointed team captain for the 1992/93 season – arguably one of his best. Baggio consistently dominated the pitch, pushing his team to the UEFA Cup final and winning the only European club trophy of his career. In open play against Udinese, Baggio scored 4 out of 5 goals in a 5-0 victory – one of the highlights of the season. Baggio managed to beat his personal best twice during the season – scoring 30 goals across all club competitions in 1992, and then 39 goals in 1993. His incredible performance ultimately helped his national side qualify for the World Cup, and earned him both the European Footballer of the Year, and the FIFA World Player of the Year. He was further awarded the Onze d’Or and the World Soccer Player of the Year Award.
The beginning of the end
Despite his goal scoring prowess, the series of knee injuries Baggio had sustained over the years came back to haunt him as managers began to doubt his abilities. In 1994/95, another knee injury forced Baggio to sit out for most of the season.. This made new manager, Marcello Lippi, keen to create a team that was less dependent on Baggio’s skills, and more cohesive. This proved to be a smart move, as due to his injury, Baggio only managed 17 Serie A appearances. Despite this, he still contributed to his first Scudetto with Juventus with 8 goals and 8 assists, and in 2010, he was named one of the club’s greatest players.
However, managerial doubts meant that renewing his contract with Juventus would cost Baggio half his salary. So, despite protests from Juventus fans, Baggio bid farewell to the club, transferring to A.C. Milan for a fee of £6.8 million, where his tenure was largely unsuccessful. His manager, Fabio Capello, did not believe he was fit enough to play for 90 minutes. This caused disagreements as Capello consistently substituted him at half-time.
This continued under new Milan manager Óscar Tabárez, with Baggio initially being left out of the first team. He was eventually able to convince Tabárez of his abilities, earning himself a spot in the starting line-up and becoming the focal point of the team’s offensive play. However, a series of disappointing results saw Baggio relegated to the bench.
In 1997, attempting to revive his career, Baggio decided to leave Milan and sign with Bologna, instead. Here, Baggio experienced a revival, dominating the pitch with a personal best of 22 goals during the 1997/98 season, qualifying the team for the UEFA Intertoto Cup after their 8th place finish in Serie A. It was not long before Baggio was approached to sign a lucrative deal for his childhood favourite club, Inter Milan. However, by this point, he was believed to be “past it” by his managers. Thus, he spent much of his two seasons with Inter Milan on the bench. 2 years after joining the club, he decided not to renew his expiring contract.
Baggio closed his career with a 4-year stint with Serie A newcomers, Brescia, aiming to save them from relegation. He was made captain and given the number 10 shirt, playing as an attacking midfielder. Despite persistent knee issues, Baggio scored 10 goals and 10 assists in the 2000/01 season, helping Brescian to the final of the 2001 UEFA Intertoto Cup. Ultimately, Baggio succeeded in his goal: during his 4-year tenure, Brescia recorded their best ever Serie A run and were never relegated.
Appearances: 200 / Goals: 116 / Assists: 13
Appearances: 136 / Goals: 55 / Assists: 4
Appearances: 101 / Goals: 46 / Assists: 13
Appearances: 67 / Goals: 19 / Assists: 25
Appearances: 59 / Goals: 17 / Assists: 2
Bologna FC 1909
Appearances: 33 / Goals: 23 / Assists: 1
LR Vicenza Virtus
Appearances: 8 / Goals: 2 / Assists: -
2x Guerin d’Oro
UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup top scorer
World Soccer’s World Player of the Year 1993
FIFA World Player of the Year 1993
3x Onze de Onze
FIFA World Cup Silver Ball 1994
FIFA World Cup All-Star Team 1994
Don Balon Award
Serie A top assist-provider
Former Juventus coach Antonio Conte was a team-mate of Baggio’s at the Turin giant’s during the 90s. Playing alongside Baggio taught the former midfielder to make more imaginative plays – a lesson he utilised well when he became a coach.
Ravanelli joined Juventus in 1992, forming a formidable offensive line alongside Baggio and others. He claimed that Baggio was “the greatest [he’d] played alongside”
Vialli won the UEFA Cup in his first season with Juventus playing alongside Baggio. However, he was later dropped from the Italian team during the 1990 World Cup, in favour of his former teammate.