It affected me for years. It is the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it. If I could erase a moment, it would be that one.
Before Baggio stepped up to take that penalty kick for Italy in this he 1994 World Cup final, he was considered one of the best players to ever play for his country. With that one kick, some say, his legacy changed.
It was a hot July afternoon inside California’s Rose Bowl, and after 120 minutes and a deadlocked game of 0-0 between the Azzurri and Selecao (Italy & Brazil if that’s your speed), it came down to penalty kicks. Baggio was certain to score. After all, he had done it several times before. The pulsating crowd gathered in Rome that night was still, even the gondoleri in Venice had taken a break to watch. All he had to do was put it in the net. But penalty kicks are unforgiving, often cruel and are as equal a test of mental fortitude as they are a test of physical endurance.
As the sweat beaded around his forehead, his oversized Diadora shirt soaked like a wet towel, the No. 10 on his back waved like a flag. The man who played a majority of the match with a pulled hamstring, placed the ball in position, looked down, took a deep breath and kicked.
He missed. Brazil won.
The Divine Ponytail
To question one person’s illustrious entire career because of one moment is arguably unfair. However, that may have been the fate of Roberto Baggio, the man known as “the Divine Ponytail.”
There are very few players that could play for rival teams like Milan, Juventus, Inter, Fiorentina and still be considered a national hero and be universally loved.
Only Andrea Pirlo has matched this feat.
In November, Pirlo, who played with Baggio at Brescia told Marca Plus: “Roberto Baggio? He was my idol. For a young lad it’s a dream to play with your idol and I managed to make that happen.”
Despite losing the World Cup over 22 years ago, you will never hear an Italian speak ill of Baggio. If you do, there will be an angry horde quickly coming to the player’s defense.
Starting his career in 1980 with Serie C side Vicenza, Baggio quickly became the subject of desire of many big clubs in Serie A. He could rotate between being an attacking midfielder and a forward. He could pass, score, craft plays all without batting an eye.
In 1985, he signed with Fiorentina. There, he became their marquee man before Juventus came calling following his magical 1990 World Cup alongside Toto Schillaci. Spending five seasons with “La Vecchia Signora,” the ponytailed player, who helped lead Italy to the 1990 World Cup final, did it again in 1994. This time, Brazil stood in his way.
Baggio was an enigma. He was respected in Europe and at home in Italy. He was a devout Buddhist in a predominantly Catholic country. In a country filled with outspoken people, he was immensely quiet and private. In a nation that has a history of passionate and aggressive players like Totti, Vieri, De Rossi, Baresi; Baggio was always as cool as a cucumber. He played by the rules in a republic with a rather colorful past.
Every player that kicks a ball professionally lives a dream — Baggio embodied it. Watching him play was like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel or being a fly on the wall as The Beatles recorded in Abbey Road.
Baggio was an artist, but even the greatest of artists make mistakes.
Baggio’s mistake came on the globe’s biggest stage and would cost Italy a World Cup and him embarrassment for ages. In 2010, when he accepted an award from the Nobel Peace Prize commission, he said during his speech:
I have lost three World Cups, all on penalties … If you’ll allow me this, it really gets on my nerves. (Italy lost out on chances at both the 1990 and 1998 finals after losing out on penalties).
In April of 1994, Brazil faced the tragic loss of their hero Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna. Senna died in a crash during a race in Italy. His death at 24 shook the nation to its core, and millions lined the streets of Sao Paolo for his funeral. The country was effectively shut down as everyone mourned the death of this young hero who gave back to his country and people.
I never kicked a penalty over the bar. I think that day Ayrton Senna, from the sky, pushed the ball up. He was to make Brazil win.” Baggio famously said after missing the kick.
At the beginning of the 1994 World Cup, Baggio got off to a sluggish start. The owner of Juventus, his club at the time, famously called him a “wet rabbit,” due to his lack of scoring. Once Italy advanced to the group stages by the skin of their teeth, Baggio began to light up.
He scored in every game where Italy was facing a knockout. He had a total of 5 goals and numerous assists, but in the semi-final he pulled a hamstring. Being the type of player that he was, there was no way he would miss on the final. If his legs sort of worked,he would play.
Ask any national team player worth their salt and they will speak of the indescribable pride they feel every time they don their nation’s jersey. Every Olympian and World Cup bound soccer player is connected by the flag on their chest. These players have an opportunity to bring hope, mend political divides and inspire.
Players like Baggio understood the importance of playing for one’s country. It is why he shined the brightest on the international stage. But sometimes, even the prospect of glory cannot supersede exhaustion.
I knew what I had to do and my concentration was perfect. But I was so tired that I tried to hit the ball too hard.
As Baggio bowed his head in disbelief, the Brazilian national team erupted in jubilation onto the field. Baggio must have been on to something, because they dedicated their win to Senna.
Baggio’s career carried on. He went to play for A.C. Milan, Bolognia and ended his career with Brescia in 2004. He represented Italy in the 1998 World Cup in France and was famously left out of the Euro 2000 squad, something that still hurts him to this day.
The now 49-year-old plays in charity matches around the world and is a UN Goodwill ambassador. In 2000, Italy declared him their “Player of the Century” and in 2011 was inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame.
Like Senna, Baggio was and still is the heart and soul of their people. Heroes to millions around the globe, they transcended sport and brought something entirely different to their craft.
It is only poetic and fitting that the Buddhist soccer player believes the late racecar driver brought his ball to heaven. Divine indeed.