All-time Top 20: No. 7 Roberto Baggio

ESPN FC is counting down the 20 greatest World Cup players of all time, with two unveiled per day until the final five. The identity of the No. 1 player will be announced on April 18.

Name: Roberto Baggio 
Nationality: Italy
Position: Forward
Clubs: Vicenza (1982-85), Fiorentina (1985-90), Juventus (1990-95), AC Milan (1995-97), Bologna (1997-8), Inter Milan (1998-2000), Brescia (2000-2004)
International career: 56 matches, 27 goals. 
World Cup participation: 1990, 1994, 1998 - Played 16, Scored 9
Finest World Cup moment: Two goals in semi vs. Bulgaria to take Italy to final.  
Roll of honour: Runner-up 1994, semi-finalist 1990

The run was stuttering, but looked confident enough. Brazil goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel guessed wrong, but as he turned to see where the ball had gone, Roberto Baggio’s shot was heading into the stands of the Pasadena Rose Bowl. 

The 1994 World Cup was Brazil’s; Italy had succumbed to more spot-kick horror, just as they had in 1990’s semi-final with Argentina. The player who missed the vital penalty was the shining star who had driven the Azzurri to the final.

Baggio was a prime attacking talent of his era who graced three World Cup tournaments with an enigmatic presence. He inspired awe throughout the footballing world, and was beloved back home, yet never quite won over his coaches. Even in 1994, where his goals and inspiration guided Italy to Pasadena, the relationship with coach Arrigo Sacchi was always kept at arm’s length. Had Baggio been English, American or even Brazilian he would have been the first name on the teamsheet. As it was, Italian coaches’ conservatism often took Il Divin Codino [The Divine Ponytail], so called because of his mullet hairstyle, out of their reckoning.

“Baggio would have been a regular  for most national sides, but you have to remember our coach Azeglio Vicini stressed the importance of being a settled group,” Giuseppe Bergomi, Baggio’s teammate at Italia ‘90, France ‘98 and at Inter Milan, tells ESPN FC of Baggio’s first finals.

Ahead of Italia ‘90, riots in Florence caused by Baggio’s world record transfer move to Juventus from Fiorentina had made international headlines, yet the world was made to wait until Italy’s third match for its first sight of the man. The hosts had played well in their opening matches against Austria and USA but had won them only by a single goal.  

“Baggio was the obvious choice,” says Bergomi. “Gianluca Vialli and Andrea Carnevale were supposed to be Italy's strikeforce, but Vialli was not healthy and Carnevale was not doing well, so in came Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci and Baggio, who complemented each other well. Schillaci was more instinctive and direct while Baggio was taking on defenders.”

The pair both scored against Czechoslovakia; Schillaci with a typical poacher’s finish, Baggio with a solo goal that proved the best of the entire tournament. Italy’s fresh momentum took them to a Naples semifinal against Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Vicini, though, dropped Baggio in favour of Vialli, who lasted 75 pallid minutes.  After a 1-1 draw after extra-time Argentina eventually won a penalty shootout in which Baggio converted his kick. The host nation shed tears; a 2-1 third-place win over England inspired by Baggio (who scored again) provided cold comfort. 

By the time the tournament crossed the Atlantic in 1994, Baggio was undisputed Italian kingpin, yet the relations with coach Sacchi were still uneasy. An opening defeat to Ireland, 1-0, and the early dismissal of goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca against Norway had Italy on the brink. Sacchi’s choice was to bring on substitute goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani for Baggio; the star man rendered dispensable. 

“I was ready to be taken off,” Pierluigi Casiraghi, Italy’s other striker in Giants Stadium tells ESPN FC. “I was as surprised as anybody when I saw Baggio was the player who had to leave. As a manager, now, I understand Sacchi's decision, but it was controversial at that time.”

Italy scrubbed the win. The knockout rounds saw five goals in three matches from Baggio propelling Italy to the final. He had made his point to Sacchi. 

“What Baggio did after that Norway game was simply incredible,” adds Casiraghi. “We had a solid side but he contributed more than anyone else to us reaching the final.”

However, the semifinal victory over Bulgaria came at the cost of a hamstring injury. Without him, Italy were surely lost. Sacchi took the risk, but Baggio was ineffective in what remains the least entertaining World Cup final of all; Brazil were similarly wracked by nerves in the baking Californian heat and neither team scored in 120 minutes, before Brazil won 3-2 on penalties.

“I believe Sacchi was right, especially as Baggio felt he was ready to play,” says Casiraghi, who believes Baggio did well, considering. “The humidity was so high you were out of breath each time you sprinted after a pass, but he managed to pace himself at all times. Again, you have to trust extraordinary players to shine on the biggest stage and Baggio did, despite that penalty.”

Four, mostly troubled, years later -- after a disastrous move to AC Milan -- Baggio was a wildcard pick for France ‘98 by coach Cesare Maldini; Bergomi, after an absence of seven years, was back alongside him.

“At the World Cup I could see Roberto still had all the skills and character that made him such a great player,” says Bergomi. “Alex Del Piero and Christian Vieri were slated to be the starting pair up front but Del Piero had been slowed while recovering from an injury so Baggio again had a chance, and took it.”

Greying around the temples, but as influential as ever, Baggio looked a renewed force. Though yet again, the big moment deserted him. In extra time in a quarterfinal with France, Demetrio Albertini drifted over a pass that invited a typical Baggio volley. This was the tournament of the sudden death ‘Golden Goal’, but the shot was dragged agonisingly wide. 

After another goalless 120 minutes of action, Baggio would score in the shootout this time, but Italy perished on penalties again. It proved to be another near-miss for one of the greats of the modern game, who did not return to the tournament after a torn cruciate playing for Brescia ruled him out of Giovanni Trapattoni’s reckoning for 2002. Despite a comeback that took 76 days, and an open letter sent by Baggio himself, Trap denied the nation and the world the romance of seeing Baggio at the World Cup again.