My Perfect 10: Roberto Baggio

The new issue of FourFourTwo is a 'Playmakers Special'. This week on our writers will be celebrating their favourite fantasistas – Riccardo Rossi continues the series with a look at the man best known as the Divine Ponytail...

The late 1980s were an enjoyable time to follow football in Italy.

The national team were coming off a positive performance at Euro ’88 and with the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and Paolo Maldini making their breakthrough, hopes were high that the Azzurri would win the World Cup in 1990 as hosts.

On the club front, AC Milan were starting to play the sort of football that would see Silvio Berlusconi’s club sweep through Europe, Napoli were packing the San Paolo as Diego Maradona held court, while it also looked as if Inter were finally coming out of the doldrums.

Then, every week there was the treat of witnessing the likes of Van Basten, Gullit, Maradona and Careca along with the rest of the glittering gallery of some of the world’s best players in action.

Everyone wanted to be in Italy ahead of Italia ’90 – and every Italian wanted a home-grown hero: that wish would come true.

What drew the football-watching public to Roberto Baggio was just how unremarkable he looked.

Baggio shares a tender moment with Salvatore Schillaci

Maradona was a barrel-chest Napoleon, Van Basten tall and elegant in his very movement, Gullit a dread-locked colossus but Baggio was a skinny urchin with a face you would never pick out from the rest of the curly-topped youths of that era.

Then, his look was so different from the players of the clubs ruling the league at the time: shirt outside his shorts, socks around the ankles and that hunched run – he was the street player in every one of us.

Playing for Fiorentina also set him apart because, never-mind that the Viola were never going to win the league, they were hardly ever going to win away from home.

And when they did, it was generally Baggio who produced a moment that could never be taught on the training field and his solo goal at Napoli at the start of the 1989-90 season sealed the deal forever

No one ever had audacity to turn up at the San Paolo and waltz through the best defence in the league before walking the ball into the net – the goal was replayed through the evening of that broiling hot Sunday and right through the following week.

A flickering television highlight was one thing but now you had to see this young dribbler who seemed to float past opponents live in front of you.

Serie Aaaaargh! would have to wait until the last day of that season in the inauspicious surroundings of the Stadio Flaminio in Rome for the moment to arrive.

AS Roma and Lazio had been temporarily evicted from the Olympic stadium so that it could be brought up to standard for the World Cup so they moved across to the Tiber to the compact Flaminio where the Six Nations Rugby matches are now held.

It was a third division ground really, but at that meant you could press yourself in front of Perspex glass to get close to the action.

Roma had already qualified for Europe and Fiorentina were safe from relegation and somehow – well we knew how – qualified for the final of the UEFA Cup so it was basically one of those end-of-the-season kickabouts.

The Giallorossi had Giuseppe Giannini controlling the midfield at a leisurely pace with his thoughts on the World Cup and for all we know Baggio was taking it easy too.

However, whenever the ball arrived at his feet the tempo of the game was lifted a notch or two – he was ahead of Mardona in the goalscoring charts and just behind the league’s top goalscorer Van Basten.

A couple of goals could have possibly made him the league’s capocannoniere and in fact he had an opportunity to score, but unbelievable missed a penalty or if memory serves correctly Franco Tancredi, the current England goalkeeping coach, dived to his left to save.

The sight of Baggio with his hands on hips and head bowed was a rare sight at that time but it only added to his allure.

He may have been subbed off shortly afterwards, but little did it matter because Italia 90 was less than a month away and tickets had been procured for all the games in Rome – which meant Italy and without doubt another glimpse of Baggio.

However, there no sign of our hero the first two group games – against Austria and USA – as Italy stumbled through by the only goal in both encounters.

With the team’s most naturally-gifted player languishing on the bench, coach Azeglio Vicini was becoming the most unpopular man in Italy.

He had to start Baggio against Czechoslovakia and it was a decision that produced one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history (video below).

To be there as the whole of the Olympic stadium rose as one when Baggio collected a pass from Giannini on the halfway still produces goose-bumps.

After that everything seemed to go into slow-motion as Baggio kept the ball almost tucked under his foot before producing a dummy inside the area that is better remembered in the mind than any television replay.

Then, it was all a bit of a blurry as gape-mouthed astonishment was followed by total and utter unbridled joy as the stadium celebrated until the final whistle - and right through the night – the best moment of the World Cup, the best moment of any World Cup in fact.

That instant would mark the end of youth and innocence as the world came tumbling down on Italian hopes and dreams – the Azzurri were dire against Ireland and then left the Capital for Naples never to be seen again.

When Baggio resurfaced he was no more a blossoming talent but a genuine superstar in the making, wearing a Juventus shirt and transforming into Il Codino Divino, but those snapshots of the mind from the early summer of ’90 were the essence of Italy’s greatest number 10 – the skinny lad with the ball at his feet making dreams come true.

More from Serie Aaaaargh!

My Perfect 10: Paul Simpson on Vladimir PetrovicMy Perfect 10: Steve Morgan on Robert ProsineckiMy Perfect 10: Andy Mitten on Eric CantonaMy Perfect 10: Michael Cox on Rui CostaMy Perfect 10: Hugh Sleight on ZicoMy Perfect 10: James Horncastle on Francesco Totti My Perfect 10: David Hall on Zinedine Zidane My Perfect 10: Sefa Atay on Gheorghe HagiMy Perfect 10: Jamie Bowman on Michael Laudrup My Perfect 10: Joel Richards on Juan Roman Riquelme Videos: Football's finest playmakers in full flow

The 'Playmakers Special' issue of FourFourTwo is in stories throughout September 2010.

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