Roberto Baggio is still on the case

The hair, once jet black like a movie star’s, is silvery grey now. The famous ponytail is long gone - cut off in 1997. The most telling legacy of Roberto Baggio’s illustrious playing career is the pain in his knees. He likes to run to keep fit but “only in straight lines, every change of direction is a minor trauma.”

Italy’s freescoring fantasista, one of the few modern footballers to achieve mythic status before he hung up his boots, has a new job now. After a clean, prolonged break from the game, Baggio is back as president of the Italian FA’s technical sector. And as he makes clear in an exclusive interview in the current issue of Champions, he returns with an agenda – one that may ruffle the egos of the 35,000 coaches in calcio he will oversee his new role.

Revenge of the narcissists

As a boy, Baggio was inspired by players and their creativity. “Zico was my model as a child,” he told Sergio di Cesare, the respected Italian football writer who interviewed him for Champions. “In my time, I particularly liked Diego Maradona and Marco van Basten for their intelligent game and Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini for their personality and leadership.”

The modern player he adores, predictably enough, is Lionel Messi. “He plays like a child in a playground, unaffected by tactics, teammates or opponents.” But Messi would not, he believes, be as great as he is if it weren’t for Pep Guardiola “who does not try to confine his talent but gives Messi all the space he can express it.”

And that, in a nutshell, is what Baggio would like more coaches to do: “One should never denigrate talent, as happens far too often at grassroots, when young players are told off for trying a backheel or some clever dribbling.

“For me, football has always been about trying something difficult, truly inventive or an action that will be truly remembered. I’ve never really been satisfied by the easily scored goal.”

That vision of football, he feels, has been undermined because “modern football is increasingly dominated by the coaches, their narcissism, their tendency to put themselves above the team and their players.”

Baggio is interviewed in the latest edition of Champions - out now

For Baggio, the tactical negativity that has begun to imprison players is an abominable mutation of the beautiful game. “Players are the true protagonists,” he insists. He has a point. I can’t remember anyone ever telling me they were going to a match to watch a coach.

The 2010 World Cup, surely the most sterile in living memory, produced few memorable moments of true invention – unless you count Luis Suarez’s handball or Nigel de Jong’s kung fu in the final – and was so short of magic that even as you read this Sepp Blatter and his blazered army of apparatchiks are devising cunning schemes to give the next mundial a serious makeover. When I say “cunning” I do, of course, use the word quite wrongly.

But their frenetic head-scratching reveals that even Fifa has recognised that even an event as iconic and resonant as the World Cup cannot afford too many tournaments as mediocre as last summer’s.

Baggio’s rebalancing act

Will Baggio succeed in rebalancing calcio, encouraging coaches to put players at the heart of their approach and ensure that the beautiful game shows us a bit more beauty?

His own career suggests the odds are stacked against him. A footballing deity to fans, he was often distrusted by coaches like Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti.

For a player with one and a half legs, as he likes to joke, he won many honours – but never the World Cup or the European Cup. As a player, he was probably most at ease at Fiorentina and Brescia rather than at Inter, Juventus or Milan.

Some men, as Bobby Kennedy used to say when quoting George Bernard Shaw, see things as they are and ask: why? Others dream of things that never were and ask: why not? Baggio dreams of “a kind of football where players are back at the heart of the game, ditching rigid, collective boring collective strategies” and asks: why can’t we have that back?

To many, his views will sound nostalgic, even reactionary. Unlike Gatsby, Baggio isn’t trying to repeat the past. He’s merely striving to rectify a flaw which he believes could endanger the game’s future. In his nightmares, he sees his creative heirs, marginalised and frustrated, unable to invent the kind of moments that live in our memory and football degenerating into an inferior variant of chess, with 22 pawns, a ball and a grandmaster in the dugout.

If you want to read the full interview with Roberto Baggio, in which he relives some of the most excruciating moments of his life – the stitches, that penalty at USA 94 – and reflects on Buddhism, Hemingway and Ayrton Senna, buy the current issue of Champions, available at all good newsagents and a few frankly mediocre ones.