Divine Ponytail to divine intervention

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It has been just over a month since Italy’s world fell apart and the nation could no longer bask in the title of world champions.

La Gazzetta dello Sport’s apocalyptic headline “The Darkest Hour” summed up the miserable mood post-South Africa – and there seemed little light on the horizon to lift the country out of the doldrums.

The future looked bleak to say the least: a top-flight league with an average age of 27 years and four months - making it second oldest only to Cyprus – compared to a European average of 25 years and eight months; where only eight per cent of players under 21 saw first team action last season and where the Under-19 national side followed in the footsteps of their senior counterparts and failed to go beyond the group stage at the European championships.

Year Zero indeed - and time for a rethink of the country’s national sport at all levels.

Certainly the arrival of Cesare Prandelli as Azzurri coach was step in the right direction or least step away from the confines of the old guard which crippled Marcello Lippi’s second stint in charge.

However, of greater significance could be the integration into the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) of one of the most skilful players Italy has ever produced: Roberto Baggio.

From the Divine Ponytail to Divine Intervention - in footballing terms at least - Baggio has been handed the grand title of President of the Federation’s Technical Sector.

Considered nothing more than a symbolic post when it was held by the coach of the Italy team at World Cup ’90, Azeglio Vicini, under the current restructuring the former World Player of the Year will work closely with the youth set-up and coaches at all levels of the game.

Just having a figure such as Baggio in charge of nurturing future generations is enough to give one hope that Italy will not disappear into a footballing abyss.

Two other greats of the Italian game – Gianni Rivera and Arrgio Sacchi – will work under Baggio, which in the latter’s case puts the boot on the other foot so to speak, having coached the number 10 at international level; most famously to the World Cup Final in 1994.

Rivera will oversee the youth sector at school level while Sacchi will co-ordinate the national teams up to Under-21 level, and with such a wealth of experience at their disposal the game’s decision makers cannot waste this opportunity especially with Baggio.

Now 43 sans ponytail and only able to run in a straight line after his knees finally gave out, the former Golden Boy has been taking all the relative coaching badges and after six years away from the game Roby is as close to the pitch as he is ever going to get again.

He may find that controlling a ball and skipping past defenders was a lot easier that dealing with those who influence how the game is played.

He will need to work on changing a mindset that has always put the results before anything else – and Baggio was always something of a free-spirit when he played so hopefully we will see the Italian game evolve and move towards a more stylish approach.

He was after all the player when he started out who used the back-heel to pass the ball in tight areas in training games only to have the drill brought to a halt with his a succession of coaches screaming that such a move had no place in the competitive game and was best left to street football.

Thankfully he ignored them just as the likes of Alex Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Antonio Cassano no doubt did – and maybe now we can look forward to the return of that fine art from a new generation of youngsters even if they would never be seen sporting a pony-tail.

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