Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The kick heard around the world

If there was any justice in the world we'd all remember that both Daniele Massaro and Franco Baresi missed their penalties in the 1994 World Cup Final. We'd remember that even if Baggio had scored it is possible that Brazil would have won the World Cup Final with the very next kick of the ball - Baggio wasn't stepping up to win his team a World Cup. He was stepping up to keep his side in the World Cup.

If there was any justice in the world Roberto Baggio would have buried that penalty and he would, for a second year running, have been crowned World Player of the Year. He would have become one of those merry band who have won the World Player of the Year twice and we would remember him as the greatest player between the fall of Maradona and the rise of Zidane. One of the finest sites you'll come across is that Football Pantheon - Baggio is listed as 65th best player of all time. I'd argue if that penalty had gone in he'd be in the top 30 (that isn't to criticise the great work of Miguel Delaney - it is a superb piece of work but that kick changes our perception of him).

For that one moment he has entered our footballing lexicon that day. To many a 'Baggio' is a penalty that balloons over the bar in the same way that a 'Panenka'' is a chipped penalty down the middle (or, if you are terribly vulgar, the 'Pirlo').

This is unfair.

Rarely has one player so obviously dragged their team to the final. With Italy trailing to Nigeria in the 2nd Round, he scored with two minutes of normal play to keep them in the game and then scored a penalty in extra-time. In the quarter finals, against Spain, he again scored a late winning goal. In the semi-finals, two goals against a Stoichkov inspired Bulgaria in a five minute blitz put his team in the world cup final. Without him, Italy would have been nowhere near the final.

Rarely, in my lifetime, has a player inspired such adoration. People loved Baggio. Not just Italy fans. Not just fans of the many clubs he served in Italy. But people around the world loved him.  One friend of mine was besotted with Baggio to such an extent that he had the word ''Italy'' engraved in his hair for the Euro 1996. Another, a former flatmate from Falkirk, cried when he missed that penalty. Not out of some loyalty to Italy but rather out of devotion to Baggio.

The first time I saw him he was at his best. He scored the goal of the tournament in the 1990 World Cup against Czechoslovakia. Picking the ball up in his own half, playing a one-two and then slaloming through the defence. It isn't as visceral, or dynamic, as Maradona's goal in the 1986 World Cup but it was astonisabilithing nonetheless.

He was everything you would want in a forward player. A superb football brain combined with supreme technical ability. He was as comfortable as an out-and-out striker, a false 9, a winger or as an attacking midfielder. He was a truly inspirational player in an age where we use that word about many players not fit to lace his boots.

Like all great players, he was the master of the ball. He could make it dance. He could make it sing. Images of Baggio usually involve him slaloming - that word again - past defenders. And that word is right. He went past defenders like a great skier goes past gates. He had that beautiful ability to take the ball as close as possible to the defender before somehow jinking past or around them. Sometimes the ball is so close to the defensive player one wonders how Baggio got around him or how a fine defender has managed to be confuse and bamboozle. This is a trait that Baggio shares with only a handful of players - Messi, Cruyff, Prosinecki, and Laudrup all spring to mind.

The truly great players are beautifully balanced when they run with the ball, able to hurdle challenges, whilst seeing the game around them in slow motion. They do not, like the leaden thinkers of the game, need to hare or blast past people. They understand that to really torment an opponent - to show real devilry - is to slow down, to stop, to twist and to goad as well as blitz. Baggio time and again, when one on one with the keeper, cuts back, shimmies or cha-cha-chas past the keeper rather than blasting it past him. He, unlike most, realises that most one-on-ones are missed.

But he wasn't just a dribbler that could mesmerise.
He was a fine passer of the ball with jaw-dropping vision and awareness of what was going on around him. He was a superb free-kick taker and, as his goal tally shows, a superb finisher from all angles. At Fiorentina, Juventus, AC Milan, Bologna, Internazionale and that glorious Indian Summer at Brescia he excelled. For the Azzurri he was a hero.

Baggio deserves rather more than we give him and more again than history will remember him for. He was a joyful, and joyous player, and - arguably - the finest player of the 1990s. He certainly shouldn't be remembered for his lowest point especially when he gave us so many highs.