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Roberto Baggio - A Hero Once More

Once more, he's proven everyone wrong. Like the mythical phoenix, Roberto Baggio has risen from the ashes. Yet, just over twelve months ago, it seemed that his illustrious career was winding down to a sad end.
Amidst snide remarks by the then Inter coach Marcello Lippi, who opined that "he is only fit to play for fifteen minutes", and despite curling in the free-kick on the last day of the 2000-1 season which booked Inter a place in the Champions' League, Roberto Baggio was unceremoniously dumped by the Milan giants.
Surprisingly, no one seemed interested in the former World Footballer of the Year. There were rumours of a possible move to England, America or even Japan. Napoli, still looking for someone to fill the void left by Diego Maradona, also looked interested. But, in the end, nothing came of it.
Then, late in the summer, when most teams were already well into their pre-season training, Baggio signed for Brescia. It appeared to be a desperate move. Brescia, a small club with an even smaller budget were given little chance of surviving among the millionaires of the Italian Serie A. Baggio, already consigned to the soccer scrap heap by most pundits, was expected to make little difference.
But, instead of fulfilling these fatalistic predictions, Baggio emerged as Italian football's version of Robin Hood, the player who steals (points) from the rich to give to the poor. Linking up with another rejuvenated goalscorer, Dario Hubner, Baggio took Serie A by storm both scoring goals and delighting fans, with sublime touches and deadly-accurate free-kicks.
Amongst those who suffered most were some of his previous clubs. Against Fiorentina, Baggio scored twice, whilst he netted the only goal in the home win over Inter. He also scored a tremendous goal in Turin against Juventus. A long ball out of the Brescia defence looked nothing more than a hopeful punt forward. With Baggio in the side, however, everything is possible and he was to prove this yet again. He killed the ball in mid-air with one deft movement, side stepped past Edwin Van Der Sar and rolled the ball in. It was a goal that tied the result at 1-1, which meant that in their two games against Brescia, Juventus dropped four points - just enough for them to lose the title.
Baggio's finest ninety minutes, however, came at home against Lecce. Almost single-handedly he won the match, even scoring from the corner flag in the process of notching all the goals in a 3-0 victory. A hat-trick is a rarity in Italian football and this one was even more special.
Now, there is talk that Baggio might sign once again for a larger club. But this is mostly paper talk - Baggio is not a man who makes the same mistake twice. Four years ago, having been released by AC Milan, he joined Bologna. Despite claims to the contrary by Baggio himself, the general belief was that he hadn't really recovered from the injuries which had kept him on the sidelines for much of his time at AC Milan.
Finally given the chance to play regularly, however, Baggio dispelled these rumours in a matter of weeks. It was a fantastic campaign, where the rejuvenated Baggio scored a career best of twenty-two goals. By the end of the season he was back in Italy's squad, just in time for France '98.
The rebirth of Roberto Baggio was completed when he scored Italy's equaliser against Chile in their opening match of the tournament. Crucially, this came from the penalty spot, thus banishing the ghosts of four years earlier when Baggio had missed the penalty kick that cost Italy the World Cup. Baggio was to make little further impact in the competition, as Cesare Maldini opted for the younger Alessandro Del Piero. The success, limited though it was, had fuelled his desire for the big stage. When the opportunity of joining Inter came up, it was too big a temptation for Baggio to resist.
In hindsight, the move was an unfortunate mistake. Inter were a troubled club, whose chairman expected instantaneous success. When this did not come, he changed managers. In Baggio's first season, he played under Gigi Simoni, Roy Hodgson and Mircea Lucescu. Inevitably, results were poor. Then, during the summer, Marcello Lippi was appointed. Whilst at Juventus, Lippi had made it known that Baggio wasn't one of his favourite players.
At Inter, his opinion did not change. More often than not, Baggio found himself excluded from the starting eleven. When he did get to play, he proved to be inspirational - scoring important goals and creating plenty of chances for those around him. Yet, not even this was enough. Every minor indiscretion on the pitch was heavily penalised by Lippi, who missed no opportunity to criticise Baggio and leave him out of the side.
It was not the first time that Baggio had come across a manager with little faith in his abilities. In reality, Baggio always had a love-hate relationship with his managers. Mostly hate. Both Marcello Lippi and Fabio Capello confessed that they didn't have much time for Baggio. Even Arrigo Sacchi, the manager whose job he saved during the 1994 World Cup (when a series of brilliant performances by Baggio took Italy to the final), turned against him.
If he were a troublemaker, such conflicts would be expected. But Baggio is not. He does not drink or smoke, has never been known to miss training after an "all-night bender" or one to make a fuss whenever he is left out. In all aspects, he is a model professional.
Instead, Baggio's sin has been his genius. He never was one to fit into the rigid tactical schemes demanded by Italian coaches. Somehow, he got the silly notion that his job was to entertain. Why go for the ordinary when you can do the breathtaking? Why go for the sideway pass when you could slide past the whole defence and put the ball in the back of the net?
Whilst Italian coaches repeated the mantra that every player irrespective of his position should work to regain possession, Baggio was the one who broke the rules. When the opposition had the ball, he seemed disinterested, sulking around, waiting for others to win possession. Put the ball at his feet and he had the ability to light up the game with one moment of brilliance.
Yet, for every goal Baggio scored, the coaches pointed to the instance when he lost possession. For every defence-splitting pass, one was intercepted. And this, in the eyes of his managers, was an unforgivable offence.
The myth that Baggio unbalanced teams slowly got hold. While the fans adored Baggio, the coaches lamented that he didn't score enough for a striker and couldn't put in the work rate required to play in midfield. And, rather than change their beloved tactics to fit in Baggio, they preferred to keep him on the bench .
At Brescia, he has finally found a manager willing to give him the free role he craves for. Carlo Mazzone is not a man who asks a lot from Baggio. He simply asks him to be himself, a footballing genius. To which Baggio has duly and regularly obliged, scoring a total of 11 goals in season 2001-2. These included a priceless flurry of goals towards the end of the season which did much to keep Brescia above the dreaded relegation-zone come the end of the season.
Despite public opinion in Italy overwhelmingly demanding Baggio's inclusion in the Italian squad for Japan and Korea, manager Trapattoni instead chose Delvecchio, Del Piero, Totti, Montella and Vieri as his attacking options. Missing out on the World Cup at the age of 35, it looks as though Baggio's international career is now over. Painful though this non-selection was for Baggio, a summer of rest can only be a good thing for both himself and Brescia over the coming season. Serie A defenders, you have been warned!
Adapted and reproduced courtesy of


By Paul Grech


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