If there’s one thing the Italians know how to nail, it’s nicknames.
Adriano was L’Imperatore (The Emperor), Francesco Totti was Er Bimbo de Oro (The Golden Boy), and Andrea Pirlo will forever be Il Maestro.
So, it’ll come as absolutely no shock to anyone then, that Roberto Baggio is the proud owner of arguably the greatest moniker in football history. Il Divin Codino. The Divine Ponytail. And when you close your eyes and concentrate hard enough, you can see that wonderful accessory bouncing up and down in joy as its owner wheels away from another beautiful work of art.
That brings us on nicely to another trait that runs through the Italians’ blood: art. Throughout the ages, Italy has produced some of the most iconic painters and artists mankind will ever enjoy. From Michelangelo to Caravaggio, the most timeless masterpieces have come from the fingertips of the boot-shaped nation.
But parallels are often drawn between one particular boot and one particular painter. The feet of Baggio and the paint brush of Raffaello. In fact, Italians saw such similarities in the pair’s artistry, their creative nature and ability to produce works of art that could bring a grown man to tears, that Baggio was subsequently christened Raffaello by his loyal supporters, in homage to his divine talents.
The resemblance doesn’t stop there, either. Both legends of their professions honed their skills in the picturesque city of Florence, with Raffaello spending four years there in the early 1500’s, and Baggio learning his trade with Fiorentina for half a decade in the late 1980’s.
Those five successful years culminated in two brilliant final seasons, when the young forward exploded into life and took Serie A by storm. The starlet bagged 15 and 17 goals respectively, including an incredible 12 assists, as he cemented his place as one of the jewels of Italian football.
But Calcio hadn’t seen anything yet.
One smudge on Baggio’s canvas is undoubtedly the unforgivable line he crossed, when switching Florence for Turin back in 1990. The artist decided he had soaked up as much as he could from Firenze, and it was now time to demonstrate his talents on the biggest stage in Italy.
He was now the main man, for the main club in Italy – Juventus. Sporting the number 10 jersey, previously donned by the great Michel Platini, expectations were high for the precocious talent. After all, I Bianconeri, imprisoned in black and white, were craving a splash of colour on their palette.
Baggio wasn’t just a bright droplet – he was the entire rainbow.
The Italian superstar’s game hinged on his vision and subsequent execution – just like any good painter. It’s all well and good being able to see things that others can’t even imagine, but it’s another to then bring them to life – and vice versa.
At Juventus, Baggio was surrounded by likeminded men who could at least envisage what their talisman was preparing to conjure up, and could act accordingly. Like a chess player, he would play the game seconds ahead of everyone else, aware of his opponents’ next two moves, ready to call ‘checkmate’ with his king ruthlessly in hand.
Away from metaphors and analogies, the Italian forward was just magic. His ability to deliver killer passes and split defences with humiliating ease was breathtaking. He could dribble, almost expressing himself through his own form of interpretive dance, shimmying and dummying his way through endless desperate challenges. And in front of goal, there have been very few better.
Baggio was an exquisite finisher, and his ability to play in any role meant he possessed an array of different strike. Any angle, any trajectory – he could beat the keeper. And he did. Very rarely have we seen a player who was both a great goalscorer, and a scorer of great goals.
Get yourself a man who can do both.
Juventus’ number 10 smashed 32 goals in his first two seasons in Turin, laying on 13 assists to boot. It was the 1992/93 campaign in which he truly sparkled for I Bianconeri however, scoring 21 league goals as captain, and firing six in Europe as the Old Lady lifted the UEFA Cup with victory over Borussia Dortmund in the final.
He scored a brace in the first leg, slotting home two inch-perfect finishes to give I Bianconeri a 3-1 lead, a tally they doubled in the second meeting to secure a 6-1 overall success. It was a monumental moment in the forward’s career, one which certainly was never rewarded with the amount of silverware it deserved.
That was never Baggio’s aim, though. No artist sets out to be recognised as the greatest, or to be handed medals as proof of their genius. Expressing themselves and offering their talents to the world, in the hope that they will be appreciated or understood by others, is enough.
In almost fitting fashion, his worst season at Juventus produced his only title glory in black and white in 1995, although he would win the scudetto with Milan a season later, when his journey in Turin came to an end.
Title glory but individual struggles at Milan were followed by his rebirth at Bologna, where he produced a career best 22 goals in 30 matches. That high was quickly quashed by two abject campaigns with Inter. He would come good with Brescia later on, however.
There is so much to say about Baggio, and with all the words in the universe, it’s hard to select the right ones. After all, we can never be as gifted as the man himself at emptying our mind onto a blank canvas.
Statistics and hard, quantitative data will never do him justice. That’s what makes him so glorious.
Like a work of art, you can’t break it down into cold facts and pluck ‘the right answer’. You can simply gaze upon it, admire its beauty, and accept that its existence on this universe is impressive enough.