“The angels sing in his legs,” this was how Aldo Agroppi described the playing style of Roberto Baggio, Italy’s star at the 1994 World Cup. Agroppi had been manager of Fiorentina when ‘Il Divin Codino’ began his glory years at the Serie A side.
Born on February 18, 1867, in the Italian town of Caldogno, Baggio was first noticed by his home town team at the age of nine. By the time he turned 11, he had scored 45 goals in 26 games, and at 13 he was recruited by Vicenza’s youth team. Within two years, he had graduated to the senior side, riding on the 110 goals he scored in 120 matches.
In 1985, just days before his transfer to Fiorentina — for £1.5 million — Baggio suffered a career-threatening injury, but the team committed to the move. He repaid its faith in him with 55 goals in 136 appearances in five seasons. And when he moved to Juventus in 1990 — for a world-record transfer fee of £8 million — fans of the side and the player weren’t particularly happy. Riots broke out in the streets of Florence, and 50 were injured.
On his return to Fiorentina for the first time in Juventus colours, Baggio refused to take a penalty, and on his way out after being substituted, he picked up a Fiorentina scarf thrown on to the pitch, a gesture that didn’t go down well with fans of the Old Lady. Baggio’s succinct response: “Deep in my heart I am always purple (Fiorentina’s colour).”
Playing as an attacking midfielder throughout his career, Baggio not only had an eye for goal, but was also a world-class playmaker. He was naturally right-footed, but was as comfortable dribbling with his left. A complete footballer, equally elegant and creative in the midfield.
Baggio had a distinguished career with Italy, scoring 27 goals in 56 matches. After being underused in the 1990 World Cup, he led Italy to the final against Brazil in 1994, scoring five goals in the knockout stages. But the moment for which he will always be remembered is the penalty he missed in the shoot-out that gave the South Americans their fourth title. Baggio was called up again for the 1998 edition and became the first and only Italian to score in three separate World Cups, before his side was eliminated by eventual champion France in the quarterfinals.
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