For whatever reason, hair was important when selecting your favourite player in Serie A in the 1990's. At least, it was for me. The kingpins of that era were the duo that controlled the midfield of Portugal. Messrs Paolo Sousa and Rui Costa whose flowing shoulder length wavy hair would act a slow motion scene whilst the reality of them both cruising through games were a sight to behold. Meanwhile, there was one member of the Serie A community who didn't get the “cool haircut” memo.
I'm not talking about Ronaldo, who shaved most of his head but left a tuft that I can only conceive would be a target for heading practise. I'm talking about Roberto Baggio.
I grew my hair out to look like Paolo Sousa, I massaged my cheeks so I could have sideburns like Alessandro Del Piero, I NEVER grew a rat tail so I could look like Roberto Baggio. But he was still my hero, and here's why:
I don't know about you but all of my heroes are flawed. Brian Clough was an alcoholic, Muhammad Ali was arrogant, Ayrton Senna was competitive to a level where it sometimes became a detriment and Mick Jagger drunk himself into an early grave. Wait, what? Anyway, Roberto Baggio had a flaw! A big one. It was attached to the back of his head and as much as I wanted to be him, I did not want to look like him.
A couple of years ago, I realised that I was actually a grown up. With that came order, bills and responsibility. I also discovered the freedom to purchase almost anything I want and what I wanted was all of Roberto Baggio's shirts when he was a Juventus player (and the ones when he played for Inter and AC Milan). I have five Juventus shirts from that era in my closet, they cost me a fortune, I don't care one bit and it's all because of one man. Roberto Baggio.
That's the last mention of the “divine ponytail” because I want to discuss Roberto Baggio the football player. Despite being widely decorated, I still think he is the one of the most underrated football players of all time. In England especially, he is rarely talked about and I think that should change.
When I was a kid I always tried one shot. Drop deep, cut in from the left side, inside of the right foot, curl it, top corner, aim outside and bend it into the stanchion. That was all Baggio, nobody did that with as much flair before Baggio and I don't think anybody has done it like that since.
In 1994, I was on holiday with my family in Mallorca and a fat, old, sunburned Sunderland supporter accused me of being a glory hunter because I told him I supported both Nottingham Forest and Juventus. I supported Forest because I had to and I supported Juventus because of Roberto Baggio. I'm not saying that Baggio reinvented the wheel of football, he didn't. But he inspired a generation to not just be strikers, not just be goalscorers, not just be poachers but to be number 10's.
I learned about this word when I was touring Italy in my old band. As much as everyone wanted to speak to me about music, it was so easy to switch a conversation with an Italian to either food or football. When you talk about music all day, the last thing you want to do is talk about more music. When you're Italian, the first thing you want to do is to talk about football. Well, food and football to be brutally honest.
This is where the term “trequartista” was first described to me in layman's terms (by a very drunk Italian man) as a “three quarter” player. So in my head I started to see the football field in four quarters and visualised how important the third quarter was. The gap between midfield and attack suddenly looked wide open.
Almost everyone in the 90's played a 4-4-2 formation. The two central midfield players would have similar roles although one was often more advanced and one was more defensive. The “trequartista” forced either a midfielder to step back or a defender to step forward and that luxury style free role that they adopted could collapse even the most solid of foundations. But you're reading a blog about 90's football so you know all this already right?
Fast forward to today and everyone wants to play a trequartista style. The 4-4-2 has given way to a 4-2-3-1 so you can incorporate three of these types of players into your team. In the modern game, the classic trequartista is a rarity and has given way to players like Eden Hazard, Neymar and Mbappe who have taken that foundation and combined it with the skills and power of a pacy winger to create a whole different kind of player.
The player that I loved watching, however, was always the original. Roberto Baggio didn't rely on physical prowess or devastating pace. He could beat you with his mind. He could glide and drift across the pitch as if unbound by the laws that us mere mortals live by. He was THAT good and that is often forgotten.
If you'll indulge me for one second so I can use a musical analogy, I would say that Pele was The Beatles to Maradonna's Rolling Stones. Let's suggest then that Zinedine Zidane was New Order which makes Roberto Baggio Joy Division. They moved in similar ways, Zidane had more success but Baggio was there first. Did he underachieve? Perhaps, especially during his injury hit spell at AC Milan where he never seemed to be fully fit; but hey, didn't we agree that all of your heroes are flawed? Anyway, he was ground zero for me when it came to being a number 10. He is, was and will always be my quintessential trequartista.