“Nice one, Baggio!” a 12-year-old boy sarcastically chuckled as his teammate’s wayward shot soared high over the crossbar during training.
For me, the wisecrack reopened a fresh wound. My sporting hero, the ponytailed maestro whose brilliant play and clutch goals carried Italy all the way to the World Cup final, had been reduced to a punchline. Among the players on my youth team in 1994, “Baggio” became an insult hurled in jest whenever a shot failed to hit its mark. I shuddered at the injustice. In the immediate aftermath of Brazil’s victory over the Azzurri in the final, the great Roberto Baggio was now seemingly defined not by his magic on the ball and dramatic last-gasp goals, but by his fateful miss from the penalty spot in the final.
A soccer-obsessed kid from an Italian-American family, I came of age as a fan during the 1994 World Cup. I watched all the matches I could on television, and even saw the legendary Diego Maradona play in person when Argentina steamrolled Greece in Foxboro, Massachusetts. I collected hundreds of World Cup trading cards, meticulously filing them away in a massive three-ring binder. Baggio’s card, of course, was the prized piece of my collection.
Hosting the tournament brought a previously unseen level of exposure to the game in the United States. As a Yank, I pulled for Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones and the rest of the plucky Americans. But it was the Italians, namely Baggio, who really captured my imagination. Even as a 12-year-old kid fairly new to watching the game, I marveled at his understanding of space, his vision, and his otherworldly instincts. Add in the drama of his last-minute goals, and I was hooked.
Roberto Baggio’s shocking miss on the decisive kick in the penalty shootout, understandably, became an iconic moment of the ’94 tournament. Even more heartbreaking than watching the ball sail high was seeing the player, my footballing hero, stand with his head down and hands on his hips as the Brazilian players euphorically celebrated. In my youthful mind, it was incomprehensible that he missed. It wasn’t supposed to end like that.
It wasn’t fair, I thought, that in the aftermath of Brazil’s victory in the final, the miss overshadowed Baggio’s magic in the knockout rounds. After an uninspired Italy limped through the group stage, Il Divin Codino seemed to carry the team on his back, scoring five goals en route to the fateful final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
In the Round of 16, a ten-man Italian squad struggled mightily against Nigeria for most of the match. But with two minutes remaining in regulation, Baggio conjured up a bit of wizardry and found the back of the net. In extra time, he set up his teammate, Antonio Benarrivo, with a perfectly weighted lob into the penalty area. Benarrivo went down after being fouled, and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Baggio stepped up to take the kick and buried it past the Nigerian goalkeeper. Italy lived to see another day.
Baggio’s last-minute heroics again inspired the Azzurri to victory in the quarterfinal against Spain. With three minutes remaining, the maestro dribbled through the penalty area and slotted the ball past the goalkeeper from an impossibly tight angle, delivering Italy a 2-1 win.
The semi-final against Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgaria was perhaps Baggio’s finest 90 minutes of the tournament. He opened Italy’s scoring after receiving the ball from a throw-in, skipping past two defenders along the top of the penalty area before perfectly placing a curling shot into the bottom corner of the goal. His second goal, a tight-angle blast off a half-volley, would be the match-winner as Italy prevailed 2-1 and booked a ticket to the final against Brazil.
When Italy and Brazil headed into extra time after a scoreless 90 minutes in the final, I felt confident as an Azzurri fan. “Baggio will find a way,” I told myself. “Baggio always finds a way.” And when he stepped up to the penalty spot in the shootout, I still had faith. Given his penchant for coming up big in the dying moments of a match, there was no doubt in my mind he would slot the ball into the back of the net and keep Italy’s hopes alive. He was the most clutch player in the tournament. Failing to even put the shot on frame was unthinkable.
Up to that point, Italy’s journey through the ’94 World Cup had been marked by Baggio’s inspired play and last-gasp moments of drama. But when he stepped up to the penalty spot in Pasadena, a very different, unimaginable sort of drama ensued. The maestro could carry the Azzurri no longer. He wasn’t magic after all. Roberto Baggio was, in fact, tragically human.
While the miss is an undeniable part of Baggio’s World Cup legacy, I prefer to remember the masterful performances that drove Italy through the knockout rounds past Nigeria, Spain and Bulgaria. That magical summer, and Baggio’s amazing run of form, helped spark my lifelong obsession with the beautiful game.
Four years later, when Italy played Chile in the opening round of the 1998 World Cup, Baggio would step to the penalty spot for his national team for the first time since the infamous miss. When the ball hit the back of the net, I’d like to think one of the sport’s all-time greats took at least a small step toward vanquishing the demons of Pasadena.