To say that Roberto Baggio went through Dante’s nine circles of hell following his missed penalty in the 1994 World Cup Final in the USA would be quite the understatement. The then FIFA player of the year and Juventus star had carried an Italian team full of old men and boys to the final with a dodgy hamstring and dealing with a tactical set up that was completely bewildering at times under the unscrupulous Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi with whom Baggio was at constant loggerheads. It was also lost on most people that he was the third Italian in that shoot out to miss with one of those being the great Franco Baresi but, hey, a scapegoat was needed and Baggio was left to hang out and dry.
In the four years between the 1994 and 1998 World Cups Baggio moved from Juve to AC Milan and whilst he won an Italian league title in 1996 it was a bit part role and his exclusion from the Italian national side amplified his one mistake on that sunny afternoon in Pasadena.
It wasn’t until he was forced out of Milan (thanks to Sacchi taking over as coach) and a subsequent move to Bologna that Baggio hit the form of a few years previous and finally earned his place back in the national side under Cesar Maldini who was the father of superstar Paulo with a head of hair that looked as though it had been parted by Moses himself.
A 22 goal season for Bologna in Serie A earned Baggio a spot in Italy’s 1998 World Cup squad as a back up for the one time Sydney resident Christian Vieri and the now established bonafide mega star Alessandro Del Piero who had Baggio’s old number #10, Juventus contract, superstar billing and pressure of carrying the hopes of a whole country.
Italy’s first game would be against Chile which was back from international exile after being banned from entering the 1990 and 1994 tournaments. The Chilean side featured an exciting side led from the front by the star strikers Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas who were both in red hot form. With Del Piero struggling with an injury suffered in the Champions League final Baggio was given a starting role in a huge gamble by Maldini risking the wrath of the fickle Italian press. Italy struck first in the match in Bordeaux with Vieri scoring in the first half after a long ball was expertly flicked in to his path by Baggio but goals from the brilliant Salas on either side of half time had Chile up 2-1 and on course for an upset.
Baggio never wavered during the match though. Pippo Inzaghi was subbed on for Vieri as he and Baggio looked to find a way to unlock the Chilean defence. With minutes to go Baggio collected the ball wide and attempted to chip the ball to the far post where Inzaghi was hoping to lash on to the cross and equalise if he in fact managed to evade the Chilean defenders in the box. The ball smacked straight in to the hand of Baggio’s Chilean marker and a (some would say dubious) penalty was given for hand ball.
Who would take the penalty? Who else could it be. After a brief moment of reflection in which he looked both 100% Zen and a little boy lost taking stock of the situation Baggio took the ball and placed it on the spot. At the time on the SBS coverage the dearly departed commentator Paul Williams commented that ‘every journalist had their pen poised’ as Baggio struck the ball low and to keeper’s right to equalise for Italy and be the man once again. A momentous and wonderful moment for Baggio and those who adored him. When later asked about that spot kick he said he killed the ghost of 94 when he scored.
Later in the tournament at the quarter final stage Baggio (who had scored again and was like a new man) would again be relied upon from the penalty spot in a dramatic shootout with France. With the Stade De France ringing with whistling and boos Baggio coolly slotted the penalty and gave a sly wink and smile to the crowd as he gave them a ‘shhhhh’ motion with his finger pressed to his lips. Italy would of course lose that penalty shoot out but Baggio’s spot kick in the first game against Chile was indeed a memorable moment.
Many see that game was the usual ho hum game from Italy having one of their usual slow starts but to those who had felt for Baggio it was much more than that. It was even an advertisement for Johnny Walker Whiskey.