The Buddha of Milan


HE HAS BEEN called `The Little Prince', `The Divine Ponytail', `The Last Midfield Genius' and much else besides. He was once the world's most expensive footballer. His self-professed Buddhist beliefs sets him apart in the not overly spiritual world of soccer. His dodgy knees almost prematurely ended his career in his late teens.

In 14 seasons of Serie A soccer, with Fiorentina, Juventus, AC Milan, Bologna and now Inter Milan, he has rarely been far from the headlines. His infamous penalty kick miss in the shoot-out at the end of the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil plunged the nation into collective despair. His exclusion from the Italian side during last summer's World Cup plunged the nation into collective rage.

Like him or not, you cannot ignore Roberto Baggio, arguably the best known Italian footballer in the world. Now 32, and coming to the end of a spectacular career, Baggio is the man to whom Inter Milan will look for guidance, inspiration and leadership when they line out in the formidable surrounds of Old Trafford next Wednesday for their Champions League quarter-final tie, first leg against Manchester United.

Given that Brazilian ace Ronaldo is a doubtful starter next Wednesday, a heavy responsibility will fall on Baggio's shoulders. For a player who just 13 months ago walked out of a Bologna training camp because coach Renzo Uliveri, in his infinite wisdom, decided that he could not find a team place for him, his current situation represents no small measure of satisfaction.

Seemingly destined for the land of forgotten football heroes just one year ago, Baggio is back on top, playing some of the best soccer of his career and continuing on the form that saw him prove arguably's Italy's best player at the World Cup finals in France last summer. As so often in his career, his remarkable, innate footballing talent found itself centre-stage of a nationwide controversy at France '98 as Italian coach Cesare Maldini stubbornly insisted on dropping Baggio after the first round to make way for his original first choice, an all-too obviously out of form Alessandro del Piero.

It says much about Baggio's standing in Italy that Maldini's decision to stick with del Piero in preference to Baggio cost him his job. The Italian coach had hardly unpacked his France '98 kit bag before the Italian Federation sacked him, replacing him with Dino Zoff.

In 17 seasons as a professional, Roberto Baggio's career has travelled on a helter-skelter of emotional highs and lows which have seen his status vary from that of national icon (during the 1990 World Cup finals) to national hate figure (when commentators suggested that "commercial considerations" had forced Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi to play an obviously less than fit Baggio in the 1994 World Cup final loss to Brazil, a loss determined by Baggio's fateful, final penalty miss).

Even as his career was about to take off, he suffered a temporary setback when a knee injury saw him miss the best part of his first two seasons ('85-'87) with Fiorentina. Recovered, he won the first of his 54 international caps in a 1-0 win against Holland in November 1988 and went on to establish himself as a squad member for the Italia '90 World Cup.

On the eve of that World Cup, however, the Baggio factor struck with a vengeance when it was announced that he was to join Juventus for a then world record figure of £10 million. The announcement was hardly well-timed, coming at the very moment that the Italian squad were in a training camp at the Federation headquarters in Coverciano, outside Florence. Angry Fiorentina fans stalked the training ground, virtually obliging Italian coach Azeglio Vicini to change camp and move on to the quieter surrounds of Marino, outside Rome.

Baggio's five Juventus seasons were not an unending success story and it was only in the last of those seasons that he actually won his first (and thus far only) Italian title. However, by then, Juventus had discovered an exciting young talent called del Piero and, in the best book-balancing tradition of the Fiat hierarchy which runs the club, Juventus decided that Baggio was disposable, selling him on to AC Milan. As with the Fiorentina fans in 1990, so with Juventus fans in 1995, with protests being held outside the club headquarters in Turin.

Even though that '94-'95 season ended with a league title win, it had been a bitter-sweet year for Baggio. Injury interrupted, he was still recovering from the traumas of his US '94 experiences.

Indeed, that World Cup sums up much of Baggio's career. Baggio had never enjoyed good relations with Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi, whose running and chasing, 4-4-2 game tended to leave little room for his creative midfield play. Indeed, throughout his career, Baggio has come across coaches - Sacchi, Capello, Uliveri, Maldini - who have been reluctant to gamble on his physically fragile but infinitely creative talents.

When Sacchi pulled Baggio off during Italy's second game against Norway, the Little Prince could be lip-read muttering the not too regal comment about his coach: "He's gone out of his mind".

Baggio's less than brilliant early performances in that World Cup, plus his ponytail hairstyle, prompted FIAT president and Juventus boss Gianni Agnelli to describe him as a "drowned rabbit". The rabbit, however, had the last laugh as he came good in the second round and went on to score five vital goals - against Nigeria, Spain and Bulgaria - to take Italy into the final. The rest, of course, is soccer history . . .

An indifferent season with Juventus and two injury interrupted years with AC Milan left Baggio facing a serious career crisis by the summer of 1997. Out of the Milan team (where Fabio Capello had difficulty finding a role for him) and consequently out of the Italian team, he appeared to be heading for premature obscurity. In desperation, he even considered a move to Premiership side Derby County as a way of reviving his international prospects.

In the end, he decided that his chances of winning his place back for the France '98 World Cup finals would rate higher if he remained in Italy. For that reason, he surprised everyone by joining Bologna, a side just as far down the Italian pecking order as Derby are in England. Ten months and 22 goals later, however, Baggio had played his way into the Italian team, despite Cesare Maldini's best efforts to find a reason to keep him out. Better still, when del Piero went down with an injury, Baggio stepped in to winning effect, setting up Italy's first goal against Chile in their opening match in Bordeaux and going on to both win and convert the last-gasp penalty which saved Italian face. From there on, too, the rest is soccer history . . . Small, neat, beautifully balanced and capable of playing off either foot, Baggio has always represented a footballing enigma in that he is neither a midfielder nor a striker in the modern scheme of things. He is, in fact, an inside forward (except that the use of that term is seemingly no longer permissible), and one with a tendency to get injured.

Under Inter's Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu, however, Baggio is allowed to fill his natural, playmaking role. In European Cup and Serie A games (against Real Madrid and AS Roma), he underlined just how important he can be by coming on late in both games and completely turning them around.

Even in last weekend's 1-0 Serie A defeat by Lazio, Baggio remained the one good thing Inter had going for them. As he approaches the Manchester United tie, a tie that all too clearly represents a seasonal watershed for Inter, his thoughts are simple and clear:

"This is a period when things have been a bit so-so for us, when nothing seems to go right, so I just hope that Manchester represents a turning point in our season, a turn for the better."

Whatever happens at Old Trafford, Baggio will keep it all in perspective. A practising Buddhist since the early '90s and someone who prays mornings and evenings, in 1994 Baggio described the relationship between Buddhism and soccer thus: "I believe that the most important thing to be well, inside yourself, in your soul. If you are at peace with yourself, you can do anything well, be a footballer, work on a building site, be a lawyer, whatever . . .

"Buddhism has helped me find this inner happiness. With Buddhism, my game has improved, everybody has noticed, coaches, team-mates and fans."

Maybe, the United fans will also notice the improvement at Old Trafford on Wednesday.