By Jack Beresford
Roberto Baggio’s nickname – ‘Il Divin Codino’, The Divine Ponytail – was partially born out of the Italian icon’s largely terrible hairstyle coupled with his conversion to Buddhism as a young man.
While fulfilling his final season at boyhood club Vicenza, the 18-year-old striker suffered a gruesome knee ligament injury while attempting a slide tackle, just two days before his imminent transfer to Fiorentina was due to be made official.
During his rehab, Baggio ditched Roman Catholicism for Nichiren Buddhism, a Japanese strain whose central teaching is that personal enlightenment can be realised within one lifetime.
Baggio credits Nichiren for giving him the necessary strength to battle through the mental and physical challenges of his career – though his true devoutness is slightly undermined by a lifelong passion for hunting and fishing.
“There are many branches of Buddhism and the one I have converted to has no such limitations,” he once explained in mitigation. “Instead it has deep and important ends.”
Thankfully, there were no limitations to Baggio’s talents on the pitch either, despite the fact that injury continued to curtail his game throughout his entire career.
Star of the 1994 World Cup, Baggio was a Scudetto and Coppa Italia winner with Juventus just a year later, moving on to AC Milan in 1996 where he won a second successive Serie A title.
The summer of 1996 would prove a watershed moment though.
Left out of the Azzurri squad for Euro ’96 following a series of clashes with ideologue manager Arrigo Sacchi, Baggio then found his days with Milan numbered toward the end of the following season after squabbling with Fabio Capello about his ability to play a full 90 minutes.
Following Oscar Tabarez’s brief and blighted stint in charge at the San Siro, Milan hired Sacchi mid-way through the 1996/97 season and, unsurprisingly, Baggio remained far too peripheral for his, and many fans’ liking.
Little did the Rossoneri realise that the striker (who was still only 29 at the time) was about to enjoy his most prolific season in Serie A. However, it would be a peak he’d eventually hit with Bologna.
Having been rejected by then-Parma coach Carlo Ancelotti, Baggio arrived at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara in the summer of 1997 with a simple, entrenched mission: to play regular football, avoid relegation and to earn himself an Italy recall.
He saw the move as a chance at rebirth and redemption too and decided to mark the moment with a symbolic, cathartic new haircut: The Divine Ponytail was no more.
This was a chance to shed that image and start anew. A chance to send a message to his new Bologna teammates that he was no deity, and that he was ready to knuckle down and muck in with the rest of them.
The ceremonial snip was left to his wife, Andreina, who seemed positively overjoyed by its removal…
Baggio’s trademark tuft would eventually return, of course, with the ponytail firmly re-sprouted by the time he reached Brescia at the tail-end of his career.
However, freshly shaven and shorn, the sleeker Baggio 2.0 hit the ground galloping at Bologna. In just one season at the club, he scored a career-best 22 league goals and laid on eight assists.
Highlights included a superb hat-trick in a 5-1 demolition of Napoli while his finest strike came courtesy of a brilliantly delicate lob against Vicenza.
Waltzing through the Vicenza defence, Baggio lifted his head for a split-second, spotted the keeper off his line and gently lifted the ball over everybody into the vacant goal.
He finished the season as Serie A’s highest scoring Italian (behind Oliver Bierhoff of Udinese and Ronaldo of Inter), helping Bologna to a remarkable eighth-place finish and subsequent Intertoto Cup qualification.
The 97/98 haul proved to be Baggio’s highest ever single-season return and thus earned him his desired Azzurri recall, with whom he would gain further redemption (specifically for that infamous World Cup final penalty miss in 1994) with a successful spot kick goal against Chile, rammed home with all the righteous venom and pomp of a fully engorged Stuart Pearce.
By then, Baggio’s renaissance had begun to attract the attention of giant clubs elsewhere across the continent – including Arsenal and their newly-installed Europhile manager Arsene Wenger.
According to Bologna president Giuseppe Frascara Gazzoni, the Gunners offered Baggio a contract worth £6million over three years in a bid to oust a £4million bid from Inter Milan.
“The chances of Robbie leaving us have unfortunately risen to 99.9 per cent,” Gazzoni lamented at the time. “Arsenal and Inter are offering him something that we can’t: the European Champions League.”
After assessing his options, Baggio plumped to stay in Italy with Inter, the club he supported as a boy.
Alas, we’ll never know whether Wenger’s pioneering approach to fitness and conditioning (no fags, no booze, no cocaine) could have helped Baggio prolong his storied career even longer into his thirties.
The Italian spent two moderately successful years with Inter before moving on to Brescia at the age of 33, where he would eventually hang up his boots four years later having scored 45 goals in 95 Serie A appearances – yet another autumnal resurgence.
Overall, Baggio scored 208 goals in the Italian top flight, putting him seventh on the all-time list, just one goal behind Antonio Di Natale.
He enjoyed a varied, sometimes tumultuous but nevertheless brilliant career, and all while looking like a bit of a pillock for the majority of it.