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The divine pony tail

ROME, May 12 – One of football's finest players for nearly a decade, Roberto Baggio starred for Italy in three World Cups but left each one empty-handed.The attacking midfielder who became known as ‘the divine ponytail’ thanks to his hairstyle and late conversion to Buddhism, was a creative talent who perplexed a succession of Italian managers.

Born in Caldogno in 1967, Baggio began his career with Vicenza in 1982 and made his debut for the club at 15. He was quickly snapped up by Fiorentina in 1985, where his talent began to be noticed by a wider audience.

Excellent balance, close control, and an ability to score goals at will soon earned him a call up to the national team and in the two seasons before the 1990 World Cup he was generally regarded as Italy’s best player.

That view appeared to be borne out in the opening exchanges of Italia ’90, when Baggio played in every game as Italy enjoyed a safe passage through to the semi-finals.

By then Baggio had scored one of the goals of the tournament. Picking up the ball on halfway in Italy’s first round match against Czechoslovakia, he glided past a series of would-be tacklers before slotting the ball home.

Yet when Italy faced Argentina in the semi-finals, Baggio was inexplicably left out, coach Azeglio Vicini preferring Gianluca Vialli instead.

It was a fatal error – Italy lost on penalties – and in many ways it was typical of the mistrust felt towards Baggio by some of the more defence-minded managers who worked with him during his career.

Baggio recovered from the disappointment of 1990 and soon began adding lustre to his reputation at Juventus, who he had joined shortly before the World Cup for a then world record 7.7 million quid.

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In the years at Turin leading up to the 1994 finals, Baggio enjoyed his most succcessful spell in club football. He won the league title, Italian Cup and UEFA Cup and was voted World and European footballer of the year in 1993.

At the USA finals in 1994, Baggio had his best World Cup.

Just as they did in 1982, Italy started slowly and scraped through to the second round as one of the best third-placed teams.

Once there, Baggio was to carry Italy through to the final, scoring two goals in the 2-1 extra-time thriller with Nigeria, the winner against Spain in the quarter-final and two more in the semi against Bulgaria.

In the final against Brazil, Baggio played with a heavily strapped hamstring, and was unable to reproduce his form of earlier rounds.

Baggio’s decisive contribution came in the penalty shoot-out, when his effort sailed high over the bar handing Brazil victory, and leaving Italy’s hero distraught.

After the USA tournament, Baggio was in and out of favour with Italy and coach Arrigo Sacchi even dropped him for the 1996 European Championship where, ironically, Italy humiliated themselves by failing to get through the group stage.

Baggio was brought back for the 1998 World Cup – scoring a penalty against Chile – but coach Cesare Maldini made no secret of his preference for Alessandro Del Piero.

Although he had played well in the group stages, Baggio was dropped once Del Piero recovered for the second phase, and was a peripheral figure as Italy went out to eventual winners France.

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With his career on the wane, Baggio moved to unfashionable Brescia in 2000 in an attempt to force his way back into the Italian squad.

Despite a clamour for his return, he was overlooked for the 2002 World Cup and he finally retired from the game in 2004.

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