Roberto Baggio’s redemption: A story of two World Cup penalties

According to Buddha’s teachings, “it is not prayer, not grace and not sacrifice that brings redemption, but only knowledge. The knowledge lies within the power of the individual”.

It shouldn’t have ended like it did for football’s most famous Buddhist in the Rose Bowl, Pasadena on July 17, 1994. Roberto Baggio was clearly unfit in the 1994 World Cup final but as the penalty shoot-out loomed, he was a certainty to take one of the initial five Azzurri spot-kicks.

As a regular penalty taker for both club and country, his record was fantastic. He rarely ever missed from the spot and on the rare occasions that he failed to score, it was due to a great save by the opposing goalkeeper. In terms of penalty-kicks, Baggio was as close to a specialist as you could get.

The ponytailed Italian forward never seemed affected by the pressure of a penalty. If anything, he seemed more relaxed when in the one on one, 12-yard duel with the opposition goalkeeper. Perhaps his faith helped in such high-pressure moments; there could be no more pressure than a kick to keep your country in the World Cup Final.

Italy trailed the shoot-out 3-2 with both teams having taken four pens. The Azzurri No.10 would be responsible for keeping his team in the tournament following misses by Franco Baresi and Daniele Massaro; even if Baggio scored, Brazil would have a penalty for the trophy.

Although ‘The Divine Ponytail’ may have been mentally ready for this moment, physically he was far short of where he should have been. A thigh injury suffered in the semi-final victory over Bulgaria was exacerbated by a six-hour flight to California for the final.

The injury, or thoughts of it, were not in his mind as he described the penalty in his autobiography. “I knew Taffarel always dived so I decided to shoot for the middle, about halfway up, so he couldn’t get it with his feet,” he wrote. “It was an intelligent decision because Taffarel did go to his left, and he would never have got to the shot I planned. Unfortunately, and I don’t know how, the ball went up three metres and flew over the crossbar.”

The image of Baggio with his head bowed, hands on hips as the Brazilian players celebrate around him is one of the World Cup’s most iconic images. It seems such a shame that this image is one which many remember him by. “It’s the worst moment of my career,” he said. “If I could erase a moment from my career, it would be that one.”

Italy qualified for the 1998 World Cup with a largely new generation of players. Baggio’s fantasista position had been taken by Alessandro Del Piero both at Juventus and for his country. Bologna had become Baggio’s new home a year earlier as he attempted to gain the playing time required to force his way into Cesare Maldini’s squad.

His debut season with the Rossoblu was sensational, so good that he simply couldn’t be ignored by Maldini. Although he wasn’t expected to start ahead of Juventus’ new golden boy Del Piero, it seemed more fitting that his last kick of a World Cup ball wasn’t that one.

Italy opened their campaign against Chile in Bordeaux and with Del Piero injured, a 31-year-old Baggio took his place in the starting line-up. It took him just 10 minutes to reclaim his place as Italy’s main-man. The deftest of touches set up a chance which was converted by Christian Vieri for the game’s opening goal. The assist was typical of the man, letting a long ball drop over his shoulder and seemingly without looking, or trying, guiding the ball into Vieri’s path.

The game turned on the stroke of half-time as Marcelo Salas equalised for Chile. The South Americans were on top in the second period and a second Salas goal appeared to have sent them toward a surprise victory. Then redemption came calling.

Baggio won a penalty with just five minutes of the game remaining. Chilean defender Ronald Fuentes handled an intended cross by the Bologna captain and referee Lucien Bouchardeau pointed to the spot. As the whistle sounded Baggio immediately bent double with his hands on his knees. If one didn’t know any better the Italian could’ve appeared disappointed by the decision. Those who cast their minds back four years knew exactly what the reaction meant.

The relevance of the moment wasn’t lost on many in the stadium or those watching around the world. Enrico Chiesa approached Baggio as he stood doubled over, obviously realising the situation that was unfolding and attempting to give his colleague some moral support. Roberto didn’t appear to acknowledge Chiesa as Dino Baggio intervened to pull Chiesa away; a former team-mate of Roberto’s, Dino clearly knew the best company for Baggio at this time was his own thoughts.

“Certainly, I thought of four years ago,” Baggio said after the match. “But then I told myself I was going to put the ball into the net this time.” You could say that the knowledge lay within the power of the individual.

As he placed the ball on the penalty spot, this most recognisable of footballing icons looked different from that image post-miss in 1994. The bright blue Italy shirt was this time replaced by a gleaming all-white change kit. The ponytail, the most distinguishable feature of the Italian’s appearance, had been cut-off a year previously. His famous No.10 shirt was now owned by Del Piero and Baggio had taken the No.18 shirt instead.

Wiping the sweat from his brow as he slowly stepped backwards from the spotted ball, never turning his back on the goalmouth, Baggio seemed in control. There was no sign of nerves, no tells or quirks that would suggest 1994 was in his mind, but it surely must have been. The silence of the stadium was pierced with the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle. Baggio started his run up, calm, considered and always looking at the goal. Right-footed, low and hard, the goalkeeper got a fingertip to it but the pace and precision made the kick unstoppable.

The feeling of relief, of raw emotion, must have been overwhelming, even for a man of Baggio’s standing. There was no Stuart Pearce-style primal scream to let that emotion out. No tears of joy or public show of emotion. Baggio simply jogged back into his own half, stopping for momentary congratulations from his team-mates.

Baggio took his moment of redemption, four years in the making, in his stride. Perhaps, as those Buddhist teachings suggest, he had the knowledge that he would score. “I have never really been satisfied with the easily scored goal,” he once said in an interview with Champions magazine. As far as his goal-scoring catalogue goes, this certainly wasn’t his most spectacular goal. But it was arguably one of the hardest.

Words by Mark Gordon: @TheMarkGordon