“I failed. Period.”
Why did Italy lose the 1994 FIFA World Cup final?
It’s a question with – on the surface – a fairly simple answer:
Italy lost the 1994 FIFA World Cup final because Roberto Baggio ballooned his spot kick over the crossbar during the penalty shoot out.
When Baggio missed, Brazil won, and Italy lost.
Culpability for Gli Azzurri’s heartbreaking World Cup final defeat, therefore, lies with Il Divin Codino…right?
Well, maybe not.
Maybe culpability for this singular and wholly uncharacteristic – Baggio converted 71 of 79 career penalties – failing lies not with the player himself, but with something intangible; for everything tangible that was needed for the ball to hit the back of the net was in place.
The ball didn’t fly over the crossbar because Roberto Baggio lacked the physical talents needed to score the penalty. In fact, in 1994, the Italian trequartista was undoubtedly the best footballer in the world, and had – up to the final – been the star of the tournament.
Baggio was the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, and had single handedly dragged Gli Azzurri to the World Cup final. The number 10 scored an astonishing five of Italy’s six goals during the knockout rounds (including a penalty kick) against Nigeria, Spain and a heavily fancied Bulgarian side. To put this feat into perspective: Lionel Messi hasn’t scored a single knockout round goal in any of his three World Cup finals appearances – Il Divin Codino scored five in one tournament.
The ball also didn’t fly over the crossbar because the surface at the Rose Bowl was disastrously boggy, bumpy, or dry. Granted the Rose Bowl wasn’t a football (soccer) stadium, but the pitch posed no threat to the likelihood of Baggio’s penalty nestling in the back of the net; as the fact that the Italian number 10 didn’t slip before hitting the penalty, nor did the ball roll off the spot as he was about to take the penalty, attests.
Despite these aforementioned tangibles being in place, Roberto Baggio still missed his spot kick. His nation still lost the World Cup final. And Brazil’s captain Dunga still lifted the World Cup trophy.
So, what happened?
Why did the greatest Italian footballer of all time miss when it mattered the most?
It’s a question that Roberto Baggio himself has struggled to find an answer for: “I don’t know how, the ball went up three metres and flew over the crossbar.”
And it’s a question that still haunts him to this day: “It affected me for years. It was the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it. If I could erase a moment from my career, it would be that one.”
The video above seems a bit random, as it has nothing to do with football. Literally nothing. But it may hold the answer to the question that Baggio cannot answer himself.
During her TedTalk seminar, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ author Elizabeth Gilbert alludes to the Greek and Roman mythological concept of the ‘daemon’: an elusive attendant spirit that would “come to humans from some distant, unknowable source” and inspire creative genius. In other words, a seemingly divine intervention in an artist’s work which would determine its outcome.
The elusiveness of this attendant spirit may be the answer that Roberto Baggio and his sympathisers have been looking for since that penalty kick was so uncharacteristically missed.
To understand the blaming of a divine attendant spirit, rather than Baggio, for the penalty miss, however, one must look at the number 10 as not just a regular footballer, but as someone who made his sport an art form; a fantasia of sorts.
“When you watch Baggio play, you hear children. Baggio is the impossible made possible, a snowfall from an open door in the sky.” Lucio Dalla
Although explicitly the best in the world at the time, Roberto Baggio was by no means the tallest, strongest or fastest footballer of his generation.
Baggio wasn’t George Weah.
Baggio was Raphael, “the master painter” (Gianni Agnelli).
He was more than just a mere physical talent, the Caldogno native was calcio’s last and greatest artist. A footballer who could conjure the impossible.
Il Divin Codino – which translates to ‘the divine ponytail’ – was a player who possessed such creative ingenuity and affected people in such a profound manner, that describing him using footballing terms like: ‘he was great in the air’, ‘he had a good touch for a big lad’, or ‘he had great left foot on him’, would’ve been erroneous.
Rather, it was – and still is – more fitting to describe Baggio through biblical and artistic allusions.
“The angels sing in his legs.” Aldo Agroppi
For this reason, the allusiveness of the ‘daemon’ which Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of can be used to understand why Roberto Baggio was able to score two goals brilliant goals in the semi final against Bulgaria, and then miss a penalty kick in the final.
Baggio’s dichotomic semi final and final performances, in fact, explicitly mirror Gilbert’s story of divinely inspired moonlight dances:
“Centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. And they were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific, right?
“But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen, and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. And I know you know what I’m talking about, because I know you’ve all seen, at some point in your life, a performance like this. It was like time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn’t doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align.
“And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.
“A glimpse of God.
“But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he’s no longer a glimpse of God. He’s just an ageing mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend to that height again.”
During Italy’s semi final meeting with Bulgaria, Baggio provided calcio with a ‘glimpse of God’. For Il Divin Codino, everything aligned on 13th July 1994, as he scored a brace and gifted the peninsula her fifth FIFA World Cup final.
However, four days later, Roberto Baggio was no longer ‘a glimpse of God’; he was the aforementioned ‘mere mortal with really bad knees’. The daemon was not on hand to mask the Italian’s physical ailments – the 220 internal stitches that bound together his right knee.
Baggio was – by his own concession – tired.
“My muscles were OK and so were my legs, regardless of the injuries. But the Italy team had had a six-hour flight to California while Brazil were already there and that was to their advantage. And they had an easier path to the final.
“Maybe at the beginning of the game I couldn’t let go, subconsciously I was worried about hurting myself, but after a while I got over that. However I didn’t have a great game, and neither did the team.
“We were knackered.”
Like a painter, writer or dancer, Baggio could be a vessel for genius. At times, the number 10 did unimaginably brilliant things with a ball at his feet. However, the 17th July 1994, wasn’t one of those times. As he stepped up to take his penalty kick in Pasadena, the daemon of genius had – unfortunately – alluded him, and due to this, his spot kick ballooned over Claudio Taffarel’s crossbar.