FAN'S EYE VIEW: Baggio bears the burden

No 103: Italy
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The Independent Online
Brazil deserved to win it. They had played the most intoxicating football throughout USA '94. It was fitting that they overcame an Italian side too bogged down in Arrigo Sacchi's obsessive fixation on tactics. The way Baggio skied his penalty in the final was almost an affirmation that Brazil were the moral champions.

Hang on a minute! These can't be the cold words of a fanatical little Italian schoolboy, who was frequently embroiled in heated arguments with English schoolmates during World Cup summers of years gone by?

Brought up in an Italian household, albeit in Hastings, my footballing allegiances in the 1970s swayed predictably towards the Italy of Zoff, Causio and Bettega rather than the England of Clemence, Brooking and Keegan. Passion burnt inside my chubby little body on a November afternoon in 1976.

Joyous tidings! Italy had beaten England 2-0 in Rome in a World Cup qualifier. One of those goals entered Italian folklore. A sublime diving header from the silvery haired striker, Roberto Bettega, so supremely controlled that it sent Clemence the wrong way, later became known as Il Volo d'Angelo - The Flight of an Angel. I restricted myself to smug smiles in Mrs Biker's scripture lesson the next day. The following November I ate humble pie as Keegan and Brooking inflicted defeat by the same scoreline when Italy visited Wembley in the return match. I cried for a week before the match (because my father refused to take me) and for a week after, at the result.

But we went to Argentina, and England didn't. I was permitted to stay up until 2am to watch Italy stuff the Argentina of Kempes, Ardiles, Villa and Passarella, amid the ticker-tape, to win their group. The diminutive figure of Paolo Rossi caused me to turn cartwheels in my aunt's sitting room as he deftly popped in goal after goal. And then came those ridiculous long-range efforts from the Dutchmen Willy Brandt and Arie Haan and Italy were out, bundled into fourth place by the Brazilians, leaving the hosts to triumph. Why didn't Zoff see those shots coming? He was obviously past it. He proved us all wrong, of course, as he lifted that gorgeous, golden, shimmering trophy above his head four years later in 1982 at the Bernabeu Stadium.

As I headed for my holidays, aboard a sweltering Italian train, the Azzurri faced the fabulous Brazilians of Zico and Socrates in the quarter-finals. I twiddled absent-mindedly with the knobs of the transistor, without real enthusiasm to listen to the expected Brazilian rout. Unbelievably, Rossi put Italy 2-1 up, only for Falco to smash an equaliser, the veins nearly popping out of his neck as he screamed in celebration virtually ensuring Italy's demise. Rossi again: 3-2. The final whistle mingled with the sound of the train driver's siren as he hooted it with joy. The heights had been scaled. Surely nothing could surpass this ecstasy. I was wrong. I sobbed uncontrollably with glorious pleasure as Tardelli hit Italy's second goal in the final against West Germany, his head rolling on his shoulders as he ran, open-mouthed in a silent scream to be buried beneath a mound of Azzurri team-mates.

I was deprived of the true passion of Italia '90 being stuck in London, subjected to insufferable law finals. By the time USA '94 arrived, long student summers which would have allowed late-night viewing were an ancient thing of the past. Italy burdened themselves with stress and self-doubt in their slavish adherence to strategy. Even Baggio, that free spirit who broke free and peaked wonderfully against Bulgaria, felt the load to be too great.

And after his midsummer nightmare climax to USA '94, Il Divino Codino (the Divine Ponytail) has suffered a winter of discontent. His recovery from a three-month long knee injury has come too late for Sacchi to include him in the Italian squad for this week's crucial Euro '96 qualifiers against Estonia and the Ukraine. Italy have stuttered unconvincingly in their opening matches. But surely this time Baggio will be relieved of the burden of orchestrating vital victories against these minnows, and I can book my seats to worship at the Azzurri's altar in June 1996 at Old Trafford or Anfield? The best-laid plans . . .