Football: Free spirit with the world at his feet

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Italy take on France tonight as they continue their preparations for this year's World Cup finals. They will again be led by Roberto Baggio, who will almost certainly go to the tournament acclaimed as his sport's greatest talent. In an exclusive interview he talked to Derick Allsop about the difficulty of finding space, how he finds tranquility in Buddhism and his love of mallards.

IT IS just another practice match in a twinkling mosaic of practice matches, the team in lime green bibs, struggling to contain more resourceful opposition.

On an adjoining pitch, youngsters of perhaps 13 or 14, having finished school for the day, play two-touch football with bewildering control. Beyond them, burgeoning youths work on intricate moves to penetrate a congested penalty area.

Humble facilities, and a backdrop of cheerless buildings and solemn skies create an austere, working atmosphere yet the activity has an irresistible allure.

Two players in lime green bibs are left floundering as a small, beautifully balanced figure, his dark curly hair trapped by a white headband, shimmies away from their attentions to dispatch a 40-yard, diagonal pass into a colleague's stride. A murmur of approval ripples through those huddled in the spartan stand and others plastered to a fence behind the goal.

Training over, players of all ages and sizes sprint across the road, through the converging fans and reporters, to dressing-rooms inside the decaying mausoleum of the Stadio Comunale. Juventus and their neighbours, Torino, used to play their matches here. Now their stage is the majestic Stadio delle Alpi.

The small figure in the white headband is particularly anxious to reach the dubious sanctuary of the old concrete bowl. He needs peace.

In his early playing days, he proudly responded to the nick-name Zico. Since then he has become known as 'The Phenomenon' or again 'The Living Wonder'. A boot-room full of awards, including Fifa's World Player of the Year and Europe's Golden Ball, testifies to the general consensus that Roberto Baggio, captain of Juventus and inspiration of the Italian national team, is the best footballer in the world.

Surely, though, he will share some of his thoughts with us? Well, maybe, says our contact, but please, a show of gratitude would be appreciated. No, not money. A mallard would be appropriate.

Pardon?

Yes, a picture of a wild duck, something like that. Italians like these little gestures and Roby has a passion for mallards. (In fact, he has a passion for shooting mallards, but we'll come back to that.) Whatever, this proposition deepens our suspicion that the Living Wonder is. . .different.

The sixth of eight children, Baggio was born and raised in Caldogno, a small town near Vicenza, in the north-east of Italy, and recovered from potentially catastrophic knee injuries to justify those early comparisons with the Brazilian legend. His growing reputation carried him from his local club to Lanerossi Vicenza and on to Fiorentina. The move to Juventus, in 1990, for a then world record fee of pounds 7.5m, was secured in a midnight visit from Juventus's emissary, Luca di Montezemolo, now president of Ferrari.

The transfer sparked riots and Baggio himself was dismayed at the prospect of parting company with his beloved 'Violets'. The following season, on his return to Florence, he declined to take a penalty, which was subsequently missed. Minutes later he was substituted and, as he walked off, he picked up a Fiorentina scarf, thrown down from the stand by a supporter.

In the Juventus camp, he was branded a Judas. His relationship with the players, fans and the patriarch, Gianni Agnelli, remained uneasy for some time. Gradually, however, his sublime skills and breathtaking goals have seduced all of them. Last season he led the club to Uefa Cup success, this year he has kept them on the heels of the champions, Milan.

A genius with No 10 on his back has rarely been a conformist. His ponytail, his Buddhism and his demands to be a free spirit are readily accommodated because he plays like an angel, and to date has not been known to belch.

So, how do we find the Living Wonder? Reclusive? Evasive? Glib? Egocentric? Far from it. He is gracious, good-humoured, responsive and apparently very pleased with his picture.

He pulls a brown, leather bomber jacket over his blue and white checked shirt, perches himself on a piece of apparatus in the gym, and talks about his public and private life, the World Cup, English football and his latest starring role. . .as Aladdin.

For a start, don't all these accolades intensify the pressure on those slender shoulders? 'It is not really pressure,' he says softly. 'It is a great joy for me to receive them, a great satisfaction. It doesn't change me or my way of thinking. I work with the same enthusiasm as before. My hope is to get even better in the future. I hope to have sufficient margin for improvement.

'But it does become difficult to achieve that because the opponents know you, they know more about you, how you play. They mark man to man, and close you down. In Italy, the more time passes, the more difficult it is to score because opponents limit your movement and freedom to play.'

Baggio, 27 on Friday, can reasonably anticipate many more trophies and plaudits. Two targets loom on the horizon. 'After winning the Uefa Cup, the next objective is the championship with Juventus and then the World Cup with Italy. Let's hope we are able to gather success in these competitions.

'This year is particularly difficult in the championship because there are several other teams who could win the title, not just Milan. At the moment Milan have a five- point advantage over us, but in Italian football that can mean a lot or nothing. It can soon change. Nothing is decided yet. I believe it could change because this year it is that type of championship.

'As for the World Cup, we have worked well to qualify for the finals, if with a little difficulty, which was predictable. Now comes the more difficult part, because you have to have various components working well - physical condition, luck and everything coming together. The countries to fear are always the same: Germany, Argentina, Holland, Brazil and a surprise could be Colombia.'

No mention of the Republic of Ireland, Italy's first opponents in the United States. How about them? 'I've seen them play many games on television. They are a team difficult to play against, always strong, always determined and difficult.'

And old? 'That may not be a disadvantage, because experience could be important.'

What about the English game?

'I always watch it because it is entertaining. I especially like the Cup final at Wembley. It is a beautiful occasion. I like the tradition.'

But doesn't English football sacrifice technique and grace for power and pace? 'I think of it as rhythm and speed, and it is difficult to find the level of rhythm and speed of English football in any other league. That is why I like to follow English football in general and, of course, I like to watch Manchester United. A great side. Cantona, Giggs, I have seen them many times.

'To play with players as great as these would be a pleasure for anybody. You never know, we may be playing against Manchester United next year in the Champions Cup.'

It was long felt Baggio had a handicap in that he was neither an out-and-out striker nor a pukka midfield player. Roby is unperturbed. 'It is not a problem where I am, up front, or in midfield. Wherever there's space.'

Like Cantona. 'Precisely.'

Unlike Cantona, he tends not to allow himself to become ruffled. The influence of Buddhism? He found this path 'thanks to a friend who understood I was in trouble'. His captain's arm band comprise the colours of the religious school, Soka Gakkai - blue, yellow and red - and bears the motto, in Japanese ideograms, 'We win, we must win'.

He says: ''Buddhism allows me to feel well, tranquil and very happy inside, this is good not only for football but for my life in general. It is not just a case of meditation, it is a practice for me. It has made me conscious that everybody must be responsible for his own life, not only from a spiritual point of view. Life is an endless cycle for those who believe in reincarnation.'

But is his penchant for shooting wildlife compatible with his faith? 'It is not contrary to Buddhism. I believe not everything has to be categorised in life, because otherwise you couldn't eat meat. It is part of this continous cycle of life. Even mosquitoes have the right to live, but we kill them rather than let them eat us]

'I am a born hunter, like my father, my grandfather, and every man of my family before them. When I was a boy, it was paradise to go hunting with my father. For me hunting is a natural fact rather than a choice. It's a part of me.'

As is the ponytail? 'I have it because I like it. Not for any other reason.' The ponytail is a symbol of the very public figure. The private figure is a quiet family man. He and his wife, Andreina, his sweetheart from Caldogno, have a three-year- old daughter, Valentina, and expect a second child in May. 'You need a peaceful, private family situation. It is very important to keep in touch with reality, to stay balanced. To be with my daughter and play with her is so important to me. I am crazy about her. For a month she has made me play Aladdin. She is Jasmine, I am Aladdin.'

He smiles a smile of a doting father. He is equally sensitive to the request to sign a No 10 Juventus shirt, which should help boost the funds at Bobby's Moore's memorial match, at Upton Park, on 7 March. That contribution made, it is time he went home to his family.

Come the summer, he says, he hopes to be able to conduct press conferences in English. He is endeavouring to learn the language before he goes to America, and, who knows, perhaps he too will have a triumphal World Cup campaign to tell us about.

(Photograph omitted)

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