IT HAS been a vintage World Cup for hair. The weaves that conceal Bulgarian baldies, the Woodstock revisited goatee-and-straggle combinations of American defenders, the Ian Botham memorial long-at-the-backs of the Germans. But the most extraordinary coiffure belongs to the most extraordinary player.
From the front, Roberto Baggio, Italy's number 10, sports a conventional short back and sides. But round behind is a tail: long spills of hair braided into thin bunches, each bottomed off by a bead. As he runs - tearing through the Nigerian defence or leaving Bulgarians in his wash - it whips angrily between his shoulder blades like a piece of equipment from the private life of a Tory MP.
'I wear it because I like it,' he has said of his protrusion. Which is just as well, because nobody else does.
It is a testament to Baggio's footballing skill that the nation synonymous with style could forgive him his aberration. On Wednesday night with a pair of the best-taken goals you could hope to see, Baggio delivered Italy what it had craved: a place in the 1994 World Cup Final. And on Thursday morning, a grateful population sanctified him: 'His Divinity the Pony Tail,' declared the newspaper Corriere Della Sera. In the wild celebrations after the 2-1 semi-final defeat of Bulgaria, two people were killed, 50 were injured. The fact that he had limped off the pitch before the end of the game with a hamstring injury, making his presence in Sunday's game against Brazil uncertain, heightens the emotion.
But if the Italians are loud in their reactions to success, Italians are world leaders when it comes to apportioning blame for football failure. Thus, only two weeks ago, Baggio and his barnet were not so popular. In their first game of the tournament the national team, the Azzuri, lost to Ireland (remember them?). In the sweltering humidity of New Jersey, the 27-year-old Baggio, carrying a cocktail of injuries from the domestic season, laboured. His tail sagged behind him in the heat. The next morning he was seen as the perpetrator of humiliation.
'He just isn't serious,' was the consensus of the television vox pops. 'He is not passionate for Italy.'
He had looked, out there, 'like a drowned rabbit', said Gianni Agnelli, the chairman of Baggio's club, Juventus, and owner of Fiat, the man who, in 1990 paid pounds 12m for his services, making Roby, as he is called, then the most expensive footballer in history.
Baggio would not have been surprised at the about-turn. To be a top footballer in Italy is to be an expert at surfing public opinion. And the public has had vociferous opinions about Roby ever since he emerged as a 17-year-old playing for his local team, Vicenza, in north-eastern Italy. Such was the talent, the goal-scoring, the genius of this slight, reticent boy, the sixth of a working- class family of eight, that within weeks the scouts from Italy's top clubs were sitting in the stands. In 1985, he was transferred to Fiorentina. Before he turned out for the Florentine club, however, he shattered his knee, a tackle injury serious enough to suggest he would not play again. But the club stuck by him, through two years of reconstruction, the boys on the terraces, the ultras, chanting his name at every match. So grateful was Baggio that when he overcame the injury, he made extravagant noises about his affection for the city.
'I will never leave Florence,'he pledged in 1987. 'No one is going to take me away from here.'
For three years he reinforced his commitment, played wonderfully, scored a stadiumful of goals, pushed himself into the national team. Then, in 1990, he was transferred.
In Italy, football is, well, a political football. The rich use clubs as power bases: Silvio Berlusconi was recently elected Prime Minister on a platform that promised to bring to the country a pre-eminence in Europe like that enjoyed by his club, Milan. The grandfather of them all is Agnelli.
At the end of the Eighties his Turin club had lost their position as Italy's best to Milan. Agnelli reckoned Baggio had the potential to do something about it. Everyone in Italy wanted Baggio, but thought he was untouchable. That did not stop Agnelli. He learnt that Fiorentina were heavily in debt after upgrading their stadium for Italia 90, so he dispatched Luca di Montezemolo, president of Ferrari, to get his man. In a cloak-and-dagger mission, di Montezemolo arranged a secret midnight meeting. Baggio signed, consoling himself about his desertion with a contract worth pounds 40,000 a week.
The next day, when news broke that their favourite was off to their hated rivals, the Fiorentina fans rioted. Bemused tourists watched running battles outside the Uffizi; 500 extra police were drafted in to stop the ultras storming the villa of the club's owner. But it was too late, Baggio was gone.
He did not settle easily in Turin. He complained of homesickness; he whinged about the climate; worse, he did not endear himself to Agnelli when, in Juventus's first meeting with Fiorentina he refused to take a penalty against his old team. He was immediately substituted and as he walked from the pitch he put on a Fiorentina scarf, tossed from the stands.
What he found hardest to handle about his new life, though, was the press. For a quiet, private man who hurries off from training to be in the company of his stunning wife and two children, the media intrusiveness made Baggio claustrophobic.
The pressure the Italian press exerts on footballers is hard to appreciate, even in Britain. Over there, the newspapers have Washington correspondents, defence correspondents and Roberto Baggio correspondents. Once, last season, Baggio agreed to a rare interview with the Independent. When the interviewer arrived at Juventus's training ground, he was besieged by a pack of reporters who were hanging around the gates. Several of them pressed their cards on him, begging him to pass on some quotes from the great man. 'Every day,' said one, 'we must have Roby.'
In this intense environment, Baggio gradually learnt to draw comfort from an unexpected source: Buddhism. He had been converted during his injury, and increasingly found that meditation (he does for it for half an hour before every match) gave him space in the mayhem. At Juventus he became more devout. He had his captain's arm band made up in the colours of his religious school, Soka Gakkai; it bore the Japanese motto: 'We win. We must win'. He remains, though, a selective Buddhist. A meat- eater, passionate about shooting ducks. Brought up in the Alpine foothills, he justifies the contradiction by saying: 'For me hunting is a natural fact rather than a choice.'
Gradually, his mind sorted, he began to exert his influence at Juve. In 1993 his brilliance helped to land the Uefa Cup. He was awarded the European and World Player of the Year Trophy in 1994. Among professionals, he is regarded as the best.
'You look to Roberto Baggio,' said Ryan Giggs, 'and you realise what a good player looks like.'
But Baggio's is a brittle influence. There are no half measures in his play. He is either brilliant, or he disappears, looking confused and unhappy. Since Juventus's whole pattern of play depends on him, his disappearances can be tricky. The press has interpreted his inconsistency as a lack of commitment.
'It seems,' he said as he arrived in America for the World Cup, 'that I am destined always to be on trial.'
In the early stages of the tournament, Baggio was in missing mode, slowed by lingering injuries. But after Italy had stuttered through the group matches, he started scoring crucial goals. His first, against Nigeria, scored when Italy were 100 seconds from elimination, was not the goal of the temperamentally unsound. It was clinically, nervelessly dispatched.
'Before this game,' he said after the Nigeria meeting, 'I was not so tranquil, I was blocked psychologically, because I was unable to show my real value. Colleagues gave me decisive help.'
His team-mates had told him that he was the best player in the world. Whatever happened, he had nothing to prove to them. As far as they were concerned, he was not on trial. The psychology worked. Against Spain Baggio was magnificent and, against Bulgaria in the semi-final, he was even better. He even made Agnelli smile.
But soon after his second goal had spun into the corner of the net, the hamstring sprung and off he went. At the end of the game Roby cried Gazza gallons as he realised his chance of gracing the final was now in doubt. No one will know until minutes before Sunday's game against Brazil if he will be fit to play.
Since Wednesday, across Italy there has been only one subject of conversation: will Roby make it? 'All of Italy is praying for Baggio,' was one headline on Friday. No longer is the boy on trial. No longer do they doubt his commitment. All they know is if he plays, the Azzuri have a chance: only he can unpick the Brazilians' formidable defence. If he doesn't, they don't. Never before has so much hung on one hamstring. Or one pony-tail.
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