MATT EVANS explores The Divine Ponytail’s first competitive international goal, a stunner against Czechoslovakia at World Cup Italia ’90.
According to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr, geniuses think in opposites. He believed that if you held opposites together, you suspend thought and your mind moves to a new level. This suspension of thought would allow an intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form. An opposite style of thought was just what Italian football got in the 1980s.
Catenaccio was still prevalent during this time, the stifling defensive style first successfully adopted by Helenio Herrera and his Internazionale side in the early 1960s. Despite this reputation, the 1980s still produced Italy’s greatest fantasista; Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail), Roberto Baggio.
His effortless style saw him glide around the pitch, dropping into pockets of space with the ability to pick a perfect pass and score an array of goals. His play was the perfect antidote to catenaccio, a gem in a sea of conformity. Injuries had curtailed the early part of his career, yet his goals and creativity for Fiorentina saw him named in Azeglio Vicini’s squad for the 1990 World Cup, the second to be hosted on Italian soil.
Baggio had helped ignite the Viola on his arrival, wowing the fans with his repertoire of skills. Exquisite set-piece technique, sumptuous skill and mesmerising dribbles took the Florence side all the way to the UEFA Cup final in 1990. However, he was overlooked for the Azzurri’s first two games that summer, where Vicini opted for the more experienced duo of Gianluca Vialli and Andrea Carnevale.
The eyes of the nation descended on Rome for Italy’s opening game with Austria, a typically tense game decided by substitute Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci’s 78th-minute goal. In a pre-internet age, the World Cup had a habit of making stars of players not known outside their home country and Schillaci would be the name on everyone’s lips during Italia ’90. Another stereotypical 1-0 win against the USA in the second game left Italy level on points with Czechoslovakia going into the final group game. The Czechs thumped the Americans 5-1 in Florence which left the hosts needing a win to progress as group winners.
Vicini rung the changes, Schillaci was given his first start and Baggio would make his World Cup bow at the age of 23. The Italian Tifosi were crying out for the inclusion of Il Divin Codino as they looked for a spark to ignite what was, despite the Czechs demolition job on the USA, a tournament of few goals and excitement. Schillaci continued his scintillating form complete with manic celebration as he gave the Azzurri a deserved lead in the ninth minute. Italy controlled the tempo with Giuseppe Giannini orchestrating play from midfield.
With 78 minutes on the clock, a loose ball dropped at Giannini’s feet. The Czech defence had surged upfield looking for a way back into the game. A neat step over from the Roma man brought the ball onto his stronger foot, Baggio took advantage of the space as he dropped inside his own half tucked against the left touchline. Giannini instantly saw him and passed the ball into his feet.
Baggio completed a neat one-two with Giannini, bisecting two fading Czech defenders, suddenly the pitch had opened up in front of him. Baggio side-stepped a desperate lunge from Czechoslovakia captain Ivan Hasek as he bore down on goal. Miroslav Kadlec retreated as Baggio approached the penalty area. A faint drop of the shoulder shifted his weight from left to right and before Kadlec could comprehend where the ball was Baggio had stroked the ball past Jan Stejskal and into the net.
Baggio slid onto his back in celebration, his hands went to his face as the enormity of scoring his first World Cup goal sunk in. Italian flags dominated the sky and a Mexican wave swept around the Stadio Olimpico. A third-place finish was all the Azzurri could manage, however, a Diego Maradona inspired Argentina ending their hopes in the semi-final.
Despite four more World Cup goals in the next two tournaments Baggio will always be remembered for his penalty shootout miss in the final with Brazil four years later, a stage Italy would not have been reached had it not been for the man from Caldogno. Perhaps this highlights a propensity for football fans to always focus on the negative, rather than the positive, aspects of football? Maybe, but on that balmy summer evening in 1990, Il Divin Codino announced his greatness and genius to the world. At that moment he was untouchable.