Baggio, Baggio, non e un miraggio.
—lyrics from an Italian song
In the land of Pavarotti they sing of love and beauty and victory, and of Roberto Baggio, who is a little bit of all these.
Baggio—as the lyrics above note—is no mirage. He is achingly, sometimes confoundingly, real. He is a soccer player, but to describe Baggio merely as a soccer player is like saying the Mona Lisa is a painting. Baggio is creator, inventor, practitioner of the world's greatest folk art.
"With soccer I have the ability to do things differently," Baggio says. "That is why I admire Leonardo da Vinci. He was able to create things other people wouldn't believe in.
"Also, I like Leonardo because"—Baggio grins, his green eyes suddenly impish—"like me, he wore number 10."
Baggio, a striker who has artistic license to position himself virtually anywhere on the playing field, is nearly unanimously regarded as the world's best player. Moreover, his art, like Michael Jordan's on a basketball court, speaks for itself. His skills display themselves like pictograms, visible and obvious even in the U.S., where, on the eve of next month's World Cup, soccer remains primarily the domain of suburban kids and old-world and Latin American families who have held fast to their sporting roots. Baggio, a wisp of a man at 5'7½", 158 pounds (including his ponytail), has the best chance of reshaping American attitudes toward soccer since the incomparable Pelé spurred a miniboom in the 1970s when he played for the New York Cosmos of the now defunct North American Soccer League.
Baggio represents a triumph of talent over tactics. He is an antidote to the stodginess that often strangled the 1990 World Cup in Italy, which had a record-low 2.21 goals per game. Along with the grizzled Argentine magician Diego Maradona, Baggio might actually make this tournament fun instead of something—like fiber—that is supposed to be good for us.
"I hope the matches in America are spectacular," says the 27-year-old Baggio, who has averaged a goal every two games playing for Juventus in the top Italian division this year and has 19 goals in 33 matches with the Azzurri, the national team. "Even in Italy, teams play like they are afraid to lose. It is ugly. I hope I will have the chance to express myself in the World Cup. If America ends up loving soccer, maybe it means I have done something right."
Baggio plays on instinct and whim, wriggling past defenders, redirecting passes, altering the geometry of play with deft flicks of either foot. He can change a match faster than his country can change a government. If his is a game not quite to die for, it is at least worthy of intensive care: When Baggio was sold by Fiorentina of Florence to rival Juventus of Turin a month before the '90 World Cup, two days of rioting ensued in Florence, leaving 50 injured.
Baggio's style also has substance, explains Roberto Bettega, a left wing on the 1978 World Cup team and now the chief operating officer of Juventus. "Some are artists but not players," he says. "They're nice. They're pretty. Baggio is an artist, but he is also a great player.