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  • Mourning Soccer's Greatest Loss: Roberto Baggio to Retire
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    JANUARY 5, 2004 - Recently, soccer star Roberto Baggio announced that he plans to retire at the end of the 2003-04 Serie A season in May, a decision that should have all of Italy crying. Italians had to give up, once and for all, on the one dream that united the nation: seeing the 36-year-old striker sport the national team blue for a final chance at redemption. In 1994, he led the team to the World Cup final in the United States and infamously missed the penalty kick that cost Baggio and Italy victory against Brazil - and no one seems to have gotten over it.

    Although Baggio played for the '98 squad, national team Coach Giovanni Trapattoni refused to put Baggio on the 2002 World Cup roster that suffered an even worse fate than its '94 and '98 counterparts - elimination at the hands of lowly South Korea in only the second round. But the rest of the country protested Trap's decision; there were demonstrations, actors wore Baggio T-shirts on the air, other soccer players demanded he get a spot, journalists wrote editorials. Baggio himself pleaded his case by working, relentlessly, to come back from yet another injury and perform miracles for his team Brescia to change Trap's mind. It was never enough. Although most Italians knew that Baggio's days on the national team were over, they were still clinging to hope. As long as he was playing in Serie A, there was always a chance for that do-over.

    Baggio has scored 27 goals in 55 games with the national team. He won the scudetto twice and was the 1993 European Player of the Year. But he is more than one of the best players the world has ever seen. He brings a dignity and elegance to sports -- to the world -- that is unmatched. He has always been an even better man than soccer star -- or at least that is what his fans like to think, what I like to think.

    This isn't just another one of my celebrity crushes (of which regular readers of this column are well aware). Baggio has a special place in our home, in our family, in Italy. I love my little brother John and baby sister Rosaria, but we don't have much in common besides our blood -- and soccer.

    The year was 1994, and I was a 15-year-old, who devoured every drop of ink about Baggio and his World Cup teammates. (I still have the old articles saved in a trunk in my room!) Each night, over dinner with my parents and siblings, I would reveal every shard of information I unearthed -- Coach Arrigo Sacchi was thinking of pairing Baggio and Beppe Signori finally, the Italian players were banned from having sex because it might wear them out, Brazilian Romario dissed our boys, Baggio broke his tooth and said it was a shame because "he preferred his pasta al dente." In a way, that summer marked the beginning of my career as an Italian American journalist.

    My broadcast was like grace, soccer like our religion. We worshipped at the altar of Baggio. My cousin Morgan and my brother's best friend Alex "Sa" Taranto were our converts. Game days were feasts to rival the Italian celebrations of San Giuseppe or Santa Lucia.

    We huddled around the television in our living room, sometimes holding hands, breathless with anticipation and eating to ease the stress. But by the second round, sportscasters had written off our Baggio, who hadn't scored a goal yet and appeared to have buckled under the pressure. Italy was down one to nil against Nigeria with mere minutes on the clock. I was going to be sick, and I started to stomp upstairs to shed my tears in private. Then, came a clattering of high-five smacks that sounded like copper church bells. The next thing I remember was Alex telling me to come back and the ESPN announcer saying, "Guess who scored? Guess who finally scored?" Baggio tied the game, and we were going into overtime. I rejoined the others in front of the TV, and we all rushed to our original seats so as not to jinx anything.

    Nigeria got scared. They knocked down the now mighty Baggio, and he was granted a penalty kick that he easily made. Baggio's wife and mother had arrived at the stadium just in time to see him score -- just the inspiration he needed. They saved us all. Humiliation would be left for another day.

    We were going to the quarterfinals. When Baggio started breathing again, the whole team came to life -- Daniele Massaro, Dino Baggio, Signori, Gianluca Pagliuca, Paolo Maldini, even the nearly retired Franco Baresi. We eclipsed Spain and whipped Bulgaria with Baggio as our fearless but emotional leader, who was not ashamed to cry tears of joy over his achievements. He got us to the final - the World Cup final - against Brazil at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

    On that day, July 17, 1994, the unthinkable happened. It's all anyone has been able to say about Baggio since then -- even as recently as last week, when he announced he'd be hanging up his cleats. "He had five goals in three games to lead Italy to the World Cup championship game in 1994, but he missed a penalty kick in the shootout loss to Brazil," read the last line of an Associated Press brief about his impending retirement. Is this how he'll be remembered? That one missed penalty kick cannot be the exclamation point on a career that brought Italy so much happiness.

    Baggio, who is a grounded Buddhist, inspired his teammates and made incredible plays take form on the field. Ask Alessandro Del Piero or Christian Vieri. Why do you think the likes of Francesco Totti and Fabrizio Miccoli want to score the goals rather than play defense? It isn't just because of Diego Maradona. Today's stars grew up on a steady diet of the mythical codino Roberto Baggio - even if they don't realize it! Baggio, who is allergic to most painkillers, played beautifully in pain for most of his career. Baggio, who is married to the first woman he ever kissed and seems to adore his two children, merits more than this. He is a revelation to soccer and that missed penalty was merely a blip in his career.

    When the 1994 World Cup final was over and my other relatives had left, John, Rosaria, Morgan and Alex joined me in a game of soccer in our driveway. The crying soon turned to laughter. We were playing just for fun, the way I imagined Baggio once played. I like to believe that those childhood pick-up games - not endorsements or groupies or prestige - are the ones that motivate professional athletes to launch a sports career. The best athletes, like Baggio, have the power to bring us all together because they play passionately with the memory of how they once purely loved the game. That's what Baggio did for my family.

    Ten years later, my brother, sister and I have different interests and political views but we can still talk about soccer. My cousin Morgan and I have clashing lifestyles, tastes and opinions. We rarely speak without arguing, in fact, but our summer with Baggio will keep us connected forever. We lost Alex a week before his 19th birthday when he died of a sudden heart attack brought on by an undetected enlarged heart. We still miss Sa like crazy, but the memories of our celebrations for Baggio's goals and that game in the driveway will never die.

    As a passionate soccer fan, I am heading into 2004 with trepidation souring my stomach and a heavy sadness weighing down my heart - and not just because the often unlucky Italian national team is bidding for the European Cup in Portugal next summer. The darkness comes because once again we'll be playing without him.

    Do you have fond memories of Roberto Baggio or any other Italian soccer player? Share your stories with me at fdimeg10@aol.com

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