The last fantasista

The old man lit a cigarette and dragged deeply onto it. He turned his head to blow the smoke away from me.

“It’s a hero’s journey’, he said. “Roberto Baggio’s career is the closest any footballer has come to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey narrative.”

We were sitting at a dimly lit bar doing what most of its patrons do on Saturday nights, discuss football. Most of the men argue over which team will win the English Premier League and even which team between Manchester United and Liverpool are better. Those who thought they knew anything about football regurgitated tactics they had heard on television. But I was in the mood for a little more of an intellectual discussion. And I found it in a wrinkly old man who had a glass of whiskey too many.

“There were surely others,” I said. “There’s Diego Maradona, for instance.”

“He never returned.” He rolled his right hand into a fist and pulled it towards him.

“What about Di Stefano, Cruyff, the old Ronaldo. Even Rossi made a return to win the 1982 World Cup.”

“None of them were reborn into a new kind of player.”

“How is Baggio any different?”

“We remember him for that penalty miss. You know, the one taken with legs tired by one-hundred and twenty minutes of lacklustre football under the scorching Californian sun.”

I stayed up until one in the morning to see it. Never did I go to bed so disappointed.

“They believed it would be the end of Baggio.” He said. “His genius had run dry, they cried. But we shouldn’t have forgotten that he was a fantasista. They are the poets of football. And they never die easily.”

And so he started.

“He was showing signs of burnout. He left Juventus for A.C. Milan, remember? But even then, he didn’t play to his best. His feud with Arrigo Sacchi was boiling. I think he always had that penalty miss in the back of his mind. It affected the way he played.”

I nodded my head.

“Then the call from Bologna came,” I said. “He didn’t hesitate. He signed and left.”

“Correct. He must have shown some reluctance at first. I mean, which former World Player of the Year would want to leave the big city for a small provincial team.”

“One that would have his eye on making the Italian side for the World Cup in France?”

“Precisely. He cut off his ponytail, you know, to symbolise his rebirth. He knew it would take place. But everyone thought he was a washout. This was the beginning of the end for him. He was thirty at the time, entering the twilight of his career.”

“And he came and proved everyone wrong, right?”

“Wrong. Of the first four games, Bologna drew three and lost four. The only consolation was that Baggio scored a penalty in the 4-2 loss against Atalanta on the opening day, scored another two against Inter in yet another 4-2 loss. They did beat Napoli 5-1 in the eighth fixture but then only went on to pick up two points in their next four games.”

“That would have been seven points from twelve games. That would have made them favourites for relegation.”

“Before the season started people expected them to head down to Serie B. It was the reason Bologna coach Renzo Ulivieri signed Baggio, as their one hope of staying in the Serie A.”

“If I was the coach, I would have been upset at myself for buying a star player who couldn’t perform.”

“Actually, Ulivieri seemed to show some disdain towards Baggio. Their relationship was taking some strain and he was even left out of the starting eleven for a game against Juventus after they disagreed over tactics. Now, with Baggio being a Buddhist, I can imagine he turned to his faith to find inner strength the way he did at the beginning of the 1994 World Cup. He once said that if it wasn’t for Goonzon, the entity of the oneness of the Person and the Law, the tournament would have been a nightmare. He prayed a lot, chanted the Daimoku in absolute silence. His tolerance for suffering had heightened. His inner-self would have told him not to accept these setbacks as challenges that needed to be overcome. And after a terrible start to their campaign, the Italians tore through their opposition in the knockout rounds to make it to the final. I think he would have turned to his faith after Bologna’s terrible start to their season too, because after that twelfth game, they started winning and picking up points regularly. Baggio developed a good understanding with Kennet Andersen. This helped in their wins over Sampdoria – where Baggio helped Andersen score a hat-trick – Vicenza and Udinese. These performances were just a preparation.”

“What do you mean?”

“All this time, he was preparing himself for the biggest showdown of his career yet, the match against A.C. Milan, the club that let him down.”

“But by then Sacchi would have left the team, right?”

“He did. Fabio Capello took over as coach. But still, for Baggio, vengeance wasn’t about getting back at one person but at an entire institution.”

“And what happened?”

“The man played like a demon possessed him. He opened the scoring when he controlled a high through ball, rounded the ‘keeper Sebastiano Rossi and poked the ball into the net. He acknowledged the Gods that helped him through his rut by running to the side of the pitch and praying while his teammates congratulated him. He then scored a late penalty after Paolo Maldini brought him down.

“Later in the season, Bologna faced off against another one of Baggio’s former clubs, Juventus. They may have lost the game, but the moment everyone remembers was when Baggio scored, he ran along the touchline with his hand cupping his ear. The Stade Delle Alpi was dead quiet.

“Bologna won four of their last five games of the season, finishing eighth overall and qualifying for UEFA’s Intertoto Cup, all because of Baggio. If it were not for him, Bologna would not have done so well. He scored 22 goals with six assists that season. His performance that season earned him a place in the Italian World Cup side.”

“Ah, yes, I remember being surprised that Cesare Maldini put him in the starting line-up against Chile in their first group game.”

“It was a decision that changed Italy’s destiny. Italy had given up their lead and with five minutes remaining, found themselves 2-1 down. Baggio got the ball on the edge of the box and attempted to chip the ball in for his forwards. But it hit the Chilean defender’s hand and the ref blew for a penalty. Baggio was asked to take it. The memories of that penalty miss from 1994 ran through his head as he placed the ball on the spot and took a few steps back. He wiped the sweat from his brow and when the whistle blew he ran up and smacked the ball low and hard to the right of the ‘keeper. The game ended 2-2. But more significant was that Baggio had rediscovered himself. In hindsight, that penalty miss did mean the end of him, at least a version of him. More significant, it meant the rebirth of a new Roberto Baggio.

“And how does all of this link to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?”

He took a sip of whiskey and cleared his throat.

“Well, at first, the hero has a problem he cannot overcome. In this case Baggio can’t get over his pentaly miss. Then he receive a call to adventure in the form of a new contract with Bologna. He crosses thethreshold and signs for the club. At first, things don’t go well for him or the team and, he seekssupernatural aid. He then finds himself in the belly of the whale as he accepts the fact that he has to undergo a change for him to become an asset to his team.

His road of trials included a win against AC Milan and a loss to Juventus, both of which built his character. He experiences an apotheosis, where duality is disintegrated, where his love and hate for AC Milan is no longer there.

He receives the ultimate boon as Bologna stays in the Serie A and he is chosen for the Italian national team. Most of all, he overcomes his self-doubt and is reborn into a great footballer. And that is Baggio’s Hero’s Journey.”

He placed a cigarette to his lips and lit it. He took a deep drag and turned and blew the smoke away from me. 

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