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Sports Illustrated Article
by Michael Farber


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 5'7", 158 pounds (including his ponytail), has the best chance of re shaping American attitudes toward soccer since the incomparable Pele 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.

"We talk of Baggio, Maradona, Pele [Johan] Cruyff. . .well, Pele is up here" -- he raises a downturned palm to eye level -- "but Baggio is included with the other two. Maybe it's amazing because the others have won a World Cup or, like Cruyff, come close. Baggio hasn't the accomplishments yet."

Baggio needs this World Cup almost as much as the World Cup needs Baggio. Until 1993, when Juventus won the UEFA Cup (a competition among elite European club teams), Baggio's dazzling unorthodoxy had never led his team to a major championship. His legend had been built not on titles but on moments, like his 60-yard slalom against Czechoslovakia, the loveliest goal in the '90 World Cup.

That goal came in Baggio's World Cup debut. As a still unpolished talent, he had begun the tournament on the bench. But after Italy showed a lack of scoring finish in its first two games (they won each game 1-0), coach Azeglio Vicini tried him on attack with striker Toto Schillaci. The pair was electric, and Italy stormed into the semifinal against Argentina. But on the morning of the game, Vicini told Baggio he wasn't starting. "He said I looked tired," Baggio says. "I was 23! I would have eaten grass to play."

Baggio was inserted in the second half and converted a penalty kick during the shoot-out that followed the 1-1 tie. The Argentines, however, eliminated Italy on penalty kicks.

But now it is Baggio's team, and Baggio's time. "Obviously last year he deserved the Golden Ball," Vicini says of the award Baggio received as the top European player, part of his sweep of international soccer awards in '93. "But there isn't an abundance of stars right now. The World Cup must be his consecration."

Like great art, Baggio is many things to many people.

"Quiet and reflective," says Juventus's Bettega.

"Prima donna," says a Turin coffee-bar cashier.

"Very simple," says Vicini. "He doesn't consider himself a god the way some players of lesser talent do."

"A donnina, a little lady. Tell him to cut his ponytail," says Nicola Giovanni, manager of a suburban Turin truckers' cafe.

Just put Baggio down as all -or perhaps none- of the above. He is a character of contradiction. He's an introvert in a nation of arm-wavers. He possesses lady-killer looks but is still married to the woman he gave his first kiss to when they were 15. Most jarringly to his countrymen, he is a Buddhist in the land of the Holy Mother Church.

Baggio converted to Buddhism in the late '80s while in Florence, where two knee operations limited him to just five games in his first two years. He says his new faith gave his life balance, even if it threw other people for a loop. "This is a question of culture," Baggio says. "In other countries a person who becomes a Buddhist probably isn't thought of as strange. But people here aren't educated about Buddhism. They judge without knowing. They hear 'Buddha' and say, 'Wow'.

Certainly his mother did. Baggio waited three months after his conversion before telling her about it. Was she upset? Is the pope Catholic?

Although Baggio says his mother quickly came to realize that Buddhism had made him a better person, last January, Matilde Baggio told the magazine Oggi, "I don't want to judge my son's choices. All I'll say is that I would be happier if he had kept his own religion. But I pray to the Lord every evening that he might reconvert."

In the preface to his autobiography, Baggio il Fenomeno ("Baggio the Phenomenon"), he writes, "Life is an endless cycle for those who believe in reincarnation." It might be said, then, that Baggio does a lot of recycling of ducks and geese. The seventh of eight children, he has been an avid hunter since he and his father, Fiorindo, hunted together in the woods near his hometown of Caldogno, in northeast Italy. Baggio makes no apology for a pastime that doesn't seem to reflect Buddhist serenity. "Hunting," he says, "is part of a cycle of life that repeats. Life. Death. Life. Death. Death is part of life."

"There are two phrases usually used when trying to figure out Baggio," says Vittorio Oreggia, who covers Juventus for Tuttosport, one of Italy's three national sports dailies. "One: Baggio must not be understood but must be loved. Two: Baggio is poetry, and you don't try to understand poetry, you try to appreciate it.

"Like every star, Baggio is loved but very controversial. The people don't understand him. He scores a goal, and unlike some players who run to the supporters' section, pointing to the shirt, he runs back to midfield. He's so sure of his success, he doesn't try to make it a moment of high emotion. People think he should be the property of the masses, so they second-guess him, tear him down. It's part of Italian nature to have an opinion."

Italian soccer is a circus, so tonight's event makes perfect sense. Under a rented Togni Circus big top in a vacant lot in the city of Vicenza, friends and relatives of the star are celebrating Baggio Day. Baggio began his career in C Division in Vicenza, 300 miles east of Turin, and the local fan club is honoring him as the Golden Ballwinner.

In Turin, Baggio is il Divino (the Divine One). In Vicenza he is Roby, the local kid who grew up to be the best in the world. Baggio beams. The 4,000 people in the tent are his fans, his folk. He still lives close by -- in Caldogno, a town outside Vicenza -- and he owns a sports shop in nearby Thiene.

Baggio is so happy to be here for these festivities that he even gives a short press conference before the program begins. This is news in itself. Three weeks earlier a newspaper had reported that he expected a new two-year, $10 million contract. Because of Italy's 10.5% unemployment rate, Baggio, who will make about $3 million annually through June '95, thought the story made him sound greedy. So he announced that he would not talk to the Italian press until the World Cup.

Baggio's relationship with Turin and its fans, its tifosi, has often been an uneasy one. His departure from Fiorentina in '90, arranged in a midnight deal for a then record $12 million transfer fee, was greeted in Florence with outrage and tear gas. The response in Turin was best measured by the supportersof Juventus, the team whose 22 league championships make it the Yankees-Celtics-Canadiens of Italy. On the day he left for Turin, Baggio, who was bitter at being dealt away from his longtime team, refused to wear a black and white Juventus scarf that had been presented to him. The slight was noted by Juventus fans.

Then, in his first game against his old Fiorentina team, played in Florence, Baggio refused to take a penalty kick, a free shot from 12 yards, a near-certain goal. The act was as traitorous as if Joe Montana, playing for Kansas City, were to deliberately step out of bounds on the 49er one-yard line to show solidarity with his old San Francisco team. Baggio could not be swayed to take the kick despite his teammates' entreaties. Worse, his standin missed the shot. Moments later Baggio was replaced in the game by a substitute, and as Baggio walked the few yards from the sideline to the locker room, a fan threw a violet Fiorentina scarf in his path. Baggio picked it up without stopping. It was his way of bidding farewell to five seasons in Florence. In Turin it was regarded as treachery.

"I just wasn't feeling right," Baggio says of the episode. "Suppose I miss the penalty kick? People would say I do it on purpose. Often I allow teammates to take my penalties so they can have goals, but no one talks of that. The Italian press blew this out of proportion. I picked up a scarf, and they bust my chops."

But on Baggio Day the questions from the press are polite, almost obsequious. The newsmen ask about his spectacular goal against Lazio a day earlier. They inquire about the charms of Vicenza. Then Baggio is sent onto the stage.

Roby, this is your life. Baggio is greeted by his first coach, by former teammates, by his very pregnant wife, Andreina, and by other members of his family. There is much kissing, hardy smacks on both cheeks. Testimonials are offered by his mother ("From the age of two he slept with the ball"); a high school teacher, Professor Aldighieri ("He was the best student, but I'm talking about phys ed"); and a religion instructor, Don Belindo ("If he has a defect, maybe it is that he has distanced himself from our religion"). The Blue Pop Quartet mangles American pop songs during intermezzos and earns derisory whistles, but the tifosi come to order during the Baggio highlight-film finale. Each goal is more stunning than the last.

The lights go up under the big top, but on the screen these words -- superimposed on an American flag -- linger: Roberto, Regalaci Un Altro Sogno. Roberto, Give Us Another Dream.