Baggio doesn't relish role of team savior

July 08, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There's a Roberto Baggio factor developing in World Cup '94.

"We were a good team, but always struggling when Roberto wasn't scoring," said Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi. "If he breaks his slump totally, we could become an excellent team."

Baggio's game-tying goal in the 89th minute of Italy's 2-1 victory over Nigeria Tuesday was Italy's first real sign of life in a World Cup marked by disappointing, often stagnant play.

But now Italy and its superstar, Baggio, 27, seem to have gone through a rebirth in time for a quarterfinal match against Spain tomorrow in Foxboro, Mass.

"Scoring takes a weight off my shoulders," said Baggio. "But I don't want to be tagged a savior. I never thought about saving anyone."

But that's Baggio's extra baggage, whether he likes it or not.

He's got green eyes, tanned brown skin and is frail-looking at 5 feet 7, 159 pounds. He is a Buddhist in a mostly Roman Catholic country, and has a passion for hunting in a nation of many environmentalists.

He ties his dreadlocks into a distinctive ponytail and plays for Italy's most distinctive team, Juventus, the Italian club backed by the Agnelli family that controls Fiat. Juventus has been the New York Yankees of Italian soccer, and Baggio has been its star. It hasn't won the league since 1986, but Baggio helped Juventus win the UEFA Cup in 1993.

"I only want to play, don't like the life in the spotlight. But I still love soccer as much as I did when I first kicked a ball," Baggio says. "I only want to play."

Baggio is good with both feet, makes great passes and strikes perfect free kicks. His masterly moves and scoring ability complete a package that sets him apart from almost any other forward.

He has scored 109 goals in 219 Italian League games with Fiorentina and Juventus and 19 goals in 33 games with the national team. Fans in Florence rioted after Fiorentina sold him to Juventus after the 1989-90 season for a record $26 million. The riots occurred just before Baggio joined the Azzurri for the 1990 World Cup.

"All players have equal duties and merits, and share the reward and sometimes the blame," he said. "Forwards make the most visible moves as they score goals."

But Baggio had not scored a goal in eight straight games, including the first three World Cup games. He complained about not being given enough space by Sacchi, who has an obsession for tight schemes and teamwork. Sacchi moved Baggio from midfield, where Baggio was World Player of the Year in 1993, to striker.

The confrontation seemed to hit rock bottom in World Cup game No. 2 against Norway, when Baggio was upset and embarrassed after being replaced. Baggio's boss at Juventus, Gianni Agnelli, said Baggio resembled "un congiglio bagnato" (a wet rabbit).

"I also play with pain," said Baggio, who came to the United States with an Achilles' tendon injury. "People don't understand what I go through."

Then came Nigeria.

Sacchi ordered his defenders forward, creating more scoring opportunities.

With time running out and the flag-waving Italian crowd sitting back in disappointment, Roberto Mussi dribbled into the Nigerian penalty area and centered the ball for Baggio, who rolled a shot past a Nigerian defender and goalie Peter Rufai to set up the first overtime in this World Cup.

Eleven minutes into overtime, Baggio lofted a pass to Antonio Benarrivo -- who was pulled down in the penalty box by Augustine Eguavoen for a penalty. Baggio's penalty kick to the right of Rufai hit the post and went in, sending the Italian bench onto the field to mob Baggio.

It was the type of game and goal that can awaken a team and an offense.

"Against Spain, the key is enthusiasm. You saw the way the goal changed Baggio. He came out of his shell," Sacchi said. "It was like an awakening. After that goal, he gave a sign of brilliancy. No doubt he's our best man, who can solve every match."

Baggio said his conversion to Buddhism has helped him score more goals.

"I needed something deeper than the Catholic faith, and Buddha helps me control myself," he said.

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