A World Cup is not a World Cup if there’s no penalty heartbreak. In 1994, Roberto Baggio the finest No. 10 of his generation fluffed his lines in the final shoot out against Brazil. His effort would make Jason Puncheon proud. Years later, that penalty miss would inspire a Johnny Walker campaign.
What he said
It was the toughest moment of my career. Before I left for the finals my Buddhist spiritual master told me that I would be confronted with a lot of problems and that everything would be decided at the very last minute. At the time I didn’t realize his prediction would be so accurate.
The finals did not start well, and I felt the pressure. There was too much responsibility. After all, it was meant to be ‘my’ World Cup. It was falling apart in front of me and I couldn’t make a mark on it. If I hadn’t had my faith in the Gohonzon [the entity of the oneness of the Person and the Law], it would have all been a terrible nightmare. I prayed a lot. The more difficult things got, the more I kept to myself and tried to find my inner strength, often by chanting the Daimoku in absolute silence.
But everything changed from the moment I equalised in the final minutes against Nigeria. I got the ball, kicked it and it went through the defender’s legs and landed on the right post. It was impossible to save. Many people called it lucky, and when you score in the 90th minute there’s always a little bit of luck, but then again… maybe there was something special in that moment. Maybe, that time my Master gave me a bit more help than usual. Or maybe my faith helped me, my belief in myself, my inner peace.
After that goal I stopped feeling so anxious. I started playing with ease. I freed myself once again. It was a fundamental moment. From then on my World Cup got a lot better. But I did pick up an injury in the semi-final against Bulgaria. It wasn’t anything serious, just a tired muscle, but it affected my preparation for the final. What would have been a minor injury in any other situation was more serious because of the situation. But I was desperate to play. I would have played even if they’d cut off my leg. My appearance in that game still causes controversy but I felt OK, otherwise I wouldn’t have played. I trained the whole morning. I trained in the hotel in a room used for wedding receptions. I had my trainers on and I was kicking the ball against the wall until I was through. My muscles were OK and so were my legs, regardless of the injuries. But the Italy team had had a six-hour flight to California while Brazil were already there and that was to their advantage. And they had an easier path to the final. Maybe at the beginning of the game I couldn’t let go, subconsciously I was worried about hurting myself, but after a while I got over that. However I didn’t have a great game, and neither did the team. We were knackered.
As for the penalty, I don’t want to brag but I’ve only ever missed a couple of penalties in my career. And they were because the goalkeeper saved them not because I shot wide. That’s just so you understand that there is no easy explanation for what happened at Pasadena. When I went up to the spot I was pretty lucid, as much as one can be in that kind of situation. I knew Taffarel always dived so I decided to shoot for the middle, about halfway up, so he couldn’t get it with his feet. It was an intelligent decision because Taffarel did go to his left, and he would never have got to the shot I planned.
Unfortunately, and I don’t know how, the ball went up three metres and flew over the crossbar. As for taking the penalty in the first place, I was knackered, but I was the team’s penalty taker. I’ve never run away from my responsibilities. Only those who have the courage to take a penalty miss them. I failed that time. Period. And it affected me for years. It the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it. If I could erase a moment from my career, it would be that one.
What is sometimes forgotten is that even if I had scored, Brazil could still have won with the last penalty because before me Baresi and Massaro had both missed. That’s part of the game. I missed the last penalty, thereby ‘cancelling out’ those by Baresi and Massaro. They had to chose one image from the finals and they chose my mistake. For a change. They wanted a lamb to slaughter and chose me. Forgetting that without me we would never have reached those finals. After my miss I looked stunned, and that look stayed with me for a long time. I just couldn’t accept how it had ended. When my teammates went to supper, I locked myself in my room.
But looking back I have to say that losing a World Cup final on penalties is something that I’ll never agree with. If you lose on the pitch, that’s fine, it’s right. Even if you deserved something different. But with penalties, no, that’s not right. Is it right that four years of sacrifice are decided by three minutes of penalties? I don’t think so. Losing that way isn’t right, and neither is winning that way. The golden goal is much better. Or the way they used to do it – play a rematch.
After the final [team manager Arrigo] Sacchi’s attitude towards me changed completely. I was 27, but Sacchi called me up less and less. The last time was 6 September, 1994. I played the final few minutes and then nothing. I was hoping for a little gratitude from him. I would have understood if it was a technical decision but it wasn’t. It seemed more personal.
We saw each other in Como, not long ago, to film a commercial where the penalty at Pasadena went in and we won the World Cup. And the hug between me and Sacchi and me was very real. During the shoot, every time we had a break, all he did was talk to me and try to explain. We were sitting on two footballs and replayed the World Cup final. And this time we won it.
This is an edited extract from ‘Una Porta Nel Cielo’ (A Goal In The Sky), Roberto Baggio’s autobiography (Culled from The Guardian)