I first became familiar with Roberto Baggio way back in 1994. The World Cup was coming to the US for the first time ever and, as I am a soccer junkie, I devoured every little piece of information on all the teams and players that I could get my hands on. Now, you have to remember that this was the early 90's and there was no internet or satellite TV. Information on international soccer was hard to come by back then. I read about this guy named Baggio who was recently name FIFA world player of the year. He seemed interesting; he was a Buddhist who wore his hair in a little braided ponytail, earning him the nickname "Il Divin Codino" ("The Divine Ponytail"). I watched every single match that I could in that tournament and I even was able to get tickets to three matches played in Boston (actually Foxboro). The highlight was when my friend Dave and I scored tickets to the quarterfinal between Italy and Spain. I wore my AC Milan shirt and Dave wore his Inter Milan shirt which caused a lot of stares and rebukes from Italian fans (probably a good thing I didn't speak any Italian back then). Italy went ahead through the "other" Baggio on the team - Dino Baggio - and soon after Spain equalized. Just when it seemed we were headed for extra time, Beppe Signori took a ball at midfield and fed a streaking Baggio (Roberto this time). Baggio calmly collected the ball, dribbled right past the keeper and scored the winning goal from an almost impossible angle with about three minutes left in the match. We were going crazy, it was pandemonium. I then watched as Baggio almost single-handedly brought home the World Cup for Italy. He scored an incredible 5 goals in the knockout stages, including two against Nigeria in the first round - one to send the game into extra time and another one to win it in extra time. Then the heroics against Spain. Then another two in the semifinal against Bulgaria to send Italy through to the final. Alas, Baggio was hurt in the final and could not continue the magic. Sadly, the defining moment of his career was when he missed the penalty that handed the World Cup to Brazil (although, even if he had made it, Brazil still would have won if they'd converted theirs). For me, it didn't matter; I was a Baggio fan for life.
Baggio had actually made his name at World Cup 1990, four years earlier, but I was in Basic Training with the Army that summer and missed everything. He had scored a goal against Czechoslovakia that was not only voted the best of the tournament but was also later voted the second best World Cup goal of all time.
I followed his career as much as I could back then but without internet or satellite TV, it was difficult at best. I mostly had to settle for write-ups in World Soccer magazine. In 1998 I enlisted in the Army full time and came to Germany and watched Baggio almost lead Italy past eventual champion France, losing in the quarterfinal to them. Two years later I asked for, and received a transfer to Italy, to the city of Vicenza. I ended up taking a little two bedroom apartment in a small bedroom suburb of Vicenza called Caldogno. Looking back, I can only guess it was fate that had brought me to Caldogno. The 2000 European Championships were only a few days away and so I walked down to the sports bar (conveniently called "Bar dello Sport") to inquire if they would be showing the matches. Indeed they would. When the first match came on, I made my way down and took a seat and as I looked at the walls, a familiar face stared back at me; the entire bar was adorned with posters, pictures, photos, newspaper clippings, memorabilia...everything of Roberto Baggio. I figured he must be a bigger star in Italy than I thought but imagine my tremendous shock when they told me that Baggio was actually from Caldogno! I was floored - my favorite soccer player of all time was from the little town that I had just landed in. It was unfathomable. I excitedly told them - or least tried to tell them as I spoke more French than Italian back then - of my love for Baggio the player and how I was actually at the match back in 1994 and they were instantly impressed. They could not believe that an American not only knew so much about soccer but that I had long been a fan of their beloved native son and had even seen him live in a World Cup match. Caldogno is a very small town and everybody knows each other so it came as no surprise that everybody in town had known Baggio since...well, pretty much since birth. He wasn't still living in Caldogno but the rest of his family was and he still spent quite a bit of time there so naturally my thoughts went straight to when I would be able to meet him in person.
And it very nearly happened very quickly.
By the end of Euro 2000, I had become a regular at the sports bar and the owner, Daniele had started to sort of adopt me as a local due to my love of calcio (soccer is called "calcio" in Italy) and the fact that I was spending money regularly in his bar. Towards the end of the summer, Daniele's eldest daughter Elisa told me that the bar was hosting a special dinner for Baggio. It was only for family and close friends and was invite only, but she asked if I would like to come meet Roberto. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I was in heaven. I graciously accepted and the next three days dragged by. Then disaster struck. I received an sms from Elisa telling me to come to the bar. I arrived and she apologized as she pointed to the TV - it seemed Baggio had signed with Serie A club Brescia that day and they had to cancel the dinner as he had to go do the press conference and media crap. I was devastated. I had missed my chance. The only thing that consoled me was the fact that I would be in Caldogno for at least the next year and a half so there should be plenty of chances to meet him.
But as I've said so many times before...it was not to be.
I ended up staying in Caldogno for six years altogether and never once was lucky enough to meet him. There were plenty of near misses in those six year. I saw him driving his BMW X6 through town two or three times. A few times I arrived at one of the bars or cafes in Caldogno only to be told that Baggio had been there earlier to say hi or have a drink and that I had missed him. Through friends in Caldogno I had been able to receive his autograph on a few items - my favorite of which is my 1994 Italy World Cup jersey with Baggio's number (#10 of course) on the back. But I never got to meet the man in person. In 2004, we were driving back from the European Championships in Portugal. We stopped for dinner at a little bar in a town about three hours south of Vicenza called Voghera. As I chatted with the locals during the match I gave them my usual routine - I lived in a small town outside of Vicenza called Caldogno and asked if they'd heard of it. They said of course, it's the hometown of Roberto Baggio, but they seemed unimpressed. One guy then proceeded to tell me that Baggio spends a lot of time in Vorghera bird hunting (He's an avid hunter, something I always found funny, him being a Buddhist and all). In fact, they said, he was just there a day or two ago. Can you believe that? We stop at a random little town in Italy and just happen to just miss Baggio...again. It seemed that the fates that had brought me to live in Baggio's hometown were also conspiring to keep me from actually meeting him.
And there's more.
One Sunday afternoon when the X Man was about a year and a half old, the wife said she's taking him for a walk and asked if I want to go. I was half asleep on the couch so I said no. I awoke a couple hours later to her excitedly telling me that she had seen Baggio. Baggio's parent lived pretty close to us and as she walked past their house, sure enough, Baggio was in the driveway talking with his father. He saw the X Man and gave a little smile and wave. Had I gone with them, I would have met Baggio. I kicked myself. When we found out that we were having a boy, my first thought was that I wanted to name him Baggio. Of course the wife hated it so it never came to pass. I brought it up again with our second boy but it was shot down again just as quickly.
When we left Italy in 2006, I was rather dismayed at the fact that I had spent six years Baggio's hometown and had never once met him. The fates had indeed been cruel to me...and there was still more cruelty to come. Upon visiting our neighbors, Giampietro and Agnese for the first time since leaving, they informed me that the person who had moved into our apartment after we left was named Anna Baggio. That's right...Roberto Baggio's sister. My first thought was that if I could meet her and tell her what a huge fan of her brother I was, perhaps she could arrange a meeting. Eventually I did run into her and told her that I was a huge fan and such but no dice. Giampi and Agnese informed me that apparently Roberto and Anna were not on good terms and never spoke to each other. Once again, the fates had gotten my hopes up, only to bring me crashing back down.
Only this time, the story has a happy ending.
After two and a half long years in Germany, I recently got my old job here in Italy back. We arrived here last Sunday and the only place we considered living is of course Caldogno. Our friends and neighbors are there and Giampi is adamant about walking the X Man to school every day. Yesterday was Thanksgiving and a few days ago I remarked to the wife that, since we are still in the hotel, this was the first year in my life that I would not be enjoying a big Thanksgiving dinner as none of my American friends here had invited us. She said "why don't we do it at Giampi and Agnese's, I can cook Thanksgiving dinner there?" It was a great idea and thankfully Giampi and Agnese had no plans and agreed. So went over around noon as Agnese was preparing lunch. The usual routine is that Giampietro goes out to get the pane (bread) and always takes the X Man with him so he can show him off around town. Never once had I ever gone with them but for some reason I told Giampi that I wanted to go as well. We got the bread, then took a slight detour to Giampi's brother Lino's house to say hi. We rang the bell but there was no answer so after a few minutes we started to walk home. As we did, Giampi leaned in and whispered "That's Baggio's papa" in my ear as he nodded towards the two men across the street in grubby workmen's clothes unloading stuff out of a truck and into the empty garage. I stared intently, trying to size up the man who had blessed the world with the brilliance of Roberto Baggio. As I did so, Giampi exclaimed "Oh, that's Roby!". Sure enough, the other guy working with him in grubby clothes, doing manual labor with his father was none other than Roberto Baggio himself. Il Divin Codino.
I froze. Giampi started crossing the street towards them and I followed. He greeted them warmly (remember, everybody in Caldogno knows each other) and Roberto said he'd be out in a second, he just had to finish putting the load in the garage. He came out and exchanged pleasantries with Giampi. And then...finally...15 years after first hearing the name Baggio...8 years after moving to his hometown...2 and a half years after leaving his hometown without ever meeting him...I was face to face with Roberto Baggio. He extended his hand to me, and I shook it. Never have I ever been so glad that I can communicate in Italian as I told him how big a fan I am, how I was at the World Cup match in 1994, how I lived in Caldogno so many years but never got to meet him. It was a short meeting as Baggio and his father obviously had a lot of work to do but after so many years and so many near misses, it was a thrill I will never forget.
And if we ever have another kid...