Roberto Baggio and the Essence of Buddhism

There are a few footballers who transcend the boundaries of victory and defeat with the sheer joy of their skill. Il Divin Codino was one of them. Deepanjan Deb pays his homage

Date: July 17, 1994

Place: Rosebowl Stadium, Pasadena, California, USA

Occasion: World Cup Final

Competing Teams: Brazil vs Italy

At Stake: Being the first team to win the most coveted trophy in World football four times

At the heart of two of the world’s finest teams were two players who had almost single-handedly been responsible for both their teams reaching the final; Romario for Brazil and Roberto Baggio for Italy. In Romario’s case he was blessed with a magical Brazilian team that had flair and effectiveness spread all over their squad, not pretty much different from the Brazilian teams of the past. Contrariwise, without Baggio, Italy pretty much would have been knocked out early in the tournament. An inspirational performance from their talismanic striker, the then incumbent World Player of the Year was the reason Italy progressed to the finals beating some magnificent teams on the way. And as fate would have promised, the world’s biggest tournament was rather harshly to be decided by a penalty shootout – for the first time in the history of the tournament – as 120 minutes of football could not separate the two best teams on the planet. With Brazil leading 3-2 after four shots each, it was left to Baggio to force a Brazilian player to take the fifth shot and win the World Cup for Brazil. And then came the moment: the world’s most celebrated footballer shot the ball into the sky which handed Brazil the coveted World Cup for the fourth time in their glorious history. The man who was the reason for Italy playing the World Cup final suddenly became “the player who cost Italy the World Cup final”. It just took a kick to change a life…..the life of Roberto Baggio was never the same after that eternal shot at the Rosebowl.

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The story of Roberto Baggio is not the story of a failed penalty kick but is the story of perhaps Italy’s most celebrated footballer, a global superstar whose rise and fall from grace can echo the behavioural pattern of a sinusoidal curve. He was one of the finest attacking players to have come out of Italy and remains the only Italian player ever to score in three different World Cups. Yet amidst all the hoopla surrounding his increasing fan base, Baggio managed to retain a halo of calmness which was attributed to his Buddhist background. The only Buddhist in a team of Catholics, Baggio practised Buddhism with so much devotion that it earned him his nickname The Divine Ponytail.

Born to a family of eight brothers, Baggio showed passion for the beautiful game very early in his childhood. Having progressed through the Italian junior national team, Baggio was developing into a world class talent at Fiorentina. However, hit by injury in 1987, his outlook towards life changed when a touch of fate introduced him to the world of Buddhism. One fine morning, he went to his friend Morrichio and told him of his intentions to turn a Buddhist. Against vehement protests from his religiously catholic family, Baggio became a practising Buddhist and was never the same person again. As Buddhism entails calmness into his life, Baggio became involved in the deeper inner meanings of life which his family members slowly started to understand and more importantly, accept. Meditation became a part and parcel of his life and despite his hectic playing schedules, Baggio never forgot to meditate.

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The lives of many great men and women like Steven Seagal, Richard Gere, Tiger Woods and Tina Turner among many other global celebrities have been influenced by the Buddhist philosophy which is why we see an increasing number of people turning to meditation to seek divine peace – something that always seems to be missing from the perils of a fast-paced modern life. The essence of Buddhism is a path that alters an individual’s thinking process to experience reality silently: deep into the subconscious mind one becomes aware of the inner meaning of life, the ground reality of life where experience and the experienced share the same sound of music – that of harmony and peace.  Roberto Baggio’s love and devotion towards Buddhism became stronger with time. Buddhism taught him life and its inner meaning: “Life is a struggle and its truths are not always pleasant”. His attitude towards pain and struggle changed. Buddhism increased his level of tolerance and he began to take up challenges rather than run away from them. At one point of time, injuries became a synchronized series of progression in his life and he contemplated giving up football, but his Buddhist inner-self told him to not accept failure, rather realise that life is a challenge. This gave him the strength to face sterner challenges as he became the star of Juventus and the future of Italian football.

Since his high profile transfer to Juventus from Fiorentina post the 1990 World Cup , Baggio went on to become the toast of world football winning the Scudettoand the UEFA Cup and being named the World Player of the Year in 1993. But the world turned upside down for the mercurial genius with one penalty kick that virtually transformed him to an anti-hero from a superhero. There were even talks that if he would have been a Christian he would not have missed that penalty. Baggio took all that in his stride silently and he later said that his Buddhist values had made him handle his toughest days with serenity. He was saddened by the fact that before him two of his other team-mates had also missed penalties in the shoot-out and even if he had scored, an Italian victory was not assured as a Brazilian was supposed to take the next kick. Yet he was tagged as “The Man who cost Italy the World Cup”. Sadly, very few failed to even think for a minute that without Baggio, Italy would not have ever reached the finals. Such is life: it takes a second to wipe out years of earned respect, pride and prestige.

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Roberto Baggio

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As a young 9-year-old watching his favourite footballer miss a penalty, I remember crying alone at 3 a.m. in the night India time, and my parents getting up to console me, assuring me that Baggio will score again in the next World Cup. I asked them, “But that is four years later. Will he play? Will Italy win?” He played, he scored a penalty but Italy did not win the World Cup. Cesare Maldini preferred Alessandro Del Piero over Baggio in most of the matches which led to severe criticism. That was virtually the last act the world would witness of the most gifted Italian footballer of our generation in a national t-shirt. He played for Brescia till 2004 before fading gloriously into a retired life where his wife and his two children form the fulcrum of his daily existence. And of course, what has remained with him is his tryst with Buddhism – the reason he cites for his faithfulness to his wife Andreina and his non-involvement in any kind of scandal.

What also remains with him is the memory of a shot which is probably the reason he named his autobiography “Una Porta Nel Cielo” (A Goal in the Sky). No one can take away the pain of that moment from him but his Buddhist self will help him maintain his composure and regain poise whenever the pain haunts him.

 
Image Rights: © ARMANDO ROTOLETTI / GRAZIA NERI