I know when I fell in love with football. It wasn’t a love at first sight thing, but looking back, I know. It began when Italy’s Roberto Baggio collected the ball just inside his own half, played a one-two with Giuseppe Giannini, and by the time he’d slalomed through the Czech defense and beaten goalkeeper Jan Stejskal my heart was won.
Like I say, it wasn’t love at first sight. I can’t even be sure I watched this game live, though I probably did. Over the next years, though, I watched that goal- and every other goal of World Cup Italia ’90- again and again until the VHS cassette stopped working (yes, that could happen kids*). It’s not the greatest individual goal ever scored, and perhaps not even the best individual goal of the tournament, but it was, as the commentary went, “The goal that all of Italy wanted to see.’ It was also the goal I had been waiting for and a love affair was begun.
Over the next four years Baggio went on to become the greatest player on the planet. In his book The Perfect Ten, Richard Williams says that “[T]his was Baggio’s time. For a while he was unquestionably the world’s pre-eminent footballer, the successor to Pele, Cruyff and Platini as the repository of the game’s finest arts, the model for any child falling in love with the game,” and I was any child.
He was perhaps at his greatest in the 1994 World Cup where he went from being substituted for a replacement goalkeeper in a vital group stage game, to scoring five goals in four knockout round matches to carry Italy single-handedly to the final. Of course, the ending there is well-known and it is a pity that a player with a close to 90% success rate from the penalty spot is now best remembered for an, admittedly monumental, missed spot-kick.
Anyway, I digress, but hopefully it’s clear that I really like Robert Baggio. More on him to come. My journey to Tokyo began in the suburbs of Osaka, where my wife and I had just seen an extremely inexperienced Welsh rugby union side overcome a battling Japanese team by a meagre four points. After some initial confusion about how to get back into the city centre, we eventually made it to Shin-Osaka Station with enough time to buy a few snacks and beers for the three-hour bullet train ride across Japan to the capital. The next day we were heading to Tokyo’s National Stadium for a celebration of 20 years of the J-League.
To mark the occasion a team of J-League Legends were taking on Glorie Azzurre, or to give them their less glamourous title, Italy Old Boys. I’d found out that the game was taking place when I saw this tweet from @japanfooty: ‘Roberto Baggio has been confirmed as a participant in Italy Old Boys vs J-League XI.’ It was pure coincidence that I would be in Japan at the time, but if Baggio was in Tokyo then so was I. After a long few days of Google Translate and failed online credit card transactions, I was told my tickets could be collected at any Seven-Eleven when I arrived in Japan.
The game day began with a tour of Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine and the trendy streets of neighboring Harajuku, but my mind was elsewhere. Be it a lack of finance or adventure, I’d never seen my favourite footballer play in the flesh and today that was going to change.
After a conservative Subway lunch- I at least went somewhat native in opting for the teriyaki chicken- we headed to the stadium. You could feel the heat just walking around, so to have arranged a game of football between men mostly in their 40s and 50s seemed just cruel.
Tokyo National Stadium was built for the 1964 Olympics and saw one of the most famous Welsh sporting achievements of all-time when Lynn Davies leapt his way to long-jump gold. As for football, the venue is most famous for playing host to the Intercontinental Cup between 1980 and 2001.
As we approached the stadium it was clear I was not the only Baggio fan in town. Men, women, and children of all ages were wearing #10 R.Baggio replica shirts. The colours of Juventus, Milan, Inter, and Brescia were all on show, but mostly there was an abundance of the blue shirts of the Italian national team. There were even a few dedicated fans sporting the blue-yellow-red striped captain’s armbands that Baggio was so often chosen to wear (the colours are those of the Japanese Buddhist movement that Baggio follows).
We were all to be disappointed though as the great man was not among the starters. Franco Baresi captained the side and marshalled a defense that had Gianluca Pagliuca in goal and Massimo Oddo, Alessandri Costacurta, and Marco Materazzi alongside him. In midfield, Dino Baggio and Luigi Di Biagio played centrally with Angelo Di Livio and Giuseppe Giannini ahead. Christian Vieri and Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci, with a combined 15 World Cup goals, were the front two. The J-League Legends (it seems odd to refer to another team as legends after reeling off that starting eleven) included Ruy Ramos, Shoji Jo and- making his second Lost In… appearance– Kazuyoshi Miura.
The game was played, quite literally, at exhibition pace. Giannini, the one-time Prince of Rome, had lost much of his flowing locks, but none of his touch. Baresi lasted just twenty minutes, but was still a model of composure at the back. Di Livio marauded up the right flank as he had done in the great Juve team of the late-90s (but was no longer so good at marauding back). A bulky Christian Vieri, though, was the star with a cross-field rabona and two early goals: the first a neat half volley; the second a goal keeping calamity. Kazu scored an excellent diving header to pull one back for the J-League Legends and the entertaining first half ended. Roberto Baggio had remained in his track suit since the ceremonial kick-off. Things were looking ominous.
The J-League Legends, with a much larger squad, changed the bulk of their team at half-time. Kazu, who spent time with Genoa, was now in the blue of Italy, while Schillaci, who had a fruitful end to his career at Jubilo Iwata, was now part of the Legends. The changes helped the J-League players and most of the game was played in the Italian half.
It was the Japanese who were now showboating and it took some good old-fashioned, stoic, Italian defending from Materazzi and Costacurta to keep them at bay. Pagliuca, though, who was the star. In one-on-one situations he looked unbeatable, including one fantastic double-save that a much younger goalkeeper would have been very proud of. There had been a reluctance to shoot from distance from both sides, but when Takashi Fukunishi tried his luck from 20yards, the former Sampdoria and Inter stopper was finally beaten.
During the game, the Italians also called upon Roberto Mussi, Stefano Eranio, Mauricio Ganz, and, Angelo Colombo, but with 10 minutes to go there had still been no sign of the one player most people had come to see. Chants of ‘Roberto Baggio’ began to break out around the ground and as the clock ticked away, every movement on the Italian bench saw cameras zoom in. With full-time approaching, the chants grew more frequent, but there was no unrest. When the referee eventually blew for full-time, Baggio was still in his black track suit. With the score at 2-2, maybe there’d be a short extra-time for him to participate in? Or a penalty shoot-out?
Alas, no. I came all the way to Tokyo to finally see Roberto Baggio play football, but a knee injury prevented me from realising the dream. There was, of course, disappointment, but, neither from the crowd nor I, there was no bitterness. As the tired players congratulated themselves, Baggio addressed the crowd to apologise and explain the reasons for his failure to take to the field, before joining the players for their lap of honour.
Despite not having kicked a single ball during the game, almost all the press attention and crowd adulation was focused on Baggio. Hardly anyone left the stadium as this was finally our chance to see our hero up close. When he reached our corner of the ground, it was almost impossible to even take his picture so large was the throng of press photographers surrounding him.
I didn’t get to see my idol play and now probably never will, but just being there and seeing the respect with which he is still held, even on the other side of the world, was enough. And while there was no Baggio, there was Pagliuca, Cosatacurta, Barei, Dino Baggio, Giannini, and Schillaci- other favourites of my youth. The large Japanese crowd had played their part, too. They were as knowledgable and respectful as they’d been at the previous day’s rugby and really added to the light-hearted nature of the game.
Perhaps the Glorie Azzurre will be invited to South Korea to celebrate this year’s K-League 30th birthday celebrations? I can only hope.
HIGHS: Glorious day; great crowd; Pagliuca, Baresi, Costacurta, D. Baggio, Giannini, Vieri, Schillaci; Kazyoshi Miura (again); the mere presence of Roberto Baggio
LOWS: Not being able to find a programme seller; injury preventing Baggio from taking the field.
* Fortunately someone more tech-savvy than me managed to upload All the Goals of Italia ’90 onto YouTube before their cassette met the same fate as mine.