Nothing Turns Away
The World Cup final and the profound agony of Roberto Baggio
Roberto Baggio’s fall was the opposite of Icarus in Bruegel: everyone saw it. And the pressure of millions sealed him into himself, with nowhere to look but the ground, where alone his gaze could not be met by the world’s.
I was then seven and the 1994 World Cup marked a seminal moment in my development. Baggio’s heroic failure forced greater things beyond the domestic horizon into my consciousness: the burden of talent, the intense loneliness of being responsible for others, the shared suffering of loss.
That penalty made Italy the property of all who participated in their pain. Having no Italian ancestry or experience of Italy did nothing to diminish my passion. Not only that: watching the final in Hounslow as an only child to Assyrian parents from Iraq and Iran rendered the experience both highly individual and fully universal. There was nothing between my heart and his: no ideas, communities, nations or geographies.
It was palpable that Baggio’s injury would persist across the tournament – I wanted it to heal too badly for it not to – and so would worsen as the scale of what he was called upon to do became grander. And just as palpable that he alone could sacrifice himself, becoming the one called upon to shoulder the burden of the same pain he caused millions.
Summer is childhood’s season, when the world opens and the senses open to it. I hadn’t been alive long enough to anticipate the World Cup, to be aware of it as a repeated action. Through the figure of Baggio, it had arrived without warning, like the experience of characters in children’s stories. And how like childhood Baggio’s tragedy was: the rawness of a child’s exposed heart rendered permanent. That was football: none of the consolations of adulthood were available, even the crucial delusion that there are things more important than glory.
All of the highs of summer—of external and internal weather—were inverted. The same heat caressing so many tanning Californian bodies that summer afternoon baked Baggio into agony. His face was so like that of a statue come to life—etched into it was the nobility of civilisation, the wisdom of nature—that it was as if this process was merely returning him to his perennial form. He was taking a step backwards into the fixed permanence of a now completed narrative that always felt pre-ordained.
The significance of Baggio being star forward and captain was profound. He was both the most gifted and most burdened individual of his nation—a non-celebrity Epic Hero, sharp in relief among the entertainers in hazy pastel that populated that tournament—and ended up powerless in the face of himself. His simultaneous centrality and separateness became a perfect analog to the sudden dislocations and revolutions of my inner world. He became a floating awareness that allowed you in just enough to convey the unfathomability of its depths.
Baggio’s temperament was the ideal inflection of these immensities: it was both nobility crumbling under the weight of mass expectations and the failure of meritocracy to yield majesty.
Roberto Baggio approaches the penalty spot and the tragedy begins to hatch. If he was going to score, he wouldn’t take so long placing the ball. He was delaying the inevitable; he felt nothing was in his hands any longer. He starts to administer his own self-execution. His sideways glance to the referee a last look over the shoulder—the kicking in of an old instinct no longer useful—before the gallows. The pursed lips, the flick of a tongue: the shrunken face of a man forced to cling to procedure even at the expense of his dignity. The steps are over-casual, like he’s hiding something and only in putting the kick into motion do his athletic instincts jolt into play. He strikes the ball above the frame of the goal, as if he wanted to escape the demands on him with it. And across my callow face stream the first tears I can remember, as for the first time I realise what it means to miss.