On Roberto Baggio and accepting failure.

Roberto Baggio was not the greatest footballer of all times. Let me say it straight away: many nostalgic Italians, very used to magnificent defenders and goalies, but mediocre forwards, consider him in the top 10 ever at least – they are just wrong. I understand them, but cannot objectively agree. However, this is only partially important in this context. It is only because I do not fall in the category of those compatriots of mine for whom Baggio was a saint, and the lesson he taught me has little to do with football.

Nevertheless, he was very good – for a couple of years surely among the top. He single handedly dragged a quite boring Italy to a boring final of a boring World Cup in 1994. I remember risking being chased by a few angry relatives of mine because 12 YO me was supporting Brasil – I was a sucker for their game, and patriotism is very alien to me, what can I tell you.

Netflix Italia know that Italians will always fall for their football heroes, or maybe we simply don’t have good film makers anymore, so they produced Il Divin Codino, a film on Baggio’s career. The film will come out in a couple of weeks, and will probably not deserve any awards. But as I was watching the trailer yesterday, a thought struck me: in spite of not having a loving, admiring connection to Baggio, and being quite sure that the film will be poor, my perceived experience is, and unconsciously always has been, enriched by his story. With a lesson that I cherish more than most, and quite literally changed my life at a certain point:

It's OK to fail.

Roberto Baggio was young, handsome, rich, and controversial. Controversial because he was always too smart for football interviews; controversial because in spite of being a superstar, he now lives in the countryside and very rarely appears on TV; he was controversially a Buddhist in a very Catholic nation; he chose to move to Juventus from Fiorentina, causing riots.

The whole nation really saw him as a God back then. Italy does not consider football as a mere fitness and sportsmanship exercise: we are closer to Brazil than to England in this sense. People pray to their saints if their team wins, cause riots when their footballers join other teams, and quite often physically clash with rival fans. In a poor country, football is seen as a relief, rather than an exercise (and this is known and used by many a politician, panem et circenses right?). When Italy did win the World Cup in 2006, it was the best of their life for many people. So imagine the status that carrying the national team to a final would give you. You own the country. Were it not for the constitution, people would vote you for king.

So a mediocre team of a peripheral country makes the final, in conditions of incredible heat and not-so-much-interest by the American locals. Facing Brazil’s Bebeto and Romario, Cláudio Taffarel, Dunga: a very strong side, though admittedly not the best Brazil ever. Italian manager Sacchi is not loved by the fans, the team’s play was always quite lacking. But Baggio sparks all of the few lights that led to an unexpected final.

The match itself is VERY boring. The interesting part is boring itself, by design: penalties. A moment embedded in all of our minds, ask any Italian.

A fallen God. Roberto misses his chance for eternal glory as a footballer. He also misses the penalty by quite a bit – a really ugly one indeed. He seems to want to overdo it, by smashing it in the top corner. Almost like wanting to send a desperate message of hope to the team, but missing. What makes this story interesting though, is that he does achieve, somehow, eternal glory as a person, a human representation of all of us. People never ceased to love him. He was ever humble, before and after the fall. He is just a person, who did not let his immense talent take over him. A person with a simple side and a rebel side, with talents and flaws. Like anyone.

After the World Cup, Baggio kept playing, maybe his best years, in smaller teams. He played amazingly in Brescia, and to this day his team mates are very frank in saying how they could not believe they were playing with that icon. They also could not believe the level of game they were witnessing day in, day out. Pep Guardiola, another legend, played with him for 1 year or 2. I want you to watch at a couple of minutes of this video: Guardiola introduces Baggio to Lionel Messi. To contextualise: Guardiola is (probably) the best football manager of all times; and Messi is (probably) the best footballer of all times. Now, see how Guardiola speaks of Baggio. Like a teenager with his poster on the side of the bed. So much so, that both Messi and Baggio look a bit embarrassed.

Thinking about it, Baggio missed penalty taught me that even the best can fail. It's OK to fail, to stay human. Indeed, it's a requirement.

Baresi, another legendary but less flashy football giant, also missed his penalty that day: he’d miraculously recovered from a severe injury only to make the final, his appointment with history: the images of him unapologetically in tears after the loss are, again, embedded in our nation’s collective mind.

I don’t like the idea of having idols at all, and neither Baggio or Baresi are. But I do think that there’s a lesson to learn from their tears after the missed penalties. Even the best will make mistakes, and you, too, are allowed yours. It’s OK, the world will go on, and you will be alright. You are a victim of the general idea that you must race, you must succeed, no matter the consequences. You might lose happiness, but at least you won the race, is what society lead us to believe. You must build a wall of money and success around you, is the zeitgeist.

In the grand scheme of things, a penalty kick that would have created happiness for 60 million people can still go wrong: and you know what, it’s alright. And if that is OK, you can afford to not make your life a first-place-or-death race, don’t you think? You can be a hero, or not: you can be whatever you want to be, and you are still special.