This coming weekend, everything changes. You will notice it if you live in big urban centres – the caravans of honking cars, the flags, the street celebrations (that are hopefully employing safe distancing). Here in Toronto, the first step in economic reopening will make this event even more noticeable: It’s the first match of Euro 2020, postponed from last year. It’s Turkey vs. Italy at 2 p.m., the opening match in Rome.
The current iteration of Italy’s Azzurri come to it with high expectations, Italy having failed to qualify for the last World Cup. Think of Italy in soccer and you think of Francesco Totti, Paolo Rossi, Luigi Riva and many others. Yet only one figure truly transcends the game itself both as iconic player and unknowable luminary, and that’s Roberto Baggio.
Baggio: The Divine Ponytail arrived recently on Netflix, on-cue for a summer of soccer. (All Euro matches will be on TSN or CTV and the Copa America will unfold almost simultaneously on Univision in Canada.) It’s a biopic labeled as “freely inspired” by the real life of Baggio and anchored in his autobiography. Like many productions that feature an actor playing a sports star (Andrea Arcangeli plays the adult Baggio) it’s a very odd narrative, but striking in its depiction of Baggio as a spiritual figure, sometimes tortured and sometimes sublimely removed from the rough and tumble of the game.
Baggio is notorious for one act. He missed a penalty kick when Italy played Brazil at the 1994 World Cup Final in the U.S. He’s asked about it still and as recently as last year when he was coaching young players in Serbia, he told a local journalist, “Still today I’m not sleeping well because of that mistake. Unfortunately, it happened and such unpleasant situations can serve as lessons.” That’s the core of the film’s drama – Baggio coping with failure and loss, as well as stunning success. Mainly that means putting Baggio in the context of his Buddhist faith.
While it can be choppy in structure, the movie hinges on that famous missed penalty. We see Baggio as a young boy taking a penalty kick inside his father’s business. Later comes the key revelation – that 3-year-old Roberto promised his dad he would play for Italy and beat Brazil in the World Cup Final. That haunts him, until it doesn’t, in a twist that doesn’t really have enough dramatic stakes.
Meanwhile we see Roberto as a gifted teenage player, his move to the big-time, playing for Fiorentino, postponed when he suffers a career-threatening injury. He’s depressed, angry and frustrated. His dad says maybe the injury is the best thing to happen, since he gets nothing handed to him. He’s on the verge of quitting when a guy who runs a local record store that Baggio haunts gives him a book to read. It’s about meditation, karma and being Buddhist. A despairing Roberto gives it a try. In Catholic Italy, this is almost perversity. His girlfriend Andreina (Valentina Bellè) is appalled when he tells her. “This is like a cult,” she says. “They’ll take your money.”
Soon we’re off to the Word Cup in 1994. Italy loses to Ireland in the first match and struggles to qualify for the second round. There are many scenes of Baggio in tense conversations with coach Arrigo Sacchi (Antonio Zavatteri), a man who cast a very cold eye on Baggio and his fluidity and movement on the field. This is all based on fact – just last week, Baggio heaped scorn on Sacchi: “He wanted to prove tactics are more important than footballers.”
The theme – and you can’t possibly miss it – suggests Baggio had problems with many coaches, largely because of unresolved issues with his own father. While that aspect seethes, Baggio himself remains calm, in control and impenetrable. It’s the Buddhism, you see. The grief over that missed penalty shot will not have tyranny over him.
The production succeeds when it focuses on Baggio as almost-divine figure, with that distinctive ponytail, but it lacks force in presenting him as a truly gifted player who seemed to own the field, controlling the entire pace of a game. He was loved, admired and inspired affection in a way few athletes do. There will never be a player with the same aura, and the film acts a perfect reintroduction (even for non-soccer fans) to the cauldron and complexity of European soccer.
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