Imagine a world without the Internet and for that matter YouTube. Imagine there was no Sky TV giving access to almost any league worth it’s salt within Europe.

This isn’t a lost verse on a John Lennon song.  This was the Summer of 94. What a time to be alive…

The World Cup was about to begin in America, the first World Cup I really can remember and at a time where football had really started to take over my life as a ten year old boy. Scotland had failed to qualify along with England so the tournament for me was going to be a blank canvas in terms of players. I knew little about any nation and very little about the squad’s that had been announced. I was ten years old !

With no Internet and no YouTube there was only one form of player research for a 10 year old kid and all his football daft pals. The Official World Cup Panini Sticker Album. This was like the holy grail for my classmates and I. All these names in World Football that not one of us had heard we could now put a name to, for some reason the sticker which always stands out in my mind was that of Trifon Ivanov from Bulgaria, if you had the album you’ll probably know why. Everyone of us would spend any pocket money and loose change on these stickers, getting a “Shiny” was the bragging card, you could make an enemy or a friend in the school playground if you had a doubler and didn’t want to swap with them to complete the book.

But this was the beauty of the game back then and possibly why apart from the 98 World Cup I have the most fondest memories of that tournament in 1994, it was exciting because there was so many players which I hadn’t heard of and they were all in the one place on my TV screens for a month, as a football loving kid life doesn’t get much better than that.

In the months building to the World Cup I found it fascinating. With no SKY TV the only football I had been exposed to was the domestic game in Scotland and the odd Match Of The Day from the English league. The more exciting option however was Channel 4’s coverage of Italian Football, with the greatest theme tune ever it has to be said. A year prior to the World Cup I remember being on holiday in Menorca sitting in some local Spanish bar with my family, glued to the television screen. The reason? Uefa Cup Final. The teams? German giants Borussia Dortmund v ,the Old Lady of Italian football, Juventus in the 1st leg of the final. I was glued to this game because that night I had a Juventus shirt on my back, not a real shirt, but one of the many fake shirts you would find in any Spanish market or souvenir shop in the 90’s. The excitement to purchase this top was because it had the name “Baggio” on the back with the number 10 in red writing. To my mind Roberto Baggio was the greatest player in the world at that time.

Baggio was the first “superstar” I can truly remember, that night he scored 2 goals in a 3-1 win for the Old Lady. In typical fashion, Baggio was man of the match. Kinda like the way people will watch Messi and Ronaldo today, when Baggio was playing you knew something special was going to happen, and in real time it was more spectacular than it is now on the YouTube compilations that you’ll find attached to his name. Juventus finished the job off in the 2nd leg and the performance of Baggio was pivotal to him being voted the FIFA World player of the Year and Ballon D’Or winner in the December of 1993. This was Baggio’s time and the World cup in 6 months time was to be his chance to prove it on the world stage.

So, onto to the World Cup. With no Scotland I had decided to adopt the Azzuri as my favourite nation to win the tournament, solely down to the genius that was Baggio. As hard as it was to believe even as recently as 1994, it was rare to recognise or know any more than 3 or 4 players maximum from any squad in the tournament. The Italians and Baggio had started slowly throughout the group stages, Italy winning only 1 of 3 games and Baggio sacrificed after only 21 minutes of the 2nd match defeat to the Republic of Ireland after the sending off of Pagliuca in the Italian goal.

However, the group stages set the tone for other unknown quantities to take centre stage and be the hero for their nation. I am not sure why, but back then it just seemed like there was so many nations that had their one talisman, the focal point of their team that would win a match for them with a touch of brilliance. Maybe sports science and the development of footballers to be complete athletes over the last 15 years or so has made the sport more about physical endurance rather than skill. Coincide that with the sports analysis side of things and tactical evolution, the game of 2017 does not have so many “luxuries” or off the cuff geniuses like it did back in 1994.

This tournament however, opened my eyes to the fact there was more than just one superstar in the world. Yes Roberto Baggio had been the hero in the year leading up to the competition, but as the games passed throughout the group stages and beyond, other names started to roll of my friends and I’s lips as we played World Cuppy on any grassy area we could find within our neighbourhood. If there was a spare bit of grass with two trees aligned that was our pitch, and with that we were thrown away by countless adults who actually lived on the grounds, to them we were playing football and kinda trespassing, but to us, this was our world cup pitch and we were living the dream if only in our heads. 2 a side and a keeper was the chosen game of that summer, the fate of numbers would decide who was in goals and who the teams would be. Once the teams were decided that was your que to defiantly claim “Right we are Brazil, I’m Romario and he’s Bebeto”, always seeming to be the team and pairing of choice due to the fascination and excitement at how the Brazilians had started the tournament. These games would go on for hours with the pairings of the teams changed over after every World Cup Final was won, countless celebrations and shouting of “Romarrrrrrrrioooo” or “Bebetoooo” would be heard throughout the area as we all played out as our heroes, for me the cry of “Roberto Baggiioooo” would always come before that of anyone else. Those were the days. At 10 years of age nobody should be thinking about having a baby, yet the amount of times THAT “Bebeto Baby Cradle” celebration was recreated was unbelievable, it was the World Cup and it infected us all with enthusiasm and excitement for the game at that time. Other names such as Hagi, Stoichkov, Brolin and Amokachi would be ours to shout about long into the evening, most nights we would play until the sun went down and there was no visibility to see the ball never mind anything else, yet the shouts of “Romariiiooo” would still reign in any time a goal was scored.

Without wanting to give a Wikipedia styled rundown of the latter stages, Roberto Baggio came into his own in the knockout stages, almost single handedly  taking Italy to the final, where they would meet Brazil, who it must be said had lit up the tournament with their flair and excitement throughout. Not only that, but Romario in particular had almost been as influential for Brazil as Baggio had been for Italy, however the little Brazilian had a better supporting cast and a nations hopes and dreams had not all depended on his shoulders as to that of Baggio with Italy. If either of these countries were to lift that World Cup then the match would have been decided by a moment of genius by either of these guys.

As we all know now, it was not a moment of genius that won the World Cup. The final itself was a tentative and cagey affair. both sides had looked like they were more afraid of losing than actually wanting to win. Baggio hampered by an injury he picked up in the Semi Final did not help matters. His penalty kick miss in the shootout gifted the World Cup to Brazil for the first time in 24 years. The nature of the miss though has went down in World Cup folklore because it was so bad, so erratic. That miss coupled with the image of Baggio hand on his knees in the aftermath is the legacy and memory of him for so many footballing fans.

It’s funny how one kick of a football can define someone’s career, especially someone so talented and so great as Roberto Baggio. This is a player who deserves to be spoken about in the same breath as the legends of the game, the real World Cup and footballing legends of all time. Baggio done more in 3 World Cups than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have done, and thats not a criticism or comparison of either of those 2, who are legends of the game. But because of one missed penalty kick, it would seem that Baggio and his reputation never recovered to be acknowledged and receive the acclaim that such a talent deserved. When you mention names like Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Platini, Zidane there is never a mention about the great Roberto Baggio, which is a real shame.

There have been many pretenders to the throne for Italy in the years since Baggio hung up his boots, Del Piero, Cassano and Totti spring immediately to mind as being the luxury genius of the nation. As I watched Italy lose their first leg World Cup Playoff to Sweden the other night there was no one in that squad who had the creative talent or individual brilliance to change the match for them.

If Italy are to make it to Russia next Summer they better hope that someone in that squad can produce a Roberto Baggio v Nigeria 94 type Inspired performance. Only then can we maybe hope for someone to burst onto the scene for them and capture the imagination again of the Italian people and give them some hope of becoming a leading force in the game again. It may be too early for Pietro Pellegri, but if it’s not next Summer then maybe the Summer of 2022 is his time to shine on the World Stage for the Azzurri and light it up in the same way Roberto Baggio did in the Summer of 1994.

For me the real legacy of Baggio should be a positive one, not the haunting pain of the penalty disaster against Brazil. Here was a boy who was told he would never play football again in his teenage years who defied all the odds and went on to become World Player of the Year and give his Country some of the best individual performances and goals that they would ever see. In my eyes the greatest Italian footballer of them all.

If you don’t believe me then just YouTube it, it’s not 1994…