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June 2008

Roberto Baggio, the 1993 European and FIFA World Player of the Year, thrilled football fans in Italy and around the world for 22 seasons and starred in three World Cups. He is someone who understands and appreciates the importance of photography, and photographers, to the game that has been his life. John McDermott spoke with him recently at his home in the hills outside Vicenza, close to the stadium where he made his debut for his hometown team in 1982.

© John McDermott

Roberto Baggio at home in Vicenza, Italy, May 2008.

"Photography," according to Baggio, "is a basic element of the history of football. We can see, thanks to the photos taken at matches in the earliest years of the 20th century, what happened then and how things looked, things like the old uniforms, the boots with nailed-in studs, the old brown leather ball with its laces exposed. These are documents that will last forever. If they didn't exist, if those photographers had not been there, we might not have any idea, any record today of those times."

He adds: "Behind every picture is a story and capturing these moments is not easy. Without the photographers, and the pictures they produce, it would be extremely difficult to put together the documentation that tells us about a game or a competition. The photographers are therefore of fundamental importance to all this. It is they who record the history of our sport for us."

Baggio's appreciation of football photography began very early with the popular football star trading cards. "When I was a kid," he recalls, "my brothers wouldn't let me hang posters of my favorite players in our bedroom. But we loved and collected the figurine, the traditional trading cards with the top players' pictures on them. We traded them and played games with them. We would stand three or four metres from a wall and flip the cards as far as we could and whoever came closest to the wall would win. And if someone else had a card with your hero on it you'd happily give up 50 other cards just to get that one!"

© John McDermott

Baggio in action for Juventus.

Roberto says that while he was inspired as a boy by the match photos he would see in newspapers like La Gazzetta dello Sport and magazines like Guerin Sportivo, they were nothing compared to what is available these days. "Back then you'd read the match report and you might see one photo of the winning goal, or a penalty, and that would be it," he says. "Now it's so much better. There is a vast infinity of images out there now, of every shot, every corner kick, every foul, every significant action that happens in every important match."

Baggio's earliest recollection of football photographers is from the first matches that he attended, at the age of five or six, featuring his hometown team, Vicenza, in action. "I started going to the stadium as a boy," he explains, "and then, in the early 1970s, you would see maybe two photographers at the most, sometimes only one. And they would always cover the attack of the home team, changing sides at halftime, because their main job was to get the picture of any goals being scored. If they would dare to stop to light a cigarette they risked not getting the only picture that mattered!"

He adds: "There are many more photographers working at football matches now and, of course, they are working with modern digital cameras and the latest telephoto lenses, equipment that is vastly superior to what was available in the ‘old days'. I have heard, and I don't doubt it's true, that back then if one of the few photographers present didn't capture the goal they would photograph it later off of the television and then print it in the papers!"

Talk to any photographer who has ever worked with Roberto Baggio and you will hear the same story. He was a joy to work with and always very interested in the pictures and the process of making them. Not surprisingly, over the years he formed friendships with a number of those photographers.

© Salvatore Giglio

Baggio, in AC Milan strip, meets up with his favourite photographer Salvatore Giglio after a match.

"In every city where I played," he recounts, "Florence, Turin, Milan, Bologna and Brescia, there was always a photographer who worked for the club. I worked with them a lot and I always enjoyed beautiful relationships with the lads who were the club photographers. But the one who stands out above all the rest - the best known, and the one with whom I had the most profound bond - was Salvatore Giglio, when I was with Juventus. He's a great person and a great photographer and more than any other, it was Giglio with whom I formed a real attachment."

Those years, from 1990 until 1995, were arguably the greatest of the pony-tailed striker's career, including 1993 when he was awarded the game's two highest honours, and 1994 when he was one of the leading protagonists of the World Cup in the United States that famously ended with a Brazil victory after an exhausted and injured Baggio sent a penalty kick over the crossbar.

There were frequent demands in those years from all over the world for both archive pictures and special photo sessions. "Salvatore and I worked together regularly for the club magazine, ‘Hurra' Juventus', and also did a lot of shoots together for sponsors and other magazines," Roberto recalls with a smile, "and it was always fun because we rarely planned anything too much and viewed it as a chance to create something spontaneous and, hopefully, entertaining, not only for the public, but also for ourselves."

Roberto is, not surprisingly, a keen amateur photographer, though football is a subject he leaves to the professionals to shoot. "I love to take personal pictures and I've always made many, many photos of our kids, especially when they were smaller," he explains.

© Salvatore Giglio

Baggio in the changing rooms.

He has a large collection of pictures taken of him during his playing career, most of which are packed away in storage. Some of them, however, form part of a selection of framed pictures that cover the walls of his private office at home. But the great majority of the pictures on display are family photos, most of which he took himself. A glance through his photos quickly confirms that Roberto has a good sense of timing and an eye for composition. Perhaps his experiences working with professional photographers over the years have something to do with that.

One of Baggio's lifelong passions is hunting, particularly for waterfowl, something born of frequent weekend hunting trips as a boy with his father to the wetlands of the Veneto region. Whenever he goes on a hunting trip these days, in Italy, Argentina and elsewhere in the world, he is never without his camera, an EOS 400D, with which he documents his and his friends' adventures in the wild. "I bought myself a digital camera and I really love it," he enthuses, "because I can see the pictures right away and if a photo doesn't turn out well I can just cancel it on the spot. And I would say that it's through making those mistakes that I've managed to learn to become a better photographer. I love to take pictures and for my purposes-documenting my family and my experiences - I think they come out pretty well."

© Salvatore Giglio

Baggio delivers some refreshment to a Juventus teammate.

Of his hunting trip photos he says, "They are always beautiful reminders of good times. I remember now all the many times I went hunting with my father and, you know, I don't have even one single photo of me and him hunting together. That's why now whenever I go hunting I need to make photos every day, especially if the kids are with me. I want them to have all those mementos that I would like to have had with my dad, but don't. Such pictures are basically very personal. But in a sense they are documents just like football pictures. They are your personal history. They deal with a moment in your life and remind you of how you were and how you felt at a particular time. It's beautiful to be able to go back and see your children when they were younger, or to see yourself ten or 20 years earlier, when you didn't yet have so many grey hairs, and to realize how your own face has changed with time."

In Roberto Baggio's legendary 22-year playing career, countless photos were taken of him in action. When asked if there was one photo from his playing days that he would cancel if he could, Roberto doesn't miss a beat. With a hearty laugh he responds immediately: "That one of me missing the penalty kick in Pasadena!" It's obvious that Roberto long ago came to terms with what was no doubt one of the worst moments of his life. Thanks to the photographers present that day it is a moment that will live forever as part of the history of the game that he played so well.