ROME: Roberto Baggio has always been at peace with himself since missing the decisive shot of the 1994 World Cup Final.
That famous drive high over the crossbar apparently hasn't had much of an effect on his professional career, either.
The pony-tailed Italian is in his 19th season in Italy's Serie A, an amazing span considering the number of injuries, operations and lengthy rehabilitations he's undergone.
And yet, the Brescia forward is tied for sixth in scoring with eight goals. With 189 career goals, he leads active players.
“I'm in a form that I've rarely been in recently, but I can still improve,” said Baggio, who turns 36 on Feb 18.
After changing teams five times, Baggio seems to have found a comfort zone at Brescia, a provincial club whose small ambitions do not seem to match the resume of a player voted as the world's best in 1993.
Carlo Mazzone, a 65-year-old coach with 35 years of experience, is the primary reason.
All Baggio really wants from his coach is to be put in the starting lineup each match. With Mazzone, unlike several of his previous coaches, that has never been a problem.
“If he's healthy, with me he'll always play,” Mazzone said. “If he's not healthy, he'll still play, because with one leg he's worth more than many others.”
Indeed, despite another in a lengthy list of knee operations a year ago, Baggio is still Brescia's top player and goal scorer.
Five of his goals this season came on penalty kicks, the type of shot he missed against Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final in the United States.
His passing skills and leadership also make him invaluable.
That's exactly what Baggio used to lead his team to a 2-0 victory over defending champions Juventus and their coach Marcello Lippi in December. Lippi, who coached Baggio at Juventus and Inter Milan, was among those who benched Baggio.
Another manager who rejected Baggio was national team coach Giovanni Trapattoni.
Baggio had thought about retirement after Trapattoni didn't choose him for last year's World Cup. A long-time Buddhist in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Italy, Baggio had said playing in South Korea and Japan would have been a crowning point in his career.
Mazzone's persistent phone calls last summer are what lured him back.
“With his affection, he persuaded me to continue,” said Baggio, who has a clause in his contract allowing him to leave Brescia if Mazzone departs. “I can't conceive of playing without his presence on the bench anymore.”
The situation was similar to one three years ago, when Baggio spent the entire summer hoping a top club would sign him.
Finally, in September, Mazzone swayed him toward Brescia with his humble attitude.
“If you come here, we don't have to win the championship,” Mazzone remembered telling Baggio. “We just have to stay in it.”
Brescia's goal is to escape relegation. Anything else is a bonus.
“There's the 'salvezza' of Brescia, 200 goals in Serie A, and then there are always other objectives along the road,”' the graying forward said.
Gianni Nanni, the doctor in charge of Baggio's latest physical rehabilitation, said his patient can still play at the highest level.
“Robi doesn't have certain limits,” Nanni said. “He can really still play at a high level for another two or three years.” – AP