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Wednesday, 8 May, 2002, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
End of Baggio's rocky road
Baggio scores on his comeback for Brescia
Baggio's return to football has come too late

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There will be no fourth time lucky for Roberto Baggio.

As expected, 'The Divine Ponytail' failed to make the cut as Giovanni Trapattoni named his 23-man squad for Japan and Korea on Wednesday.

It will be heartbreak for the Brescia striker and no doubt lead to mass hysteria from his devoted fans.

Some of them demonstrated outside the headquarters of the Italian Football Federation to protest at his expected exclusion.

Banners were held saying 'No World Cup without Baggio' and 'Italy without Baggio is like France without Zidane, Japan without Nakata, Brazil without Ronaldo, England without Owen, Argentina without Veron'.

Roberto Baggio
Roberto Baggio has had his fair share of World Cup ups and downs
Born: 18.02.1967
Caps: 55
Goals: 27
Club: Brescia
The 35-year-old's lock of hair now has a hint of grey, and although his popularity is as strong as ever, his footballing skills are fading.

To cap it all he has missed much of the season through injury after undergoing knee-construction surgery in February.

At the time he considered retiring from the game, but spurred on by the prospect of one last World Cup crusade, Baggio staged an almost miraculous 77-day recovery.

He made his comeback for Brescia last month, scoring two key goals to spark a mass debate about whether he would be picked for Trapattoni's squad.

In truth, such talk and demonstrations are more about sentiment than common sense.

The ghost of USA 94 still hangs over Baggio and his supporters, his penalty miss ending his country's hopes at the final hurdle.

Four years earlier he became the darling of Italian football as he starred in leading them to the semi-finals of the World Cup on home turf.

He had already earned a world-record move from Fiorentina to Juventus, prompting riots in the streets of Florence.

His outstanding individual goal against the Czechoslovakia was one of the highlights of the Italia 90.

Baggio celebrates scoring in 1994
Baggio hit the heights during the 1994 World Cup

He also scored from the spot as Italy bowed out of the tournament in the semis at the hands of Argentina.

In 1994, despite struggling with injury, he carried the Italian effort almost single-handedly, leading them to the final.

Italy were 1-0 down to Nigeria in the second round and heading out of the tournament before Baggio's late equaliser.

He then won it in extra-time with a penalty.

Another late goal in the quarter-finals saw Italy past Spain and into the final four.

A brace against Bulgaria in the semis handed them a 2-1 victory and Baggio could seemingly do no wrong.

But then came the miss from the spot against Brazil and the final agony which prompted Baggio to say: 'I will always feel a sense of loss.

"It's hard to get so close to something so sacred, knowing you might never get the opportunity again."

He was subsequently dropped by the national side and missed out on Euro 96.

But he did get another chance and was back on the world stage in France for the World Cup in 1998.

Striking options

He showed flashes of his old self in helping the Italians through the group stages.

He even stepped up to take crucial penalties against Chile in the group stage and France in the quarter-finals - on both occasions he made no mistake from the spot.

But the Italians went out courtesy of the dreaded spot-kicks for the third World Cup in a row and Baggio was unable to exorcise the ghost of '94.

With the likes of Francesco Totti, Christian Vieri, Filippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero, Vincenzo Montella and Marco Delvecchio to call upon, Trapattoni is hardly short of inspiration up front.

And unfortunately for 'Il Divin Codino', that has spelled the end of his rocky World Cup career.

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