When Roberto Baggio speaks about football, it is wise to pay attention. The man dubbed the Divine Ponytail for his distinctive look on the field was one of the finest playmakers of the 1990s, his languid skills lighting up the No. 10 shirt for Fiorentina, Juventus and Italy, with whom he came agonisingly close to lifting the World Cup title.
Baggio was a firm adherent of the idea first introduced by the likes of Diego Maradona and Michel Platini that a No. 10 need not stand static in the middle of the field, but rather is free to push forward and score. His record in front of goal in a league as unforgiving to offensive players as Serie A circa 1990 speaks for itself - 205 career goals - and now he has deigned to speak out and name his successor.
“I love South American football and am a Boca Juniors fan,” the legend said on Monday in an interview with Corriere dello Sport. Indeed, Baggio owns an estate in the Patagonia region of Argentina and is a frequent visitor, while also enjoying a warm relationship with the Pibe de Oro himself, Maradona. And it was to his beloved Boca that he looked to identify his new favourite player: “My heir? I like [Ricardo] Centurion a lot”.
His timing, as always, could not have been better. Centurion starred on loan at the Xeneize from Sao Paulo over the last 12 months, his incredible dribbling skills helping to compensate for the body blow that Carlos Tevez’s move to China inflicted on Boca midway through the season.
If Tevez drove the team forward in the first half of 2016-17 and Dario Benedetto’s goals formed the bread and butter of a title-winning campaign, then it can equally be said that without Ricky Boca might well have fallen short in the final stretch. As it was the club pulled through to take the crown, and this week Centurion had been set to sign a permanent deal after bizarrely pulling out of a Genoa move having travelled to Italy to undergo his medical. Earlier in the summer, both Roma and Baggio's former club AC Milan had been interested in the player.
At the tender age of 24 the winger who can also slot in as second striker now boasts two Primera Division titles, having previously taken the lap of honour with boyhood club Racing. His creative play and unbounded confidence to take on his marker proved vital to Boca’s chase, but no less important were the eight goals he snaffled to finish third top scorer behind Benedetto and Cristian Pavon in the Xeneize ranks. And no matter how hard the Primera bruisers hit him, Centurion always got back up to run rings around them the next time.
It was not all positive for the young star, however. Baggio added in his evaluation that Ricky “still must improve himself away from the field,” in reference to a string of incidents that have seen him labelled in some circles, despite his undeniable talent, as a potential liability.
In the last 12 months alone Centurion has been accused of walking away from a traffic incident caused driving while drunk, and fighting in hotels and in the dark streets of an Avellaneda shanty town in the early hours of the morning. More seriously, the 24-year-old faces domestic violence charges laid down by an ex-girlfriend, who alleges she was physically and emotionally abused during their time together.
As recently as last weekend, fresh off the plane from Italy and soon to sign terms with Boca, he was involved in an unseemly nightclub fracas that meant once again he made the headlines for the wrong reasons. “He threatened me with death, but I hope he stays in Boca and this doesn’t affect the negotiations,” Fabian Comande, one of the group assaulted by Centurion and his entourage on Saturday evening, told Ole.
Fabian’s wishes, however, will go unmet. The latest scandal appears to have been one too many for Boca, who have cut short talks at the last minute. On Tuesday the player sent a rambling, almost illegible missive on Instagram explaining the deal was off. “When one makes a mistake instead of supporting you they let you go, what a shame Boca, to have this done to you with a joke of a board and president I left everything behind and came to sign for Boca, you never wanted me,” he fired at the Xeneize, as his career entered limbo.
He would not be the first gifted Argentine footballer to throw away his career due to an inability to control himself, and must work on this side of his personality. Whatever club now comes for Centurion must take on the responsibility of keeping him away from the temptations that fame and money bring to a kid who just five years ago used to travel to training at Racing by bicycle from the shanty town he called home. Only then can Baggio’s prophecy be fulfilled, as a young man who has all the talent in the world continues to fight a battle against his own self-destructive character.