In Italy, the birthplace of catenaccio, Franco Baresi figuratively stood head and shoulders above his defensive peers. A robust sweeper who revolutionised the position a good ten years after Franz Beckenbauer had made it his own, the Italian was one of football’s great leaders, a player who kept talk to the minimum, tackled hard and launched many a counter-attack with his long forays from the back.
From 1977 to 1997, he represented the last line of defence for AC Milan, the only club of his 20-year career, with whom he demonstrated the same loyalty and professionalism in trophy-laden seasons as he did during barren years. Between 1982 and 1994, his effectiveness, ball-winning ability and leadership qualities also saw him awarded no fewer than 81 caps for Italy, and he played a key role in some of La Nazionale’s most memorable achievements during that time.
Not a particularly tall footballer, and as uncomfortable during interviews as he was at ease performing on the field, Baresi outlasted and outperformed high-profile team-mates and rivals alike for two decades.
One city, two destinies
Born in Travagliato, in the province of Brescia in Northern Italy, Baresi lost his parents by the tender age of 16, both deaths coming within two years of each other. In 1976, along with his brother Giuseppe, two years his elder, he decided to try his luck at a career in professional football. The siblings’ first port of call was Inter Milan, at which point fate would send them down different paths.
Giuseppe, a solid defensive midfielder, was retained by Inter, and would go on to make 559 appearances for the club, before becoming part of their backroom staff. Franco, on the other hand, was rejected by I Nerazzurri, who were unconvinced by his slender frame. He promptly offered his services to rivals AC Milan, who snapped up the future international.
The two brothers moved to Milan, where Franco would spend four years enrolled in a sport-study programme at the club’s Milanello training centre. Silent and reserved, the teenager quickly became known for his strong work ethic and unrelenting focus. “At 18, he already had the knowledge of a veteran,” commented the late Nils Liedholm, who gave Baresi his Serie A debut away to Verona on 23 April 1978.
Before the start of the following season, the Swedish coach took the young defender aside during the team’s first training session and informed him that he now regarded him as his first-choice libero. That decision sowed the seeds of the legendary Rossoneri back four of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti and Baresi.
Training, hard work and an excellent relationship with supporters are guiding principles that should never be taken lightly.
With Baresi the cornerstone of their defence, AC Milan dominated the championship in his first full season. Strong in the tackle, skilled at intercepting wayward passes and constantly mindful of his team-mates’ positioning, he never hesitated to push forward when necessary, leading by example throughout the 90 minutes.
Team-mates – household names included – admired Baresi more for his perfectionist's approach to the game rather than his outstanding ball skills. The man himself said recently: “For people to look up to you, your behaviour needs to be beyond reproach. Training, hard work and an excellent relationship with supporters are guiding principles that should never be taken lightly."
When AC Milan were relegated to Serie B for their involvement in an illegal betting controversy the following year, one player remained above suspicion, and stuck with the club during that difficult period. Handed the captain’s armband at the age of 22, Baresi would remain loyal to the red and black jersey for the rest of his career.
He explained: “Today things are different. A player rarely stays with the same team for 15 or 20 years now. The market changed all that – there are a lot more opportunities these days, and they’re tough to resist.”
AC Milan would enter a new era with the arrival of Silvio Berlusconi as club president in 1986. Under the guidance of Arrigo Sacchi, Baresi was the lynchpin of the all-conquering side that starred the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. During Fabio Capello’s tenure, he was a key member of the team that won four further Italian league titles and lifted the European Cup, in a line-up that included Marcel Desailly, Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savicevic.
In 1997, after 20 years of faithful service, Baresi finally chose to hang up his boots. “The season before that had been quite difficult, due to problems I’d been having with my body," he said. "I was finding it harder and harder to recover from matches. At 37, I was no spring chicken, and after all those years in the game, it was simply time to call it a day.” Two years after his retirement, Milan fans voted him their player of the century.
Penalties in Pasadena
Initially frozen out of Italy’s starting XI by the fine form of Gaetano Scirea, another giant of the Italian game, Baresi nevertheless earned a winner’s medal at the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™, even though he saw no actual playing time. His international debut did not come until 4 December of that same year, in a qualifying match for UEFA EURO 1984 against Romania in Florence.
But the confident defender’s relationship with then Italy coach Enzo Bearzot subsequently deteriorated, due to the latter’s habit of playing Baresi in a defensive midfield role. Bearzot would eventually select Baresi’s brother for that position ahead of Mexico 1986, a tournament in which Gli Azzurri failed to impress.
The arrival of Azeglio Vicini at the Italy helm signalled the beginning of Baresi’s gradual transformation into a stalwart of the team, at his natural position of sweeper. The first to slot home his penalty during the shoot-out in the semi-final of the 1990 FIFA World Cup on home soil, he was still powerless to prevent the host nation’s elimination at the hands of Argentina.
Four years later at USA 1994, he was faced with the same test of nerve, but this time in the Final against Brazil. His presence as captain that day already constituted a victory against the odds. Having suffered an injury during a group-stage match with Norway on 23 June, he was operated on immediately and set himself a seemingly unattainable goal of playing in the decider. On 17 July in Pasadena he was named in the starting line-up. After putting in an outstanding performance in a 0-0 draw, he again made the long walk from the centre circle to take Italy’s first spot-kick.
This time, however, luck was against him, as he sent the ball high over the bar. Daniele Massaro’s penalty was saved by Taffarel, before Roberto Baggio then missed in a similar fashion to his captain, thereby handing the trophy to Brazil. For the first time in his long and successful career, tears could be seen flowing down Baresi’s cheeks.
Did You Know?
Following Baresi’s decision to hang up his boots at the end of the 1996-97 season, AC Milan retired the No6 shirt, a rare honour only bestowed upon one other player, Alessandro Costacurta.
The eighth most capped player in Italian football history, Baresi only managed one goal in his international career, a feat he achieved during a 4-1 win over the Soviet Union on 20 February 1988 in Bari.
While Baresi’s forte was preventing goals rather than chalking them up, he nevertheless holds – jointly, with former Inter Milan defender Riccardo Ferri – an undesirable scoring record, that of own goals. The Italian sweeper had the misfortune of putting the ball into his own net eight times during Serie A matches.
According to his first coach, Swedish legend Nils Liedholm, Franco Baresi was the “Beckenbauer of the 80s and 90s.”
Although Baresi won six Italian championships, three European Cup/UEFA Champions League titles, two Intercontinental Cups, three UEFA Super Cups and four Italian Super Cups, he never managed to lay his hands on the Coppa Italia, twice ending up on the losing side in the final, in 1985 and 1990.