Franco Baresi: the man whose effortless defending remains the benchmark almost three decades on

Franco Baresi: the man whose effortless defending remains the benchmark almost three decades on

Describing the defender that he had played alongside for so many glorious years in the Rossoneri backline Paolo Maldini, in an interview with Jamie Carragher, said: “He was special.” In that simple phrase, he encapsulated the aura and majesty of a player who graced the famous red and black as a one-club man. He is a hero of the tifosi on the Curva Sud, and the man for whom AC Milan retired the number 6 shirt. He is the incomparable Franco Baresi.

Baresi was born in Travaglito, Lombardy, about an hour’s distance from Milan, but it was his performances in the Lombardian capital’s famous football stadium that brought him such renown and glory. If the San Siro can be rightly described as a theatre of sporting drama, the city also boasts another world-famous venue in La Scala opera house. It was in this famous steeply-tiered arena that Guiseppe Verdi – who also travelled to Milan to make his name – premiered his first opera, ‘Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio’.

It’s a story of family loyalty and honour, where the eponymous hero eventually dies in a duel rather than compromise his fidelity. Although Baresi didn’t quite go that far in the interest of his club he certainly devoted his entire career to the Rossoneri, many times eschewing options of a move to another of Europe’s behemoth clubs when Milan endured dark periods. Not only for the achievements, trophies and glory, it is loyalty in times of such adversity that firmly attach a player in fans’ affections. It’s a place that Baresi clearly occupies for the Milan faithful.

In a land famous for producing players with an outstanding ability to defend, it’s perhaps not surprising that a figure such a Baresi would have been born Italian. Even among the peers of his nationality, however, there’s ample evidence to suggest that he was a player that, despite his relatively diminutive stature of five foot ten inches, stood figuratively head and shoulders above other defenders of his, or any other, era.

Ferocious in the tackle and yet undemonstrative verbally, Baresi was very much a leader by example, seldom expressing himself to his teammates other than to maintain the defensive discipline and organisation that was the hallmark of any team led by him. He was, however, no mere ‘hatchet-man’ backline defender. He was blessed with an ability to read the game defensively, and when seized of the opportunity to carry the ball out of defence for club and country he was a gifted playmaker, with an acute sense of game-craft.

It was a style that led many to compare him to the legendary Franz Beckenbauer, who had defined the libero role a generation earlier. Whilst many would say that the Bayern Munich player had been superior moving forward with the ball into midfield, few would dispute that Baresi was far and away the more accomplished defender. Each had their own style.

In 20 years under the red and black banner, he not only had a glorious and trophy-laden career, but also displayed outstanding loyalty by standing by his club when twice relegated to Serie B. Strange to say, then, that if a slightly different scenario had applied in his early life, his colours may have been blue and black, and the fans that lauded him could have been placed at the opposite end of the San Siro, on the Curva Nord.

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Franco Baresi was born on 8 May 1960, the younger brother of Giuseppe, who was just over two years his senior. The brothers lost both of their parents when Franco had reached the age of 16, but by this time both had decided that they wanted to become footballers, enjoying trials with Internazionale. The Nerazzurri took on the elder brother, but Franco was rejected as the club considered him too slight at the time, perhaps not up to the rigours of Serie A football.

Franco later said: “My brother was already with Inter, he’s older than me. I wanted to follow him so I had a trial first with Inter, and they said, ‘Well, come back next year’. But my coach took me to Milan, and there I was accepted, although it took a couple of trials.” He was a mere 14 years of age at the time but the fact that Milan rather than Internazionale had taken him on board was something that he had secretly hoped for anyway. “I was always a Milanista. And it was my great fortune to always play for Milan.”

The two brothers moved to the city of Milan, and Franco was given a sport-study programme at Milan’s famous Milanello training complex. Thrust into the world of high achieving players, the reticent and reserved Baresi could easily have been missed. “I was shy … at the start when I was just 14, and I saw all the big Milan stars, they seemed like they were from another planet. But I didn’t hide. I did try and avoid crossing their paths, just because they seemed untouchable, unapproachable.” As he grew, however, so his talent was increasingly obvious and he became known among the club’s coaching staff for his dedication and focus.

At the time, Giuseppe was already an accomplished player and prospering for the Nerazzurri. It was no surprise then that the younger brother quickly became labelled as ‘the other Baresi’. As their careers progressed, increasingly it was an epithet that was transferred to the elder brother.

Former manager, the late Nils Liedholm, remarked at the time: “At 18, he already had the knowledge of a veteran.” The Swede was to give Baresi his Serie A debut away to Verona in April 1978 and the youngster took his chance to impress. As the following season dawned, Baresi was now an established member of the first team. During the summer, Liedholm had decided to pin his colours on the ability of his young defender. After taking him to one side following a training session, he informed the young Baresi that in his manager’s eyes, he was now the first choice libero at the club. It was a position he was to hold for the next two decades.

Although an established member of the team, Baresi was still very much the junior by age and his teammates labelled him as Piscinin – ‘Little One’. Although in his normal reticent way, he made little of the name; it wasn’t something that he particularly enjoyed at the time. He certainly never thought that it was something that held back his career. “I think my strong point was never my physique. I was a pretty fast player, but above all I was fast up here, in the head. That’s what helped me a lot. It’s a natural thing. Of course you can improve it, you can grow with experience, but it’s one of those natural gifts.”

His long-time defensive partner, Paolo Maldini, certainly didn’t disagree with that assessment: “He wasn’t like Stam, a big guy who was strong and fast. He had pace, but he was only 70kg. But let me tell you – when he hit you with a tackle, he was so strong.”

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Later in life, he felt more comfortable about how people perceived him at the time and could laugh at the nickname. “I got it when I was about 17 or 18, because I was the smallest in the group,” he later commented. “the masseur gave it to me, a man who saw me grow and get my first big break in the team.” As his career blossomed, the nickname diminished and was replaced with ‘Kaiser Franz’ – in reference to the similarity some felt with the play of the famous West Germany international.

That first season with Baresi as a member of the regular starting line up saw Milan dominate the league and end up as Serie A champions. It was the club’s tenth Scudetto and allowed the young defender to gain experience playing alongside such luminaries as Fabio Capello and the legendary Ballon d’Or winner and former golden boy of Italian football, Gianni Rivera, who was in the final year of his career.

The libero position was ideal for Baresi. His ability to read the game allowed him to eliminate many attacking threats before they had an opportunity to develop. Prodding his backline into position, tackling and intercepting, before taking the ball forward, he became the leading light of the Rossoneri defence. It was often as much for his dedication to the game, as his lauded skills, that Baresi earned his teammates’ respect. He was acutely aware of the standards he needed to maintain to earn such acclaim: “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 asked about the sort of defenders he admired, Baresi’s answer perhaps reveals much about how he perceives the game: “I liked people like Ruud Krol, that kind of elegant, considered defender who liked to play football as well as defend.” Such an approach also meant that the issue of his stature was negated somewhat. Maldini remarked: “He was a short, skinny guy but so strong. He could jump so high. The way he played on the field was an example for everybody. He wasn’t a big speaker, no, no, no. The way he played, the way he trained was an example. He was also very good with the ball. It is very hard to find a good defender who is strong and good with the ball.”

Despite having the skills of a midfielder, as Maldini remarks, it shouldn’t be taken that this meant Baresi was anything but a determined defender with a hard-man resilience to both the deployment of his game, and to drive himself through pain and discomfort.

During the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Italy were drawn in a group with Ireland, Norway and Mexico. After losing their initial game to Jack Charlton’s men, they faced Norway in their second game. A further defeat was unthinkable. After a particularly robust challenge, Baresi quickly realised that something was seriously wrong with his right knee. Already down to ten men after goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was dismissed for handling the ball outside of his area, the Azzurri were in serious trouble.

Losing their skipper to injury was unthinkable. Despite gallant efforts to carry on, Baresi was forced to leave the pitch and a torn meniscus was diagnosed. In his absence, Italy rallied and Dino Baggio scored a second-half winner. At 34, it seemed that the international stage, let alone this World Cup, had seen the last of Baresi. His determination came to the fore, however. “I wanted to be with the team,” he declared. So instead of being whisked back to Italy for surgery and recuperation to be ready for the new domestic season, the decision was made to have the operation to repair the injury straight away. “Frankly, I didn’t believe I would make it back,” he later said.

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Italy, however, were growing into the tournament. They won their final group game against Mexico and qualified for the knockout stages. They defeated Nigeria 2-1 in the last-16 before disposing of Spain in the quarter-finals and Bulgaria in the semi-finals by the same score. The Azzurri were in the final, and their run had given time for Baresi to recover.

A mere 25 days after the injury, he returned to the team for the final against Brazil in Pasadena. Months of recuperation were squeezed into a few weeks, but as Baresi said: “The more Italy progressed the more I intensified the work. It came to me automatically. There was no timetable, nor were there any expectations on anyone’s part.” It was simply a matter of determination, and therefore Franco Baresi was unlikely to come up short.

As if to exact perverse revenge, the fates took a hand in the final where, although Baresi and his teammates held Brazil to a goalless 90 minutes and extra-time, the Azzurri were to lose out in a penalty shootout. Never one to hide, Baresi was to be one of the Italians brave enough to step up, but unfortunate enough to miss. As he trudged back to the centre-circle, blue shirt untucked as usual, there were tears running down his rugged features. The weeks of work had got him there, only to be denied at the last. Despite the many glories, adversity was no stranger to Franco Baresi.

After the success of his debut season in the first team and the Scudetto, Milan were to experience the embarrassment of relegation in 1980 after being implicated in what appears to be a semi-regular appearance of match-fixing scandals in Italian football. Baresi stayed loyal to the club and was rewarded as Milan bounced straight back as Serie B champions. Their return to the top flight proved arduous, however, and a second relegation followed as they finished in the bottom three of the table.

For a player who had been a member of the 1982 World Cup-winning squad – although he didn’t play in the tournament – Baresi would have had an opportunity to move on in order to retain his status, but it never became an option he seriously considered.

In 1982 the decision was made that, at just 22, it was time for AC Milan to recognise not only the talents but also the leadership qualities of Baresi: he was made captain of the club. “I didn’t have problems,” he later said. “It was unusual to become captain so early, but it was an unusual situation; Milan in 1982 got sent down to Serie B so they made me captain straight away. They wanted to rebuild the side and base it around me.” There’s no hint of bravado in his statement, merely a simple laying out of the facts.

Promotion quickly followed in 1983 but, as the club stuttered along, it would be a further three years before AC Milan was purchased by Silvio Berlusconi, under whose ownership the club enjoyed unparalleled success. The controversial entrepreneur took Arrigo Sacchi to San Siro as the new manager, and with the signings of Dutch superstars Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard – joining the now established team stalwarts of Maldini, Costacurta and Donadoni – all, of course, imperiously led by Baresi, a new footballing dominance was set in place.

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The city of Milan is no stranger to dominance. The influence of the powerful Milanese Visconti family flourished from the 13th to the 15th century and was reprised by the Sforza family around the Renaissance period. In a not too dissimilar way, after the time of Sacchi and the Dutch players, Fabio Capello took over at the helm and brought in Marcel Desailly, Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savićević. Baresi remained a constant throughout.

During this period, Milan won six Scudetti, the European Cup thrice, six Suppercoppa Italiana, three European Super Cups and two Intercontinental Cups. Although it is true to say that the array of forward players accumulated by the Rossoneri in this period contributed greatly to such success, the miserly defence, marshalled with such excellence by the elegant Baresi, played a more than full part.

For example, in the triumphant 1987/88 season, Milan conceded 14 goals. His contribution to the cause was recognised in 1999 when he was voted as the club’s Player of the Century. In 2004 he was named by Pelé as one of the 125 Greatest Living Footballers at the FIFA centenary and was inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame in 2013. He also finished as runner-up to Milan teammate Marco van Basten for the Ballon d’Or in 1989.

Baresi also enjoyed success on the international stage. After collecting his World Cup winner’s medal in 1982, he was named as a member of the FIFA World Cup all-star team after the 1990 tournament when Italy finished in third place on home soil and, as mentioned, above played in the 1994 tournament when the Azzurri lost out in the final to Brazil.

His international career began in 1980 when, whilst still playing for Italy’s under-21 side, he was selected to join his brother in the squad for the home European Championship He never played in the tournament as Italy finished fourth. Two years later, the situation was repeated in the Spanish World Cup, although the Italian triumph surely compensated more than somewhat for his lack of involvement. He played and scored during the 1984 Olympics, but missed out on a medal as the Italians were defeated by Yugoslavia in the bronze medal playoff after losing to Brazil in the semi-final.

The same year saw him win his first senior international cap during a European Championship qualifying game against Romania. Unsurprisingly, the Baresi-inspired defence kept a clean sheet in Florence that day, but the Azzurri failed to qualify for the tournament finals.

The following few years were a troubling time internationally as the then-Italy manager, Enzo Bearzot, saw Baresi more as a holding midfielder than a sweeper. It was a role that the talented Baresi could doubtless play with ease, but pitted against the likes of Marco Tardelli – plus, ironically, his brother Giuseppe – for that spot in the team, it meant an inevitable second-choice status. It was not a situation Baresi was used to being cast in, and without any doubt, it cost him a number of caps.

When Azeglio Vicini replaced Bearzot, however, he wasted little time in realigning the natural order of things. Baresi was quickly returned to the fold in his natural position of sweeper and established himself as a regular member of the team, playing every match of Euro 88, where the Azzurri reached the semi-finals. When the 1990 World Cup rolled round – to be played on Italian soil – there was little doubt that Baresi would be key to the hopes of the host country.

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He duly made his World Cup debut and was outstanding throughout as Italy progressed to the semi-final stage. Now in his pomp, under Baresi’s guidance the Azzurri back-line kept five consecutive clean sheets in the tournament, recording over 500 minutes without conceding and only seeing their defence breached twice in all.

Unfortunately, following a goalless draw after 90 minutes and extra-time, they succumbed to Argentina on penalties, when the Italian curse of 17 struck as Roberto Donadoni missed the vital spot-kick. Baresi had been the first of the Italians to step up, and duly slotted home his spot-kick. His performances meant inclusion in the FIFA select team of the tournament was inevitable.

For the 1994 tournament – the first to be staged in North America – Baresi had now taken over as his country’s captain from the long-serving Giuseppe Bergomi. Although the finals were to illustrate the determination of Baresi to contribute to the cause, his desire was ultimately foiled as Italy lost out to Brazil – again on penalties – in the final. Perhaps realising that his last chance of tournament glory had gone in that hot Pasadena afternoon, Baresi played only one further match for the national side.

Following a 1-1 draw with Slovenia in September 1994, he pulled down the curtain and retired from international football. His international career had given him 81 caps; but for Bearzot’s obtuse reluctance to recognise the defensive talent at his disposal, he would surely have topped a century. He had the rare distinction, however, to have won gold, silver and bronze medals at World Cup tournaments.

It is such records that led to many acclaim Baresi as surely one of the greatest defenders – and therefore players – of all-time, although only ranked 19th in the World Soccer list of the 100 Greatest Players of the 20th Century. No career goes on forever, though, and he announced his retirement from all football in 1997. Players are often the first to know when the time is right for such decisions. Baresi related later: “It was tough to retire, but that last season I had a lot of injuries and I couldn’t train properly, so the desire to quit began to build. Then, after 27 years playing, it was time.”

It was never likely that player with such a determined and perfectionist attitude would ever be happy to be playing at anything less than the maximum of his powers, and so it was. As a mark of respect and in recognition to his immense contribution to the success of AC Milan across two decades, the club retired Baresi’s famous number 6 shirt shortly after he announced he was hanging up his boots.

Many years ago, even when top-ranked professionals retired, there was little future for someone whose life had been so dominated by such an all-consuming profession that had suddenly vanished. In England, many opted to open a pub or run a sports shop. Of late, however, with the inflated wages being earned and international fame assured, there are many more options. It was a surprise to many when, in June 2002, Baresi was appointed as Fulham’s director of football, supposedly to work alongside manager Jean Tigana.

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Sadly his time in west London didn’t last long. Director of Football is one of those ambiguous posts that can mean a number of different things to different people – and at different times. After he had left the club, Baresi made it known that it was his understanding that he would, in a short time after his appointment, be replacing Tigana to take full control of the team. According to the Italian, it seemed that the club had a change of heart and wanted to retain the Frenchman, rather than move him on. From Baresi’s perspective, this left him with “nothing to do” and he decided to move on in August of the same year.

In 2006, AC Milan appointed him as coach of the under-19 squad at the club. It was a move widely acclaimed. For a legendary player who had exhibited exemplary attitudes during his career, and was widely respected, his influence could only be a positive attribute for the younger players. It was not to be a long-time appointment, however, and he later retired from coaching.

The official AC Milan website sums up the regard Baresi is held in by the club. It reads: “In the history of Italian football very few players can be considered real one club legends for their teams, but Franco Baresi is surely that for AC Milan.” In football, defenders rarely receive the acclaim they deserve. The accolade of “great” is usually reserved for those that attack and score: Pelé, Maradona, Cruyff, Messi, Ronaldo; none of them won fame for their ability to defend.

Of World Soccer’s 100 Greatest Players of the 20th Century, the only player figuring in the top ten who could arguably be described as a defender is Beckenbauer – and such a designation is probably dubious at best. Baresi is at 19. The great German was really a midfielder who simply adapted a role to suit him, rather than being a natural back-line operative. Baresi wasn’t that – he was a defender who excelled at his craft to the extent that his name should surely be regarded in the most exalted of company.

After Verdi’s debut at La Scala, he went on to complete a lifetime’s work that had him ranked as one of the foremost operatic composers of all time. A contemporary of Richard Wagner – they were born in the same year – there was always a rivalry between the two, with adherents to the two different styles debating which was better. Surely, the grist to that particular mill is that they should be celebrated as different, rather than competitively. Both deserve high acclaim.

Whilst Baresi and Beckenbauer were not of the same generation, many have sought to claim one as better than the other as they occupied similar roles in outstanding teams, at both club and international level. As with the maestros, that is surely fallacious. Although they had complementary talents, they were different in both approach and deployment.

It’s worth pondering on the equity of that for a moment. Could I venture that if we cast off a perhaps natural aversion to honouring the defensive side of the game, there’s room at the top end of that list for one of the best defenders ever to play football, the “special” Franco Baresi.

By All Blue Daze @All_Blue_Daze

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