by Adam Bate
In 1999 the No.6 shirt of AC Milan’s Franco Baresi was retired. That same
year, he was named Milan’s best player of the twentieth century. More recently,
he was officially named as Italy’s player of the century too. These are
extraordinary accolades to be given to a defender. But then, Baresi was no
At a fraction over 5’9” tall and slender of build, Baresi wasn’t your typical defensive
colossus. But he used every inch of his wiry frame to compete physically;
excelling thanks to those rarer defensive qualities of skill and grace. Perhaps
Baresi’s most notable attribute, however, was his incomparable positional
sense. He was able to use his footballing intelligence to snuff out threats
before they occurred and provide the base for the next attack. Contrary to
appearances, Franco Baresi was a defensive giant after all.
The route to becoming a Milan legend was not a straightforward one for the
young Franco. Indeed, the first opportunity for the boy from Brescia may well
have come with Milan’s great rivals Inter. Incredibly, Baresi was rejected and
denied the chance to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother Giuseppe with
the Nerazzurri. No matter. Franco tried his luck with the Rossoneri instead and
never looked back.
Baresi’s career really took off when he established himself as a first-team
regular in the 1978-79 season. It says a lot for his quality that he was able
to break into the Milan side at the age of just 18. That his first full season
also coincided with the club becoming champions of Italy for the first time in
over a decade says much more. It was also fitting that retiring legend Gianni
Rivera was able to bow out as a champion – and do so playing alongside the man
who would go on to take his Milan appearance record.
Although the post-Rivera era was a period of relative obscurity for Milan,
it saw Baresi’s career go from strength to strength. Enzo Bearzot, the Italian
manager, recognised the young defender’s talent despite Milan’s relegation in
1980 and called him up for that summer’s European Championships on home soil.
Baresi did not feature in the tournament, serving instead as understudy to the
Juventus sweeper Gaetano Scirea.
It turned out to be a lengthy apprenticeship with the Azzurri because Baresi
was given a similar watching brief for the 1982 World Cup. It was, of course, a
successful one for Italy as they ousted the holders Argentina, champions-elect
Brazil and eventually West Germany in the final. While Paolo Rossi earned the
plaudits, Baresi cheered him on from the sidelines. Incongruously, he was yet
to win his first cap but was now part of a World Cup winning squad.
If that experience was a positive one for Baresi, the years that followed
were ones of frustration. The man known as Piscinin – the Little One – was gaining
a burgeoning reputation as a skilful sweeper with an exceptional talent. But
Milan’s second relegation in three years meant the 1982-83 season was spent in
Serie B as the club remained in desperate need of investment. Meanwhile,
Bearzot’s refusal to introduce new players gave Baresi limited opportunities
with the national team. His strained relationship with the coach even saw him
miss the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Despite being champions, Italy struggled that summer. It was perhaps a
blessing for Baresi as the subsequent resignation of Bearzot, coupled with the
retirement of Scirea, brought new opportunities for him. But the main reason
why 1986 was a turning point in his career was the change in ownership at Milan
– and the arrival of one Silvio Berlusconi.
That Berlusconi transformed Milan is a matter of fact. And yet, he was able
to do so thanks largely to the raw materials already in place at the time. As
well as Baresi, there was the reliable right-back Mauro Tassotti and a young
left-back by the name of Paolo Maldini. When Alessandro Costacurta broke
through the ranks soon after, one of the most famous defensive units in the
history of the game was in place.
Berlusconi did play a key role in bringing players such as Marco Van Basten
and Ruud Gullit to Milan. But his most visionary piece of business was in
identifying the young Parma coach, Arrigo Sacchi, as the man to take Milan
forward. Sacchi’s was a unique take on the Dutch Total Football model – with an
emphasis on intense pressing and the importance of controlling space. He had a fascinating way of demonstrating this to his superstar players:
“I convinced Gullit and Van Basten by telling them that five organised
players would beat ten disorganised ones. And I proved it to them. I took five
players: Giovanni Galli in goal, Tassotti, Maldini, Costacurta and Baresi. They
had ten players: Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Virdis, Evani, Ancelotti,
Colombo, Donadoni, Lantignotti and Mannari. They had 15 minutes to score
against my five players. I did this all the time and they never scored. Not
Sacchi may well have seen himself as the scriptwriter and the players as
mere actors but central to this success was Baresi – his leading man. The
captain of the side, he marshalled the defence using his supreme reading of the
game, and led Milan throughout a period of unprecedented success. The 1987-88
Scudetto was Baresi’s second and a defensive triumph – Milan conceded a miserly
14 goals as they lost just two games all season. Crucially, the title opened
the door for the Rossoneri to take their domination onto the European
The 1989 European Cup victory marked Milan’s ascent to the next level, but
it was not without luck. Down to ten men and losing away to an exceptional Red
Star Belgrade side, the fog descended and play was abandoned. The match went
ahead again the following day and Milan triumphed on penalties with Baresi
converting from the spot. It was a controversial escape but one Milan made
count as they memorably destroyed Real Madrid 5-0 in the San Siro before
annihilating Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the final. It was an explosive climax that
saw Baresi lift the European Cup in the Camp Nou.
Twelve months later, Milan sealed their legacy as they became the first team
in ten years to retain the European Cup. No team has repeated the feat since.
There were fewer fireworks this time around. The key was that Milan conceded
just three goals in their successful defence of the trophy – with Baresi
Of course, while Baresi’s Milan career was largely one of glory, his efforts
for the Azzurri will always be tinged with sadness. He was 30 before he even
got the chance to play in a World Cup. It was on home soil in 1990 and so
nearly saw Baresi complete the perfect season. Things began brilliantly as
Italy hit seven goals without reply in their first five games. Unfortunately,
despite being the better side, they could not edge past Argentina in the semi-final
in Naples. Penalties ensued and, while Baresi demonstrated his leadership skills
by putting away the opening penalty, teammates Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena
could not replicate his efforts and the dream died.
Four years later it would be the turn of Baresi himself to feel penalty
heartbreak. By that point, Sacchi had left Milan to take the national job but
the trophies had continued to roll in. Baresi helped the Rossoneri to three
consecutive Scudetti. The last of which, under Fabio Capello in 1994, was
another reminder that great sides are built from the back. Milan scored a bewilderingly
unimpressive 34 goals in topping the league, but thanks to their defensive
capabilities they conceded just 15 at the other end. Sadly for Baresi, he
missed out on the sensational European Cup final win over Barcelona – but there
was an even bigger game ahead that summer.
It is always a shame that a World Cup Final be remembered for penalty
shoot-out misses. For a player of Franco Baresi’s calibre to have to remember
the biggest game of his career in such a way is tragic. But for him to have to
remember this game in such a way is just plain wrong. Baresi had heroically returned from a knee cartilage problem in the group stages and promptly delivered a colossal defensive performance. Brazilian forward Romario, the player of the tournament, was emphatic in his comments after the game, saying: “His performance today was the most ruthless monitoring of my entire career.” Sadly, Franco Baresi walked away from the
Pasadena Rose Bowl that day with only a runners-up medal.
There was still time for the old master to play an active role in another
Serie A triumph in 1996 but the curtain finally came down on an astonishing
career the following year. It would be an understatement to say his legacy was
already guaranteed. The countless memories of Baresi with his shirt untucked,
socks round his ankles, gliding round the San Siro had long since ensured that.
After all, he is Italy’s player of the twentieth century. He is Milan’s eternal
number six. He is Franco Baresi.
*A version of this article appeared in the now sadly defunct Calcio Italia magazine in March 2011
In a stellar career there are so many big matches to choose from. Here are
just five famous encounters that define the career of Franco Baresi …
19 April 1989
Milan Topple Madrid
AC Milan 5-0 Real Madrid – European Cup Semi-Final – San Siro, Milan
Although Real Madrid had not lifted the trophy in over twenty years, they were
still perceived as European footballing royalty. So when they were ruthlessly
dismantled in the San Siro it was perceived as underlining the power shift:
Baresi’s Milan were now top dogs.
24 May 1989
Champion of Europe
AC Milan 4-0 Steaua Bucharest – European Cup Final – Camp Nou, Barcelona
The scoreline says it all. Only twice before had a side won the European Cup
by a four goal margin. Steaua had good pedigree, having won the title three
years earlier. But they were no match for Milan. Gullit and Van Basten scored
two each – and Baresi ensured a clean sheet.
23 May 1990
Retaining The Crown
AC Milan 1-0 Benfica – European Cup Final – Praterstadion, Vienna
To this day, Franco Baresi is the last man to captain his team to back-to-back
European Cup wins. The skipper had a brilliant season culminating in this
efficient display in Vienna. No surprise Sacchi’s machine was working like
clockwork – only Donadoni was missing from the previous year’s starting line-up.
3 July 1990
Heartbreak in Naples
Italy 1-1 Argentina – World Cup Semi-Final – Stadio San Paolo, Naples
The day the dream died for the host nation is not one Baresi would like to
dwell on. However, there was little wrong with the Italian defending that evening
in Naples, or indeed in that World Cup. In fact, Caniggia’s second half goal
was the first the Azzurri had conceded in the entire tournament. Baresi
hammered home the opening goal in the shoot-out but, when Aldo Serena’s effort
was saved, Italy’s hopes were dashed.
17 July 1994
Master Class in Vain
Italy 0-0 Brazil –World Cup Final – Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California
The match is sometimes remembered as a bore draw. It was the game that
failed to seduce America. It also happened to include a Franco Baresi defensive
master class as he snuffed out the threat of Romario for two long hours in the
California sun. Of course, it ended – quite literally – in tears, as the
captain blasted his tired penalty over the bar.