Few defenders in the modern era have emanated greatness, professionalism and loyalty to such a degree as Milan’s Player of the Century 1899-1999, Franco Baresi. Although a defender, Baresi is considered alongside football’s greatest visionaries for what he brought to the game and the art of defending.
Born in Brescia and spending his whole career with Milan – after being rejected by Inter – Baresi was a centre-back by trade, and went on to make the position his own in a career spanning 20 years. He was the defensive rock that the successful Milan side of the late 1980s and early 1990s was built around, collecting six Scudetti with the Rossoneri, five of them in the famous back-line of Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini.
Baresi’s reading of the game was impeccable – able to squander flowing moves by timing an interception, tackle or header to perfection and his positioning found him rarely with the ball behind him. The No 6 was often the deepest laying centre-back, acting almost as sweeper at times, always ready with a well-timed intervention whilst his calmness and control on the ball enabled him to often run into the midfield in possession and initiate attacks as quickly as he had snuffed out the opponent’s. Not only would he stop you in full flow from taking the ball past him, but he would then run around you with it and off down the pitch, every time.
Milan circa 1977-1997
His stature belied his abilities and although he measured at 5ft 9, he was able to out-jump taller adversaries, out-pace longer legged strikers and out-muscle tougher ones. Baresi is considered one of the greatest exponents of the centre-back role, combining the determination and physical toughness most Italian defenders are known for with a remarkable insight and control to his play that maximised his strengths. The man led by example on and off the pitch and his transition from defender to club captain to Azzurri captain was a natural one.
Often the careers of the sport’s greatest can be defined by single games that epitomise everything that football meant to them, and everything that they meant to football. Baresi’s game was the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil. Having undergone surgery just three weeks before leading the Azzurri out, Baresi dominated the field, nullifying every attack the Seleção could muster. Time after time he broke down Romário and Bebeto’s moves and carried his team through the 120 minutes in the baking sun. If Brazil wanted to win the Brazilian way, Baresi stopped them the Italian way. He did what he could for his country that day, leaving the conclusion of the final in cruel fate’s hands.
He wasn’t known for scoring goals – managing just 16 for Milan and one for the Azzurri, but even so his efforts that counted belonged to a man on another level. Milan retired a part of their history when Baresi retired, ensuring his footsteps in the No 6 jersey would never be trodden by another man – none capable of following on from his achievements.
Often it is strikers and midfielders that are heralded as the world’s greatest for what their technical ingenuity gave the game. Baresi single-handedly injected creativity and class into defending and has become one of its main exemplars – he transformed the robustness and repressiveness of the position into an elegance and art form that is still, as this article shows, celebrated today.
Name – Franco Baresi
Age – 49 (May 8, 1960)
Position – Centre-back/sweeper
Clubs (Appearances/Goals) – Milan (531/16)
Club level honours – Serie A (1979, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996), Italian Super Cup (1988, 1992, 1993, 1994) European Cup (1989, 1990, 1994), Intercontinental Cup (1989, 1990), European Super Cup (1989, 1990, 1994), Mitropa Cup (1982)
Nationality – Italian
Caps/Goals – 81/1
National honours – FIFA World Cup (1982), UEFA European Football Championship (1968)