4 Franco Baresi
It is a truth universally acknowledged, as old Jane would have put it had she worked in our trade, that it is much easier to win fame, cash and fortune in football by playing as a forward than in the backline. Just scan the Ballon D’Or almanacs and count the defenders. There is some justice in this – football is a sport that prizes technique, and generally speaking it does require a greater depth and broader spectrum of skills to control a ball than it is to kick it away from someone’s feet.
It is then a testimony to the towering position that Franco Baresi holds among central defenders that he should claim the fourth place in this list, above some of the finest fantasisti ever produced by the peninsula. The man possessed, like all great defenders, something like magnetic feet – they moved so naturally in the potential spaces of the ball, and so quickly over its actual trajectories, that the sphere seemed to be attracted to them spontaneously. Yet to this quality was added a capacity to read offensive schemas which have never been seen in Italian football, before or since, and which only a handful of world players have ever laid claim to. To be rigorous, Baresi was not a great innovator in his role – that was left to the real inventors of central defence, Helenio Herrera and Franz Beckenbauer. What Baresi possessed was a technical refinement of extraordinary polish, one which earns him distinction even above the eminent names of the Italian defensive school (Paolo Maldini, Gaetano Scirea, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta). Alongside his coverage of spaces, which was impregnable, and his reflexes, which were outstanding, Baresi brought to the table a set of passing and directing skills worth those of any midfielder. Often losing the ball to him meant suffering an instant counter-attack.
Baresi was a natural commander and his career at Milan reflects this. Having donned no other shirt than the one in black and red (except for the Azzurri one), the man is perhaps Milan’s greatest captain, and when fielded side by side with Maldini, he formed the finest duo of central defenders in Italian history – perhaps in all football. His leadership qualities were certainly exceptional and they were carried over to the national side. When donning the Italy shirt, his two most memorable tournaments were the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. The former saw Baresi spearheading the defence of an authentic Italian dream team, arguably the best post-war team ever fielded by Italy. The 1994 tournament was the coronation of Baresi as the best defender in the world – the final saw him play an absolutely sensational game as the team collapsed around him (Roberto Baggio was crippled by injury, Giuseppe Signori was on the bench, Nicola Berti and Daniele Massaro were awful) and he almost single-handedly extinguished the Brazil offence. Including Romario. This is all the more astonishing if we consider that he succeeded in the feat only 25 days after being operated for injury, holding true to the proverb that a real captain shows his worth at the times of greatest crisis. Sadly, after dragging the game into extra time and penalties, his legs betrayed him and he missed his shot from the box. His tears on the shoulders of his comrades draw the most poignant portrait for this football phenomenon – the only betrayal that could ever break him was his own.
Top 20 Azzurri players of all time