This week’s selection in my all-time ‘cult’ world XI footballers needs no fancy introduction, persuasive justifications or over inflated superlatives because he is without doubt the best defender I have ever seen play the beautiful game. Over a career which seemed to last forever two generations he amassed six league titles, three European cups (missed one final but played a huge part), made 719 appearances in the most formidable back line to grace a football field and played in three World Cup’s for Italy. He was loyal to his one club, AC Milan, playing in the ‘sweeping’ role alongside Tassotti, Costacurta and Paolo Maldini; a quartet that became a legacy for the fans of the ‘Rossoneri’. Milan have even retired his number 6 jersey as a mark of respect. It is none other than the mighty ‘Piscinin’, Franco Baresi.
Franco initially had youth trials for Milan’s city rivals, Internazionale where his elder sibling, Giuseppe was already employed. After being rejected and told he would not make the cut, Baresi had trials for AC where he was ultimately accepted. In hindsight, I hope that someone at Inter’s scouting and youth development was given the necessary ‘kick up the backside’ for letting someone of that standard fall through the sieve to your biggest local rivals. Franco became the perennial thorn in the side of the ‘Nerazzuri’ as the city of Milan became dominated by the team in Red and Black for the remainder of the 1990’s.
Loyalty was Baresi’s middle name, having amassed 719 appearances for his only club before retiring in 1997 at the age of 37. Winning three European Cup’s an six ‘scudetti’ under his influence, Franco is one of the most decorated players ever to play the game in Italy. In addition he has also achieved gold, silver and bronze World Cup finals medals for his exploits with the national side in the ‘82, ‘90 and ‘94 tournaments. I suppose he will be remembered only for his penalty miss in USA 94 World Cup final… yes I know another Italian did miss a penalty that day who received a greater notoriety but most football fans of my generation weren’t supporting Italy in ’94 and had not been watching Italian football on a regular basis like myself. Franco was truly a ‘superstar’ in his sweeper role and was one of the fundamental reasons behind Milan and Italy being almost impossible to score against, let alone beat.
Back to that day in 1994 in Pasadena, California where the temperatures reached a sweltering 40+ Celsius, Franco had just returned from emergency surgery on an injury received in the group stages. With little to no match practice, Franco was given the assignment of marking the lethal Romario out of the game. When given the task of shadowing undoubtedly the world’s best and most prolific striker at that time, a lot of defenders needed to be at their best and hope that Romario had his mind on other matters as he regularly did throughout his career. Romario was fully focused however, as his goal tally suggested and was playing the best football of his career to date. He must have relished the prospect of playing against an aging, half fit, miniscule defender who was starting to show a distinct lack of pace…
“That was the most ruthless monitoring of my entire career.” Romario (After the 1994 World Cup Final win)
I was very lucky to be into football at a time when I can remember the best parts of Franco’s career and feel privileged that he graced our TV screens for best part of a decade before finally retiring and mentoring Paolo Maldini; need I say more? It was one of my biggest bug-bears at that time, when English football fans would criticise Italian football for its defensive nature and low goal ratio. My response to all critics is to appreciate that football is a multi-faceted game where you play to your strengths and Italian football teams were the perennial masters. What made the Serie A the best league in the world at that time was that the Italian’s made defending an ‘art form’ and it took sheer attacking brilliance and wizardry to unlock such astute defences. This made watching Italian football an absolute pleasure during the 1990’s and I felt sorry for the football fans who missed out on such talents because of false perceptions and stereotypes. Let’s face facts, our Premiership will never reach the heights of that league for as long as it exists.
Franco continually challenged perceptions and stereotypes of Italian footballers by being totally committed, level-headed and honourable to the end. Always known to lend a helping hand to the opposition after placing them on their backsides, Baresi often played through the pain barrier putting the needs of the team before any personal gains. Franco, for your passion and contribution to football I welcome you to my all-time ‘cult’ world XI.