Baresi: Real football fans know how important defenders are
Franco Baresi turns 60 today (Friday 8 May)
The AC Milan and Italy legend is one of the greatest defenders of all time
He looks back on his career highlights with FIFA.com
He was not the biggest, the strongest, the most powerful or the fastest of defenders, but he is right up there with the very best of them. With the possible exception of Franz Beckenbauer, it is hard to think of a central defender who comes close to Franco Baresi in terms of intelligence, elegance, positioning, anticipation and the ability to lead a team from his own penalty box.
In the land of catenaccio, Baresi was king; a libero who revolutionised the position, a captain who led by example, and a leader who commanded respect without needing to say a great deal. For 20 years, from 1977 to 1997, this master of the defensive arts stayed true to one club: AC Milan. And during the course of an international career that spanned 14 years, from 1980 to 1994, he won 81 caps and played a part in some of Italy’s finest ever achievements.
A FIFA Legend, Baresi has some fascinating stories to tell as he turns 60, not least about the three FIFA World Cup™ competitions he graced. To mark his birthday, FIFA.com asked him to look back on his career and give his views on today’s defenders.
FIFA.com: Let’s go back to the start, to Spain 1982, when you became a world champion without having a single minute on the pitch. What do you remember of the whole experience? Franco Baresi: I was 22 and even though I didn’t play at all, it was an important and vital moment in my career. It was an intense experience for me and I was curious about it all. Here I was spending time with true champions who were all legends to my mind. They were heroes of mine. I’d watched the previous World Cup in Argentina very closely and I was blown away by a team featuring several of the players that I’d rub shoulders with in 1982, like [Gaetano] Scirea, [Claudio] Gentile, [Antonio] Cabrini, [Marco] Tardelli, [Bruno] Conti, [Giancarlo] Antognoni and [Francesco] Graziani. It was an incredible team, both on the pitch and in terms of the character of the players.
What did you learn in particular in watching them lift the Trophy? We had a slow start to the competition but we ended up winning the World Cup pretty emphatically, beating the best teams in the world: Brazil, Argentina, and West Germany. That whole experience was one of the cornerstones of my career. I tried to contribute in one way or another, to help the team during training, but the most important thing was just being able to watch and learn. Understanding how the team prepared for big games and kept its cool made all the difference in the first few years of my career.
You played at the 1990 tournament on home soil, where Italy went out in the semi-finals despite having gone 518 minutes in the competition without conceding a goal. What stopped the team from lifting the Trophy? The 1990 World Cup was a totally different story: I was an experienced player and I’d been captain for several years at AC Milan, one of the biggest teams in world football. I honestly believe that team deserved to make the Final at least. It was an intelligent blend of young and more experienced players and I think we had a great tournament. It’s a shame because playing at home is a great opportunity. Sometimes it just comes down to a bit of bad luck (Italy went out on penalties to Argentina in the semis), which is what we also had in 1994 in another penalty shootout (against Brazil in the Final). It worked out differently in 2006, when luck was on our side, but that’s sport.
Talking of 1994, you were injured in the second match, against Norway. Did you think then that your World Cup career was over? No question. It was a huge blow. I was the captain and I knew it was my last World Cup. The atmosphere in the team was amazing. There were lots of my AC Milan team-mates there and Arrigo Sacchi was in charge. He’d achieved so much success with the club in previous years. It had all the makings of being a very special tournament and I really felt I could deliver a great performance. But then fate played its part and I had to go off, leaving my team-mates to do an outstanding job in the face of adversity (ten-man Italy beat Norway 1-0 that day).
You had a knee operation on 25 June. How did you manage to recover in time for the Final on 17 July? (Laughs) I’ve been telling this story for years but it still seems incredible. It didn’t really feel that way at the time, though, because I lived through it all, day by day, and it was pretty intense. One day you’re waiting to go into theatre and you’re wondering about your career and then you start to recover, slowly but surely, until suddenly you’ve made it to the Final. I never thought I’d be able to play. I was getting treatment and physiotherapy, thinking that I’d be going on holiday and that I’d be ready for next season. So you can imagine how surprised I was when I realised that I was ready to play in the World Cup Final.
Did you honestly feel fully match fit? (Laughs) I could never say that I was absolutely 100 per cent. I’d had a few heavy training sessions and my knee stood up well. It didn’t do too badly and it didn’t swell up. It came down to a whole series of factors really, because we had players out through injury or suspension. Ultimately, Sacchi made a brave call in giving me my opportunity.
Was that one of the tensest games of your career? Oh yes. It was a very, very tense day, and I’m not just talking about the match. I remember the day before, not knowing if I was going to play or not, and waiting to find out on the morning of the game. I was thinking the whole time about whether I was ready or not, if my knee would hold up. I had all those things going through my head, non-stop. When it came down to it, I was sure I could help the team out, and when the match finally got under way I was completely focused on what I knew was going to be a very tough game.
Your three World Cup experiences were all very different. How would you sum them all up? They were different and I consider myself very fortunate to have played in three World Cups and to have made the podium at every one of them. That’s not easy, is it? Some players have played in four and maybe won the Trophy along the way, but they’ve also had some tough eliminations too. Finishing first, second and third is not too bad at all. I can’t complain (laughs).
As one of the greatest defenders of all time, what do you make of today’s crop? Football has changed so much in the last 15 to 20 years, not just on the pitch but in how it’s seen, access to information and the role of social media and all that. I think the way in which defenders are seen has also changed over the years. Real football fans know how important defenders are and they appreciate them. If I had to name names, then the one who really stands out is Virgil van Dijk, who’s shown the quality, character and strength that a defender needs to have to be a successful leader of a team like Liverpool.
You’re celebrating your 60th birthday on 8 May and in your six decades you’ve played alongside and seen so many great players. Which of them have a place on Franco Baresi’s list of all-time greats? I’ve played with and against so many great players that it’s hard for me to choose. But given everything I’ve learned about football in my life, I’m going to choose two players from every generation who have really made their mark on the history of the game: Pele and Eusebio – who I remember watching on TV when I was young – Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer, then Diego Maradona and Michel Platini, Ronaldo and Marco van Basten, and finally Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. That ought to do it (laughs).