FourFourTwo's 100 Greatest Footballers EVER: No.15, Franco Baresi
If being the captain and key figure in one of the finest teams in history isn't enough to be considered a true great, then being perhaps the most complete defender ever and being named Milan's Player of the Century unquestionably is.
In Milan's great back four, Baresi was the leader and, as libero, its central asset
The team managed by Arrigo Sacchi that won the European Cup in 1989 and defended it 1990 arguably had, in Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti, the finest defence there has ever been. In that back four, Baresi was the leader and, as libero, its central asset.
Of the reasons Milan have so often been superior to rivals Inter in recent decades, the Nerazzurri telling an on-trial, 14-year-old Baresi to return the following year amid doubts over his physique may be the most significant among them.
Instead of waiting 12 months to possibly join his 16-year-old brother Giuseppe at Inter, Franco went for a trial at Milan and did well enough to go on and make 719 senior appearances.
His conviction and early maturity repeatedly served him well. Baresi's parents had died by the time he was 16, strengthening his desire to succeed – which he did with near-unrivalled on-field intelligence.
The Italian's anticipation was such that he was almost always first to every ball, and the stopper was like no other at limiting an attacker's time and space. Almost instantly after winning possession, his superb vision regularly led to him starting the transition from defence to attack. Comparisons with the great Franz Beckenbauer — the media often referred to him as 'Kaiser Franz’ — were apt.
Baresi won six Serie A titles, three European Cups, three European Super Cups and four Coppas Italia. Memorably, he recovered from tearing the meniscus in his right knee in Italy's second game of USA 94 to return in time for the final – just 25 days later, after an operation – to restrict a Romario-led Brazil to penalties after 120 minutes without a goal.
In the November 1989 Milan derby, Baresi played over an hour with a broken arm after a kick from Jurgen Klinsmann of Inter, who ultimately lost 3-0. For such an iconic Milanista who was so passionate about the pursuit of clean sheets, few other achievements must give him quite the same pride.
- One-on-One: Franco Baresi answers your questions