Franco Baresi: Simply one of the best defenders to ever play the game


By the time the 1990s rolled around, Franco Baresi was already a World Cup winner, two-time Scudetti lifter and a European champion.

From teenage reject at Inter, Baresi would swiftly emerge as one of the finest defenders to ever play the game at cross-town rivals Milan.

The Italian was a key part of the greatest side in calcio history
The Italian was a key part of the greatest side in calcio history / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

The elegance and effortlessness at which he played the centre-back position was unique, and something that has only ever been replicated by the man who'd defined the libero (sweeper) role a generation prior: Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer.

Baresi was the cornerstone of Arrigo Sacchi's unItalian revolution in Milan, establishing himself as the impenetrable heartbeat to one of football's stoutest ever backlines in one of the most dominant club sides we've ever seen. 

Their period of supremacy began as a result of Sacchi's unprecedented high-pressing, offside trapping 4-4-2 which guided Milan to the Scudetto in 1987/88 and the European Cup in 1989.

On that night in Barcelona, the Rossoneri blitzed a sorry Steaua Bucharest outfit 4-0. But while on that occasion Milan blew away their opponents with dynamic forward play, Sacchi's men showed respect to Sven Goran Eriksson's Benfica side and often conceded possession to the Portuguese outfit a year later in the 1990 final.

Baresi hoisting the European Cup trophy aloft following his career-defining performance against Benfica
Baresi hoisting the European Cup trophy aloft following his career-defining performance against Benfica / Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

And the diminutive Baresi - he was tagged 'Piscinin' (little one) following his emergence into the Milan first team - strutting around the Prater Stadion with his notoriously loose untucked shirt, put in the most majestic of showings that night. The Milan skipper kept the Benfica attack at bay with relative ease - with his generational defensive instincts and frightening composure in possession coming to the fore at the pinnacle of club football.

Rijkaard bagged the winner to ensure Milan came away with a 1-0 victory and back-to-back European crowns, but it was Baresi who stole the show with a masterclass in centre-back play.

Milan's imperiousness would ensue, and reach new heights, under Sacchi's successor Fabio Capello, who, despite a tinkeration or two, wisely stuck to the principles adopted by his predecessor. A Dutch tinge bolstered an already majestic outfit and under former Milan star Capello, Baresi would spearhead a record 58-game unbeaten run in Serie A and lead the club to four Scudetti between 1992 and 1996.

On the continental stage, Basile Boli, suspension and Patrick Kluivert prevented Baresi from lifting a trio of Champions League titles following the competition's inception. Milan were beaten 1-0 by Marseille and Ajax in 1993 and 1995 respectively, while Baresi's absence meant Paolo Maldini stole the show in Milan's unforgettable 4-0 rout of Johan Cruyff's Barcelona in 1994.

Nevertheless, in four Champions League finals with Baresi at the heart of the Milan backline, the Rossoneri had conceded just two goals. Now that's stout.

Thus, for some of the finest attacking talent Italy - and Europe - had to offer, trying to break down that Baresi-inspired defensive wall was like fanatic gamers attempting to overcome the 'Lost Levels' on the original 'Super Mario Bros'. It was only the fortunate who could.

Following his retirement in 1997, Baresi inevitably had his iconic number six shirt retired by the Rossoneri and in 1999, he was voted the club's 'Player of the Century'. 

Nicknamed 'Kaiser Franz' later on his career in homage to Beckenbauer, Baresi truly was a 'regen' of the German legend. His knack of stifling some of the world's elite attacking talent and the admirable elegance at which he went about this concept of 'defending' remains the benchmark over two decades since his retirement.

Playing in a division and for a country revered for churning out generational defensive talent seemingly year-on-year, Franco Baresi consistently stood out among the rest.