Kevin Pogorzelski Date: 8th May 2020 at 6:00pm
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Even as Franco Baresi reaches his 60th birthday, turning down the opportunity to sign the Italian legend must remain a huge regret for Inter, who were left to watch him lift 17 major honours in with cross-town rivals AC Milan during an illustrious 20-year playing career.

However, while failing to convince the Nerazzurri that he should follow older brother Giuseppe into their youth ranks in 1972, the fact that his sibling appeared nearly 400 times for Inter provided some comfort that they received a significant slice of the Baresi talent pool.

Born in Travagliato, Brescia, less than an hour from Milan by train, the rejection mattered little to Franco, who later claimed: “I was always Milanista and it was my great fortune to play for Milan”.

Within six years the libero made his Serie A debut and became a permanent first-team fixture ahead of the 1978/79 campaign as they clinched the Scudetto.

At 18, he already had the knowledge of a veteran,” exclaimed coach Nils Liedholm.

Known as Il Piscinin (The Little One), initially as the younger Baresi brother, he was surprisingly short in stature at 5’9” for a centre-back and often deployed as a sweeper. His excellent technical ability, vision and distribution ensured that he could also operate further upfield. 

While the Italian’s time at the Stadio San Siro could not have started better, the next few years were something of a roller coaster for the club. Relegated in 1979/80 for their involvement in match-fixing and again in 1982, finishing one point off safety in 14th.

As the Rossoneri struggled, though, Baresi stood out and was included in the Azzurri squad for both the 1980 European Championship and 1982 World Cup, becoming a world champion without a single minute of international football played.

That summer, at just 22, Baresi was appointed Diavolo captain and took them to a second Serie B title in 1982/83, leading by example with displays of tenacity, self-discipline and concentration, rather than bellowing non-stop instructions at teammates. 

Shortly after returning to the top flight, Milan suffered defeat to Sampdoria in the 1985 Coppa Italia final – the one domestic trophy Baresi would never lift – but his leadership was beginning to turn the Rossoneri into challengers.

Excluded from the 1986 World Cup. Viewed as a midfielder rather than a defender that could fulfil other roles, Italy coach Enzo Bearzot merely ignored attributes that made Baresi so unique. An elegance on the ball allowing him to drift effortlessly ahead of the defensive line and act as a secondary playmaker.

Marshalling a distinguished all-Italian backline of Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini when coach Arrigo Sacchi joined Milan in 1987, the new boss was gifted a solid foundation from which to build one of the greatest club sides of any generation.  

The 1987/88 Scudetto was won conceding just 14 goals, back-to-back European Cup successes followed in 1989 and 1990, and two Club World Cup triumphs arrived on the back of those continental victories. 

Runner-up to teammate Marco van Basten for European Footballer of the Year in 1989, Baresi was arguably more influential dominating that second European victory and was top scorer as he lost another Coppa Italia final in 1990 – this time to Juventus.

Heading into Italia ‘90 as Serie A Player of the Year, he and his Azzurri defence kept five consecutive clean sheets during the tournament, but could only finish third after a semi-final exit on penalties to Argentina.

With Fabio Capello replacing Sacchi in the Rossoneri hotseat, Baresi’s continued presence at the heart of the Milan rearguard was crucial in securing three consecutive Serie A titles, with the side going undefeated during the first in 1991/92 and conceding a meagre 15 goals three years later.

A suspended Baresi watched Milan overwhelm Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ to capture the 1994 Champions League, but their continental crown was slipping and they lost the 1993 and 1995 editions to Marseille and Ajax respectively.

At 34, success presented itself on a global stage as the newly appointed Azzurri captain for the 1994 World Cup, only for a group stage injury sustained against Norway a sign it was not meant to be.

Recovering just in time to face Brazil in the final, a faultless 120 minutes from Baresi would have been remembered as his best had the shootout ended differently. As it turned out, the scorer of 21 penalties for Milan would miss the first of his country’s spot kicks and the trophy slipped away.

Few will remember that he made an 81st and final appearance against Slovenia two months later, but there was still enough time to finish his club career on a much brighter note with a sixth Scudetto in 1995/96.

It would have been the perfect ending, but an ageing Baresi lasted one more season to complete two decades of outstanding first-team service and amass 719 appearances across all competitions.

As a sign of their gratitude the club retired the No.6 shirt and two years later was voted their Player of the Century and once and for all ended any debate that he was the lesser of the Baresi brothers. Maybe that he had become the greatest-ever defender to grace the game.