Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

Franco Baresi: The defensive great on enjoying expansive football, AC Milan and why the future is bright for Italy

The World Cup-winning Italian discussed a number of footballing topics including AC Milan and the Italian national team during his visit to Dubai

Retired Italian World Cup winner Franco Baresi was in Dubai on Thursday. Leslie Pableo for The National
Retired Italian World Cup winner Franco Baresi was in Dubai on Thursday. Leslie Pableo for The National

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of spending time in Franco Baresi’s company is discovering that he much prefers open, expansive football.

For the best part of two decades, the Italian epitomised masterful defending. As such, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest in his position to have played the game.

At AC Milan, his one club, he formed an at-times-impenetrable backline alongside Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti, and helped the club to six Scudettos and three European Cup crowns.

He made his Serie A debut aged 17; five years later, he was Milan captain.

So revered was Baresi, in fact, that, when he eventually called time on his 20-year professional career - in 1997 having appeared more times for Milan than any other player in history - the San Siro side retired his No 6 jersey. He was later voted both Milan and Serie A’s player of the century.

So it comes as something of a shock that Baresi loves nothing better than two teams taking the game to one another.

High-scoring, high-octane matches appeal. For example, he particularly enjoyed last September’s absorbing Uefa Champions League clash between Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain, when the sides traded heavy blows before the English club finally triumphed 3-2.

“A spectacular match,” Baresi says, shielding himself from the Thursday morning sun outside a restaurant in DIFC.

The former centre-back, 58, has travelled to Dubai to promote the second edition of the AC Milan Academy Dubai Champions Cup, which takes place this weekend at the academy’s headquarters in Gems International School Al Khail. Around 650 children will be involved, contributing to 56 teams.

But, by the sounds of things, Baresi won’t simply be interested in any aspiring defenders.

“I like to watch teams where there is a confrontation; I love open matches where anything can happen at any time,” he says, before adding with a laugh: “I’m not Italian.”

Baresi was a World Cup winner, with Italy, in 1982.

He would no doubt thrive in the modern game, too. He admires accomplished attackers, such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez, not to mention Liverpool’s current front three: Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. At one point, he concedes that a lot of today’s elite-level forwards would cause him a headache.

“But I think they should be afraid of playing against me as well,” Baresi smiles.

Reverting to type, Baresi cites Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk – “a great personality with great skills” – and Ajax youngster Matthijs de Ligt – “big, strong, who is a captain at age 20” – as defenders that especially stand out. In his mind, though, that facet of the game has undoubtedly changed from when he led Milan through their golden period between 1987 and 1996.

“There was more offside when I played,’ says Baresi, who represented the club 719 times. “There are still great defenders, and perhaps there is a better organisation also. You always have to be very attentive, so you have to focus a lot, always on guard for the whole 90 minutes. And you have to have very talented colleagues, of course.”

Baresi had plenty of those. He captained great teams governed by great managers, most notably Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello. During that nine-year spell that straddled the 1980s and 1990s, Milan dominated domestically and on the continent.

Considered one of football’s finest ever teams, a characteristically miserly side was embroidered by the indomitable Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.

“I’m proud to say that I played with extraordinary and talented players,” Baresi says. “We had Sacchi, and I also played with three very talented Dutch players. That for me was the real and biggest Milan.

“I’d find it extremely difficult again to find three Dutch players playing together with their qualities and their skills, and to have them together again with another group of very talented Italian players. So the combination of these players made the team what it was: an unforgettable one.”

Milan, though, have not reached those heights for some time. Since Baresi retired, they have won the Scudetto three times, with the last secured in 2011. Their seventh and final European crown arrived in 2007. Milan have failed to even qualify for the Champions League in the past five seasons.

However, there is reason for optimism. The current side sit fourth in Serie A and have lost only once in their past 11 league matches. Manager Gennaro Gattuso has found his groove, while recent recruits in Krzysztof Piatek and Lucas Paqueta have excelled almost immediately.

“The team is growing a lot,” Baresi says. “In January, a lot of talented players arrived and so we have more trust. We must manage to keep this level of excellence because we have to reach our targets. Our objectives today must be to get back into the Champions League.

“Gattuso’s doing a pretty good job right now. It always depends on the results the coach gets. When you’re the coach of such an important football team, it’s an honour, but it’s also a burden. He certainly has a lot of qualities; he just needs time. Only time will tell."

Baresi on Juventus’ domestic dominance

“It’s true that Juve is the protagonist today, there’s no doubt about that. Milan and Inter made some mistakes in the past; they didn’t invest a lot. And of course Juve took advantage of this situation. But I still think that the Italian championship needs Milan and Inter to raise the bar and make the competition even more interesting.”

On Real Madrid’s European dominance

“There is going to be more balance in the next few years because it’s true that there is a lot of competition. Real Madrid lost something when they lost Ronaldo. And I think, because they have won so many matches, they are no longer hungry.”

The Italy national team

“After the great disappointment we had in not qualifying for the last World Cup, our national team is getting better and better. We were not ready for the generation change, so we had a lot of talented players who were at the end of their careers and we weren’t able to replace them. Now we have a lot of gifted young players, who are growing little by little. [Manager Roberto] Mancini is doing whatever he can to make this possible.”

Updated: February 14, 2019 05:05 PM



Editor's Picks