50 Greatest Players in World Cup History: #28 Franco Baresi
It's the day before the World Cup Final.
Having built a team that prides itself on the impenetrability of its defence, two of your best players, the first-choice right back and first-choice centre-back are suspended for the game. The other centre-back's been missing in action, 25 days, since getting a major meniscus injury in the second group stage match. He says he's fit after having undergone surgery just the day before - 24 hours before the final. He wants to play. Against the world's best forward, a man who's been ripping apart defenses for fun all tournament long. He's 34. He's barely fit. But he wants to play.
It's impossible to see any scenario in the modern game where the coach would answer, "Yes, you, play." with all these hypothetical conditions hanging over his neck, a veritable guillotine that'll come down with ruthless force if - and when - the decision backfires. Besides, who can you think of in the modern game who would inspire such confidence so as to make the coach go "yes, yes, yes". Which defender?
In 1994, though, Arrigo Sacchi said yes.
And Franco Baresi, legs hardly working, muscles cramping up in the energy-sapping heat of Pasadena, put in arguably the single greatest defensive effort the grand tournament has ever seen.
There's a reason they called him The Don.
With a young Paolo Maldini (left-back turned centre-back for the tournament; first due to Baresi's injury, then due to Alessandro Costacurta's suspension) beside him, the great man stopped Romario whilst simultaneously keeping Bebeto safely in his back pocket. It wasn't just limited to defending, though, - with Baresi it rarely was - and the majority of Italy's attacking that day stemmed from the great sweeper striding out with the ball.
They don't make many like him anymore.
If you were to show a stranger to the game a photo of Franco Baresi and were to ask him to identify what profession the man was engaged in, you'd hear all sorts of answers... accountant, banker, professor... milkman. None of them would call him a professional athlete. Short, ungainly, with a perma-receding hairline of the stereotypical middle-aged family man, he really didn't look the part.
But when put on a football field, in that heart of that Italian - or more commonly, AC Milan - defence, he was a goddamned beast.
He read the game like he'd written it, he tackled with all the ferociousness of a rottweiler, he was unbeatable in the air (regardless of the height of the opponent: don't even ask how that was possible, he just made it so), he played out of the back with unnerving calm and precision, and no one in the game has ever organised a back-line quite like him. No one.
He was a footballing god in the body of a worn-out insurance lawyer.
He had a running tiff with long-time Italy manager Enzo Bearzot that meant he only picked up his first cap in 1984 (despite him starting off at Milan in 1987, aged 17), and that his first major tournament was the 1988 Euros - where Italy lost to an inspired Soviet Union in the semis. By the 1990 World Cup, it would have taken an insane, a suicidal, manager to drop Baresi... he started every game, marshalling a defence that kept five (F.I.V.E.) consecutive clean-sheets during the tournament - that's no goals conceded in 518 minutes of grade-A international football - a defence that conceded just two goals during the entirety of the tournament... a defence that was beaten only on penalties by Diego Maradona's Argentina.
In the '94 final, too, it took penalties to stop Baresi and Italy - and it's truly unfortunate that the great man was one of those who missed their kicks... the dead-on-his-feet skipper blazed the spotkick over.
It's a testament, though, to the man's career, his undoubted quality, that we don't remember that final for the Baresi miss... we remember it for the Baresi masterclass. He may not have played as often as he should have for the Azzurri (the man has 82 caps, he should have had much more), but when he did step out onto the field in that lovely blue... he was peerless.
He is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the 50 Greatest Players in World Cup History