Only seven men have played in more Milan derbies than Franco Baresi, yet there was a time when the prospect of just sitting in the stands, as he intends to do on Sunday, seemed like science fiction. Growing up in a farmstead on the outskirts of a small northern town, Travagliato, in 1960s Italy meant never even seeing football on television until he was 10.
The first match he watched was the semi-final of the 1970 World Cup between the Azzurri and West Germany. Baresi was fascinated with football, playing endlessly with his siblings in the barn, using discarded pork rinds to reinforce the skin of their worn leather ball. But this was his first time seeing the stars whose exploits he heard every Sunday on the radio.
“For me, they were martians,” he says, opening his arms as if to gesture at an obvious truth. “Riva, Rivera, Mazzola, Boninsegna … I had listened to them playing so many times. And I had imagined what an emotion it must be to play in front of so many spectators. But we’re talking about the 1960s, not everyone had a television.”
Italy beat West Germany 4-3 in what became known as the Game of the Century. They lost to Brazil in the final, the second match Baresi ever watched. “I would never have thought 24 years later, at 34 years old, I would have the possibility to play in that same game, the final, against Brazil, the same team. It was a dream that came true.” It may surprise to hear him tell it this way. The 1994 World Cup final ended in heartbreak for Italy, Baresi missing the first penalty in a shootout defeat. And yet that was also a day when he verified himself as one of football’s extraterrestrials. He had torn the meniscus in his left knee during Italy’s second group game, yet returned to the starting XI after 25 days.
Wearing the captain’s armband, he led Italy to a clean sheet against Brazil’s previously unstoppable strike partnership of Romário and Bebeto. After suffering severe cramps late in the game, does he ever wish he had let someone else take his spot-kick?
“No, no regrets,” he insists. “You have to take your responsibilities. This is part of the profession. Even teams’ penalty-takers miss penalties, and I wasn’t the penalty-taker. I keep the satisfaction I had for playing that final. I didn’t think I would have a chance to play.”
Baresi already owned a World Cup-winner’s medal, though he never got on to the pitch during Italy’s triumphant run in 1982. He won six Serie A titles, three European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups with Milan, whom he captained for most of that run. He was part of two of the most famous sides in the club’s history, the Immortals who conquered Europe in consecutive seasons under Arrigo Sacchi and the Invincibles who went 58 games unbeaten under Fabio Capello in Serie A. He did it alongside Paolo Maldini, Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta and Filippo Galli.
“I played with that group for 10 years,” he says. “We could find each other with our eyes closed. That was our strength. Each of us knew exactly what the others were doing at any moment. It was a relationship that went beyond the pitch, we shared a friendship. Even now we see each other regularly.”
Until recently, Baresi would still play occasional games of football with some of them. “Now I’ve said ‘stop’ because my knee hurts,” he says, smiling ruefully as he confirms it is the same one he injured in 1994. “I have one or two aches and pains.”
He believes he would have enjoyed playing in this era, with defenders encouraged ever more to bring the ball out from the back. The title of his recent autobiography, Libero di sognare, translates literally as “Free to dream”, but is a play on the role that he filled for Milan. The libero was the spare defender who, instead of being assigned an opponent to mark, was free to read the game and step forward at times.
Virgil van Dijk and Marquinhos are the first two names that spring to mind when I ask which defenders he admires today, though he also has praise for Milan’s English centre-back Fikayo Tomori. “Coming from England, he has done well to impose himself in a different league. I’ve been impressed with his physical attributes, pace and intensity. He can still grow, but for now he is doing really well.”
So are the rest of his teammates. Milan sit joint-top of Serie A heading into Sunday’s derby, with 10 wins and one draw from 11 games. It has been a different story in the Champions League, with one point from four matches, though performances have been better than that return suggests in the tournament’s group of death.
As Milan’s honorary vice-president, Baresi could hardly be impartial, but his conviction that they should aim for the scudetto this season marks a contrast with less confident recent chapters in the club’s history. A decade has passed since the Rossoneri were last champions of Italy. There were seven consecutive seasons in between when they failed to reach the top four.
“The team is playing beautiful football,” says Baresi. “They need to be ambitious. Why not? Right now, this is the team that plays the best football in Italy, the team that creates the most chances, so we can certainly think big. The season still has a long way to go. But for now, Milan are the team that have impressed me the most.”
Even at this early point, Sunday’s derby feels pivotal. Milan have an opportunity to move 10 points clear of their neighbours. But a win for Internazionale, the reigning champions, could bring them back into the title race.
Will he envy the players running out at San Siro? “I would like to play still,” concedes Baresi. “Unfortunately, this is life! But I still like watching a lot, going to the stadium, seeing games, following the team. The emotion is still there. Football is always a sport that moves people.”