By James Jose
Mention football and it is the illustrious names, legends like Pele, Diego Maradona, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Johan Cryuff, Marco van Basten, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Edison Cavani, Neymar Jr and others that come to mind.
History is littered with such greats and ask any budding footballer what they would like to be and chances are most would want to be a striker or a midfielder.
It is the defenders who are the unsung heroes, if you will, and while there are very few takers for the job, one man took it upon himself to make defence an art.
And it came as no surprise that he is from Italy, known for its penchant for defensive football.
At a time when forwards and playmakers ruled, Franchino Baresi, better known as Franco Baresi, was rock solid at the backline and went on to become one of the greatest defenders of all time.
He was a one-club man, his entire career starting and finishing at Serie A giants AC Milan, with six Scudettos and three Champions League crowns. And Baresi was also a permanent presence for Italy, winning 81 caps, as well as the World Cup in 1982.
Football has transformed over the years. It is faster and offense plays a larger role. Baresi has repelled many challenges during his heyday but when asked who he would he fear the most if he were to go up against today’s lot, Baresi came up a witty answer.
“I admire Messi a lot, also (Luis) Suarez and Ronaldo as well as the attackers at Liverpool. They are very strong and fast players. They also think very fast but I think they should be afraid of playing against me as well,” said Baresi.
Baresi was in Dubai as brand ambassador of the AC Milan Academy Dubai Champions Cup. The tournament is into its second edition with hundreds of children competing in the two-day competition.
Having said that, Baresi reckoned that defence has changed over the years, from his time until now.
“There are still great defenders and perhaps there is better organization also. You have to be a lot more attentive and pay more attention. For 90 minutes you have to be always on guard. And you have got to have very talented teammates,” he said.
And Baresi, now 58, picked out Liverpool centre back Virgil van Dijk as the best defender going around at the moment.
“Nowadays, there are some good defenders who have won practically everything. If you look at the teams today — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool have a very good defence. Liverpool have a very talented and good defender in Van Dijk. He is a great personality, who has great skills. There is also Ajax captain Matthijs de Ligt, who is 20,” said Baresi.
Liverpool smashed their transfer record by spending $100 million on van Dijk. The Dutchman, at a $12.5 million in wages, is the highest paid defender in the world.
Meanwhile, his beloved AC Milan are in the midst of a trophy-drought in the Serie A and also the Champions League.
The Rossoneri won the last of their 18 Serie A titles in the 2010-11 season, while they last won the Champions League in the 2006-07 season. And their last appearance in Europe’s elite competition was in the 2013-14 season. Since then, they have featured in the Europa League over the past two seasons.
That has coincided with rivals Juventus’ domination on the domestic front as well as regular appearances in Europe.
Baresi said that both Milan rivals AC and Inter perhaps missed a trick that lead to Juventus gaining an upper hand but added that AC Milan were showing signs of progress.
“Juventus are the protagonists now, no doubt about that. I think both AC Milan and Inter Milan made some mistakes; they didn’t invest in their team. And of course Juventus took advantage of this situation. But I still think that the Serie A needs AC Milan and Inter to raise the bar and make the competition more interesting,” he observed.
“The team is growing. In January, a lot of talented players arrived so we have new players, we have more trust. We have to manage to keep this level of excellence because we want to reach our target. Our objective now is to go back to the Champions League,” Baresi added.
Italy, one of the heavyweights in world football, also endured the disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup in Russia and Baresi said that was because the team was in transition.
“The problem was that we were not ready for the generation change. We had a lot of good players who were at the end of their careers and we were not able to replace them with other talented players. Another problem is that we don’t have a lot of Italian players right now in our club teams. We have a lot of foreigners so it is difficult to find Italians to play in the national team,” explained Baresi.
But Baresi was confident that the Azzurri will return to where they belong.
“After the disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup in Russia, our national team is getting better. We have a lot of young and talented players who are performing well. And the new coach (Roberto) Mancini is doing whatever he can to make the team click,” he said.