Franco Baresi: The comeback captain
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Franco Baresi reached down to touch his right knee. It hadn't felt the same since he had stretched to make a clearance seconds earlier. As he walked, a sharp pain shot through his leg, making him limp. The Italy No. 6 didn't want to go off. Italy had lost their opening game of USA '94 to a looping strike from Republic of Ireland's cartwheeling Ray Houghton. Now in their next game, things threatened to get worse.
The Azzurri looked to be on the brink. They were down to 10 men against Norway. Goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca had been shown a red card for handling outside his area. Roberto Baggio was substituted for Luca Marchegiani, and at the beginning of the second half, with the score still 0-0, their captain was left with no option but to hobble to the sideline and then to the treatment room. From there, Baresi must have heard the noise of Giants Stadium as Dino Baggio nodded home the only goal of the game. Italy's World Cup wasn't over yet. But unfortunately it looked like it was for Baresi.
Teams captained: AC Milan, Italy.
Trophies won: Trophies won: Serie A (six times), European Cup (1989, 1990, 1994), UEFA Super Cup (1989, 1990, 1994), Intercontinental Cup (1989, 1990), 1982 World Cup.
He had torn his meniscus. All that was left for him to do, it seemed, was salute his teammates and fly back home to Milan. But he couldn't do it. At 34, Baresi didn't believe he had another World Cup in him. He knew his own body and he would -- as it turned out -- retire a year before France '98. "There was an awareness that there wouldn't be another chance," he told Guerin Sportivo. It burned. Baresi had been a member of Italy's World Cup-winning squad in 1982, but as a relative youngster he hadn't played a single minute.
One final opportunity was open to him to be a protagonist. Baresi didn't intend to close it off. "I wanted to be with the team," he said. And so Italy's captain immediately went under the knife, then straight into his rehabilitation. "Frankly, I didn't believe I would make it back, but the more Italy progressed the more I intensified the work. It came to me automatically. There was no timetable, nor were there any expectations on anyone's part."
Overcoming the odds is a trait of Baresi's. Told by Inter after failing a trial to come back in a year when he had filled out a bit, he was clearly not destined to follow his older brother Beppe. Instead, he declined their advice and tried out with the club of his heart, AC Milan, where he'd earn a contract; debut at 17 alongside his idol, the great Gianni Rivera; be part of the team that won a historic 10th scudetto, commemorated with a prestigious star; captain it at 22; twice go down to Serie B; resist offers from Dino Viola's Roma and Paolo Mantovani's Samp; come back up; and lead Milan from the bottom to the top of the world.
The papers took to calling him "Kaiser Franz." His position as a libero of course had something to do with it. But so did a Derby della Madonnina between the Milan degli Olandesi (the Dutch) and the Inter dei Tedeschi (the Germans) on Nov. 19, 1989. Marco van Basten, Diego Fuser and Daniele Massaro all scored in a 3-0 win. Yet the hero was Baresi when it materialised that he had played most of the second half with a broken arm after a kick from Jurgen Klinsmann. This here was his equivalent of Franz Beckenbauer's "sling game" -- when the West Germany captain had played in the "Game of the Century," a 4-3 semifinal defeat to Italy at the 1970 World Cup -- with a dislocated shoulder.
Characters like that have the fortitude to go beyond the pain barrier, to believe the impossible is nothing. Still it was a surprise that when the day of the final arrived in '94, Italy were there and Baresi was too. He had recovered in only 25 days. "It was an incredible situation," Baresi recalled. "The knee was clinically healed. By operating so soon we had avoided any muscle loss. But I had only done a little running. I had never trained with the team." It didn't matter. Italy were in desperate need of him.
For one thing, Alessandro "Billy" Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti were suspended. And in addition to that their inspiration, Roberto Baggio, was practically playing on one leg: it was the one that had endured multiple knee surgeries too. How would Baresi's hold together? "The first intervention I made was important. It would give me the right reassurances. From then onwards my thoughts were no longer about the knee, but only Romario and Bebeto."
He played as if he were in peak form. In Baresi's own opinion, it was his best performance for the national team. What a time to give it and in what condition too. He led as only he knew how. "You have it in your DNA. I felt I had things inside me to give and transmit. I did it my way, through work, through facts and through setting an example. I always spoke little." After all, his actions were so much louder.
No sooner did a gap appear than Baresi with his intuition and acceleration made it disappear. He anticipated and read the play so well he finished sentences for Brazil's strikers. Then he imposed himself. He stepped out from the back with his shirt out -- a tribute to Ruud Krol -- played it out and followed the play.
Watch it back. Baresi gives a master class of the sort he had given for Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi when they were winning the European Cup in back-to-back seasons at Milan. Of course, few remember his performance over 120 minutes. They instead remember the penalty shootout after extra time. They remember Baresi, Daniele Massaro and Roberto Baggio all missing from the spot, the Brazil bench rushing onto the pitch victorious, the dedications to the late Formula One driver and national hero Ayrton Senna.
It was one of those things. Of the 33 goals Baresi scored in his career, 21 had been penalties. He'd even managed a hat trick of them in a Coppa Italia tie against Messina in 1990. Tired and hurting, the decision to change his mind at the last second also contributed to his effort going over the bar. It was Baresi's penultimate appearance for his country. He represented Italy for the last time against Slovenia that September. Then the armband he'd worn with such honour was passed to Paolo Maldini, just as it would be at Milan in 1997.
While tied around Baresi's rossonero biceps, it had lifted five of the six scudetti he'd won, three European Cups, two Intercontinental trophies, three European Super Cups and four Italian ones. Milan retired his No. 6 shirt with him 17 years ago. The ultras made it into a huge banner. It still hangs in the Curva Sud at San Siro. To them and everyone connected with Milan, Baresi remains long after his final game, affectionately known simply as "il Capitano." The greatest in their history.
James Horncastle contributes to ESPN, BBC Sport, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.