For those requiring a reminder of Franco Baresi’s enduring legacy, last week’s appearance at AC Milan Academy Dubai was illustrative.
Dozens of children clad in the Rossoneri’s red and black at GEMS International School – Al Khail flocked to greet a 58-year-old former defender, thousands of kilometres from home, whose fabled achievements ended many years before any of them were even born.
Yet, the awe and adulation was just as fresh as that afforded when the San Siro faithful came together to salute an iconic one-club man’s 719th – and final – appearance at the end of 1996/97.
This celebration provided closure to a two-decade-long career which contained 17 major trophies from his debut as a 17-year-old in 1997, plus saw him transform from ‘Piscinin’ (a Milanese nickname for ‘Little One’) to ‘Kaiser Franz’ (a nod to fellow lionised sweeper Franz Beckenbauer).
Baresi boasted faultless consistency, remarkable elegance and outstanding physicality for someone who measures just 5 ft 9 in. He helped form one of the most-formidable backlines of all time, alongside Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti, Filippo Galli and later Christian Panucci.
Not bad for a player turned away as a teenager by city rivals Inter Milan, who instead signed brother Giuseppe.
Speaking to Sport360 prior to last weekend’s AC Milan Academy Dubai Champions Cup, a competition for more than 600 boys and girls aged between eight to 14-years old, Baresi exhibited remarkable humility when discussing his legendary feats.
He says: “I feel I have been extremely lucky in my whole life. I always had people who wanted to share their experiences with me and whom I could learn how to improve my capabilities, my skills.
“Clearly, you must also have a talent. Even if you have skills, you must work hard to improve and become a great player.
“I consider myself very lucky. I met important people in my life, who helped me to become a champion at AC Milan.”
Baresi’s skill-set was so complete that he could even emerge from an opening penalty shootout miss for Italy in defeat to Brazil at World Cup 1994’s final with reputation enhanced.
The then 34-year-old defied medical science to masterfully shut-out imminent Ballon d’Or winner Romario, though in-tournament surgery after damaging the meniscus in his right knee should have necessitated up to a six-month layoff.
Corralling stellar attacking players became de rigueur for Baresi during Serie A’s ‘Golden Era’, from the late eighties until after his retirement in the early noughties.
All but one of his six top-flight titles were earned in the final decade of his illustrious playing days. This was the period of Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta – and countless others.
“If I think of the years I played in Serie A, there were so many great champions, therefore there was so many great strikers,” he says.
“So many of them made my life difficult; from Maradona to Careca, Batistuta to Platini. That period of time in Serie A was extremely important and there were the best players in the world.”
Milan were then without peer at home and abroad. Under the revolutionary Arrigo Sacchi and pragmatic Fabio Capello, Baresi lifted three Champions Leagues to add to the Rossoneri’s domestic dominance.
Now, Juventus are on course for an eight-successive Serie A triumph. Milan also last featured in the UCL during 2013/14.
After the false dawn of Li Yonghong’s debt-strewn ownership, however, fresh impetus has been earned by another Rossoneri veteran. Patience shown to Gennaro Gattuso looks likely to be rewarded with a hallowed top-four finish.
Baresi praises the grit and “right spirit” exhibited by the current head coach.
He says: “I think he is working well and I think even in the difficult times, he has the right spirit.
“He has demonstrated he has the skills to work at Milan and at this moment, he is doing well.”
Momentum has also been gained in the transfer market.
Prolific Poland striker Krzysztof Piatek, 23, has maintained his ceaseless scoring form since last month’s €35 million move from Genoa. These exploits – along with Brazil playmaker Lucas Paqueta’s similarly seamless start – have ramped up the feel-good factor at the fallen giants.
“I believe a big club should always have great strikers and in the history of our club we have had great strikers like Marco van Basten, George Weah, Andriy Shevchenko,” Baresi says.
“Now, Piatek has arrived and I think he will bring a lot of satisfaction to the club because he is young, has already demonstrated quality and an eye for goal.
“So, we hope that he can continue this famous story of important strikers at Milan.”
Baresi also reserved praise for the current marshal of the Milan rearguard.
He says: “Obviously, there are many important defenders around, defenders that play for Real Madrid, Barcelona are great players.
“But Milan is working well and there are some young players growing.
“Milan is growing. [Andrea] Romagnoli is in the national team, he’s young, he’s the captain.
“We have to be good at recognising our product.”
GEMS represented a field of dreams last Wednesday when Baresi offered sage advice.
The former coach of Milan’s Primavera Under-20 squad underlined the importance of developing good people and players.
He says: “I am extremely happy to be here at the AC Milan Academy Dubai. The Academy has been established for a number of years, and we are very happy with how it is growing.
“These types of initiatives can facilitate growth for the children. We believe in this Academy.
“Clearly, the main target for us is to have the children growing and enjoying our philosophy.
“Football is a collective sport. You play together with other boys and girls, so it is a great opportunity to learn lessons for life.”
AC Milan Academy Dubai was launched in February 2016 and offers training sessions following the AC Milan methodology. In addition to technical aspects relating to football, experts train and support the athletes in learning healthy nutrition, which is essential for children’s well-being, both physically and mentally.
For more information, visit www.acmilansoccerschool-dubai.ae to register for a free trial or call +971 562 469100.
Who is the best centre-back in each of Europe’s top five leagues?
Well, to answer, we’re going to break down two of the best from each of the divisions to gain measure of just who is the standout star.
In this edition, we look at Serie A and it’s Napoli’s indomitable Kalidou Koulibaly versus Inter’s formidable Milan Skriniar.
STATISTICS [2018/19 Serie A]
Minutes – 1880
Tackles – 41
Interceptions – 28
Clearances – 84
Pass success – 88.3%
Aerials won – 50
Minutes – 1890
Tackles – 44
Interceptions – 18
Clearances – 76
Pass success – 92.8%
Aerials won – 38
Skriniar can be immensely proud of his imposing physique and substantial strength. But even a powerhouse like him may find himself outmuscled by the colossus that is Koulibaly.
Despite the Slovakian centre-back boasting a frame that towers at 6ft 1in and weighs 80 kilos, his Senegalese counterpart has about three inches and 10 kilos over him. Both central defenders are great competitors in the air but deceptively quick across the turf as well and regular favourites in a foot race.
Kalidou Koulibaly’s game by numbers vs. Sampdoria:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) February 2, 2019
72/77 passes completed
6 accurate long-range passes
4 ball recoveries
3/3 tackles won
2/2 successful take-ons
0 goal conceded
Unbelievably complete CB. 🇸🇳🙌 pic.twitter.com/DhYOhyetdP
Koulibaly almost has a sixth sense of where the ball is going be when defending his own penalty area. He’s invariably the one clearing the danger. However, his positional sense also comes to the fore when marshalling the defence, particularly in previous seasons under Maurizio Sarri when Napoli adopted an extremely high defensive line.
Skriniar’s positioning is near perfect as well, dealing with crosses efficiently and tracking forward runners. It’s also why he’s so successful in one-on-ones. Koulibaly stands tall and dares forwards to go around him before nicking it during their futile attempts. Skriniar on the other hand has a knack for positioning himself perfectly. Not too tight that he’s over committed but still within range for a tackle, which he executes with precision, making the first move.
You’d be forgiven for pegging Koulibaly as a big bruising centre half at first viewing but the more you watch him perform his craft the more you appreciate the level of intelligence and sophistication that governs his modus operandi. The Senegal international is a picture of composure and operates as his side’s deepest creative force. In recent years he’s grown in confidence as well and backs himself in one-on-one scenarios be it when defending or striding forward in possession, breaking through the lines and putting his team on the front foot.
Skriniar isn’t as influential as his counterpart but always displays total commitment to the cause. What’s most telling about the 23-year-old’s mentality is how he recovered from his disappointing start to life in Serie A. His inexperience saw him make poor decisions which cost former side Sampdoria as he gave away cheap penalties and proved to be a liability, coming under heavy criticism. Fast forward a couple of years and Skriniar, having earned a move to Inter, is now among the best centre-backs in Europe.
Milan Škriniar at 24 years-old:— Scouted Football (@ScoutedFtbl) February 11, 2019
• 97 Serie A games
• 32 Serie A clean sheets
• 23 Slovakia caps
• 7 Slovakia clean sheets
The national team stalwart and Internazionale enforcer turns 24 today. 🎂 pic.twitter.com/ovEOFeYzuA
Koulibaly is making a serious claim to be the best centre-back in the world but may need a few more trophies in his cabinet before he is recognised as such. Napoli are a competitive side but a move to a European powerhouse seems inevitable.
Skriniar has the potential to scale similar heights but needs more time to reach his peak. In terms of value, there’s not much to separate the two with age being on the Solvakian’s side.
There’s little doubt that Koulibaly is the more complete defender at the moment though and a far more influential figure, capable of marshalling a defence with authority and leading a team by example.
More than 600 boys and girls, between eight and 14-years old, from 17 academies across Dubai will play as 56 teams in the second edition of the AC Milan Academy Dubai Champions Cup this weekend.
Milan’s historical captain and Brand Ambassador, Franco Baresi, attended the launch event at Roberto’s DIFC earlier on Thursday.
The tournament will be held on Friday and Saturday at the AC Milan Academy Dubai headquarters at GEMS International School Al Khail. The two-day sporting event will involve hundreds of young footballers, along with their families.
“It’s great to see so many boys and girls training and testing themselves with passion and determination,” said the 58-year-old, who won three UEFA Champions League and six Serie A titles at Milan from 1997-97. “AC Milan provides a cutting-edge technical, educational and methodological know-how that is also used for the youth sector in football schools in Italy and internationally.
“The presence of the club’s official coaches here in Dubai is fundamental to its ongoing success. Furthermore, football carries a great social value, and it’s great to see so many girls also playing football in Dubai.”
AC Milan Academy Dubai was launched in February 2016 and offers training sessions following the AC Milan Method. In addition to technical aspects relating to football, experts train and support the athletes in learning healthy nutrition, which is essential for their well-being, both physically and mentally.
Lorenzo Giorgetti, chief commercial officer at Milan, commented: “We are delighted to be in Dubai, a city that thanks to Emirates, has developed a tight bond with AC Milan, thus confirming the strong belief that football is one of the most beautiful and fascinating sports in the world and a powerful vehicle for teaching values such competitiveness, respect for roles, social cohesion and integration between people and cultures.
“We wanted to be here to show the club’s closeness with the Academy and to our partners. One of our missions is to support families, institutions and local authorities in the promotion of the benefits of football and sport as a whole.”
The academy currently operates in two locations in Dubai: the GEMS International School Al Khail and the GEMS Founder Al Mizhar.