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.
Know more about Sport360 Application