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World Cup Heroes: Franco Baresi


It was my very first World Cup, my introduction to football. I had followed the whole tournament in 1994 with wide eyes, taking it all in. But there was this Italian team with so many story lines, yet so very much the underdogs. I have always liked the underdogs. However, one of the most fascinating story lines for me was this guy, Franco Baresi. He was 34 years old, and was captain of the Azzurri that year. He had suffered a knee injury early in the tournament that required surgery, but made a miraculous recovery to play in the final. I had no idea what he meant to Milan at that point, in fact I didn’t know much about Milan at all at the time. But for me, he was a World Cup hero.

Beast mode

Baresi’s first World Cup was actually in 1982, which Italy won, however he didn’t play a single minute. Then in 1986, due to issues with coach Enzo Bearzot and competition for his spot with some guy called Gaetano Scirea, he was not even in the squad. However, in 1990, when the World Cup was played in Italy, he played in every single match and Italy took third place. That brings us to 1994, when the World Cup final was played in my own backyard here in the United States.

Italy lost their first match of the group stage that year to the Republic of Ireland, and Azzurri faithful everywhere were worried. They came back to beat Norway, but lost their captain to a knee injury by halftime of that game. He had arthroscopic knee surgery the very next day. That was June 20th. Italy stumbled through their last group stage match and drew with Mexico, just barely enough to get through to the Round of 16. A win with a Baggio penalty in extra time vs. Nigeria, then wins against Spain and Bulgaria saw them limp into the final, all while a certain Paolo Maldini was wearing the captain’s armband in Baresi’s place.

Those medals were not the color they wanted

Meanwhile, Baresi was rehabbing from his surgery, with his mind set on playing in the World Cup final, should Italy make it. So when the final was set between Italy and Brazil, he decided that he was ready to play. That was July 16, the day before the final. Less than one month after having surgery on his knee. And even though Arrigo Sacchi, Azzurri coach at the time, would later say that he probably shouldn’t have played, he did. And he played what many consider the game of his life, he was a beast.

Baresi played the sweeper position, a position that may have been retired with his Milan jersey. He had amazing positioning, always knew where his teammates were, and was fantastic at tackling. Originally turned away by Inter because of his small size, Baresi became a giant on the pitch for both Milan and the Azzurri. A legend in his own right, and one of the best defenders to ever play the game. His comeback after surgery in the World Cup in 1994 was nothing short of miraculous.

Every hero has heartbreak, and his happened from the penalty spot

Baresi played so well in the final that day that he could have been man of the match had the outcome been different. But with the hot Pasadena, California sun, the game was a bit of a stalemate, and at 90 minutes, it was still scoreless. Added extra time also saw both teams shut out. And now Baresi had cramped up. So bad, in fact, that he had to be stretchered off toward the end of extra time. But he made it back onto the pitch before the final whistle. And now for the biggest drama of all: the first World Cup final to be determined by penalties.

Baresi was no stranger to penalties on the world stage, he had converted his penalty vs. Argentina in 1990 in the semifinal. Of course Italy lost that one, but he converted his kick. So when he was asked to take the first penalty vs. Brazil, he felt comfortable with the pressure. However, every hero’s story has some heartbreak, and despite the amazing comeback, his heartbreak was to send the ball just over the crossbar. Miss. So many people focus on Baggio’s penalty miss, which was the moment of determination for that trophy. But Baresi missed his, too, and his fellow Milan teammate Massaro saw his penalty saved as well. Had either or both of them converted, history might have been different.


Despite the fact that his last World Cup ended in heartbreak and tears a mere 40 minutes away from my own broken heart, Baresi is still a World Cup hero to me. His dogged determination to recover from injury in less than a month’s time and his amazing performance in the final despite the loss were an inspiration to me, and one of the reasons I became both a Milan and Italy national team fan.

So as the World Cup 2014 kicks off in Brazil today, I remember one of my first World Cup heroes. He is a well known legend for Milan, but won my heart wearing the Savoy blue jersey of the Azzurri.

You can follow Baresi on Twitter @FBaresi. His tweets are… legendary.


This post inspired by the music of “Fratelli d’Italia” as sung by Sofia