How the great libero staged a remarkable recovery from a knee injury to play in the 1994 World Cup final
The mood was funereal. Italy had beaten Norway 1-0 to kick-start their 1994 World Cup campaign but they weren't celebrating: their captain, Franco Baresi, had wrecked the meniscus in his right knee. Normal recovery time from such an injury: three to six months.
The three-time world champions braced themselves for a tournament without the peerless Milan defender but the gloom underestimated the resources of the hardy 34-year-old skipper. If there were only 24 days until the World Cup final, that's all the talisman with the lived-in face would need… should his team get there.
Italy had lost their first Group E match 1-0 to Ireland. An essential win from their second group match in New York with Norway on June 23 arrived at great cost. The erratic goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off after 21 minutes. Arrigo Sacchi, so fidgety that he occasionally resembled Basil Fawlty's shorter, Latin cousin, sacrificed the half-fit fantasista Roberto Baggio to bring on the reserve keeper Luca Marchegiani. The Divine Ponytail and Italian fans at Giants Stadium and around the globe were livid but hindsight shows it was a prudent switch.
It got worse. Early in the second half, the Norway midfielder Øyvind Leonhardsen darted towards a clever through-ball. Sensing danger, Baresi sprinted across and jabbed out a leg to clear the ball, as he'd done a thousand times before for his country. On this occasion he landed awkwardly and hobbled off the field. As physios assessed Baresi, his team were down to nine men. The verdict came soon enough and he was substituted. Thankfully for Italy, the 'other' Baggio, the hard-working, lean and deceptively skilful midfielder Dino, outmuscled Henning Berg to head the only goal with 21 minutes left.
The Parma centre-back Luigi Apolloni replaced his captain against Norway, winning his second cap. Excellent in the air, Apolloni didn't have a tenth of Baresi's ability to anticipate and was not particularly mobile. Sacchi had the option of moving the attacking left-back Paolo Maldini into the centre with the inexhaustible and versatile reserve full-back Antonio Benarrivo, a Sacchi-favourite, slotting in on the left. But no re-jig could compensate for the loss of the stricken skipper.
But after the exacting victory grave news arrived from the medical department. Baresi, the best libero of his generation, had suffered a longitudinal fracture to his medial meniscus, the crescent-shaped strip of cartilage spanning the joint. Some feared his career was over. But Italian World Cup campaigns are often fuelled by adversity. At a future World Cup Francesco Totti would declare, "We only perform when the water is up to our necks." In the USA, the tide was touching their noses.
It had taken great effort even to get Baresi to the US. Citing stress, he had quit international football in June 1992 to preserve his body for Milan. Failure to qualify for Euro 92 felt like the end of a cycle so the Italian federation (FIGC) had accepted their captain's decision and begun to prepare for the future, which they saw as Marco Lanna, a 24-year-old Sampdoria centre-back. He had made a catastrophic debut against Switzerland in a World Cup qualifier in Cagliari in October 1992. The 1990 World Cup semi-finalists only salvaged a 2-2 draw with two goals in the final seven minutes and a Lanna error almost let Stéphane Chapuisat in to score a third.
The new libero concerned everyone and convinced no one. La Repubblica's headline read "Time to Start Again from Scratch at the Back". The piece beneath went on, "A defence this disastrous doesn't seem real. It laughed in the face of Italian traditions." It wasn't all Lanna's fault. The other centre-back, Alessandro Costacurta, despite his achievements in the European Cup, was less than confident at international level. Making only his eighth international appearance, the blue-eyed pin-up was comically unrecognisable from the totem of Sacchi and Fabio Capello's all-conquering Milan sides. The goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani, winning his third cap, was calamitous. But the newest new boy was made scapegoat.
Less than a year into the job as national manager, Sacchi tried to coax his trusted lieutenant Baresi out of retirement. No chance. Teammates joined the appeal. No joy. Eventually head of the FIGC, Antonio Matarrese, got involved. Details are guarded but Italian state radio and the television station RAI claimed the rumpled leader was lured back by a very generous financial package. On 18 November 1992 Capitano Baresi was back with the boys in blue (albeit in the white away shirt) against Scotland at Ibrox. The 0-0 draw from their second qualifier for the 1994 World Cup 1994 was an instant improvement on Cagliari.
Perhaps the only Italian wary of the comeback was Gianluca Vialli, whose tenure as post-Baresi national captain lasted just two matches. The relationship between Sacchi and the forward, who wielded considerable dressing-room power, was rapidly deteriorating. The coach no longer wanted Vialli and within a month the Juventino, hitherto undroppable as skipper, played his last Italy game, aged only 28.
Baresi, with his permanent weary, narrow-eyed expression was a tough man. And not just on a football pitch. In 1977, when Franchino was 17, he and his two brothers and two sisters became orphans. Their father died in a car accident, just four years after they'd lost their mother. Franco's big sister Lucia became the family's surrogate mother at only 23. The strain created strong, resourceful people.
Franco had started his football journey in 1974. Failing to impress Inter at a trial, the 14 year old needed three attempts to convince Milan to sign him. The Nerazzurri felt he was too slight for the rigours of regular football. The Rossoneri, in one of their greatest victories over their rivals, welcomed the elegant prospect and gave him a league debut in April 1978. The quiet, slim boy gained a second family at the club. "I remember leaving my friends and village," he said. "The first few years living at Milanello was tough. I was training and studying at the same time. I lived in the Milanello college until I was 18. But I felt fortunate because my dreams were coming true."
His tender age and slender frame earned him the nickname 'Piscinin', Milanese slang meaning something close to 'Little'un' or 'Young'un'. There were further setbacks. Baresi missed four months of the 1981-82 season with a blood disease. Milan were relegated that year, their second trip to Serie B in three seasons, finishing third from bottom. Baresi turned down big money offers to join other clubs and was made captain aged 22.
Piscinin's first international steps were no less problematic. The impeccable Juventus libero Gaetano Scirea blocked initial progress. Baresi was in the 1982 World Cup squad but didn't play. When Enzo Bearzot, Italy's genial, stubborn coach known for his pipe and his boxer's nose, did field the young Milan skipper it was reluctantly. Baresi was forced to play as mediano on his fourth Azzurri appearance, against Cyprus three days before Christmas 1983. He didn't even make Bearzot's 1986 World Cup squad. His big brother Giuseppe, a steady but never world-class defensive midfielder, did.
But the determined young man from Travagliato in the province of Brescia wouldn't be discouraged. The wiry, technical sweeper, considered by many at a shade over 5'9" to be too small for central defence, became the kingpin of Arrigo Sacchi's 1988 Scudetto winners and European champions of 1989 and 1990. By Euro 88 he was at the heart of Italy's famous defence. In November 1990, aged 30, he was made captain. Of all the player's qualities, his patience and mental strength are often overlooked.
Back at Italy's plush World Cup HQ in Somerset Hills, Martinsville, New Jersey, Baresi couldn't sleep the night after the Norway match. In the morning he told medics he couldn't straighten his leg. "The pain is absurd," he said. Baresi was rushed from New Jersey to New York, where he was examined at Lennox Hill. At the famous Manhattan hospital (where Ed Sullivan died in 1974 and Lady Gaga was born in 1986) scans revealed no ligament damage. That meant the injury could be rectified with a straightforward arthroscopic intervention. But this wasn't a pet dog or a 'normal' person with a gammy leg. It was the captain of the Champions League holders. Permission was required.
FIGC officials called the Milan director Adriano Galliani in Italy and received the all-clear. Next they tracked down the club doctor Rodolfo 'Rudy' Tavana in St Moritz, Switzerland. Tavana gave his blessing and broke off his holiday to join Baresi. Reports of the exact time conflict, but the operation took place between five and seven pm on Friday, June 24. Baresi went under full anaesthetic and the procedure, carried out by Dr Elliott B Hersham, knee specialist and team doctor of the New York Jets, assisted by the Italian team medic Andrea Ferretti, lasted approximately 20 minutes.
"We acted quickly because the player couldn't even bend the joint," Ferretti said. "It was a partial arthroscopic meniscectomy. It was simple because we didn't need to concern ourselves with the ligaments." The next day Baresi returned to Somerset Hills. His wife Maura, young son Edoardo and father-in-law Valerio flew in to keep his spirits up. Rossoneri doctor Tavana was on the same flight. "I want to stay with the squad, even injured. I want to contribute," Baresi told the press.
The patient was walking freely two days after his operation. The same couldn't be said of his teammates. All four teams in their group finished level on points, the only time that has happened in World Cup history: Sacchi's men progressed in third place, ahead of Norway on goals scored.
In the second round, against Nigeria, Gianfranco Zola was sent off with 15 minutes remaining and only a laser accurate 88th-minute equaliser and extra-time penalty from Roberto Baggio saw Italy through. As Baresi began jogging, his companions found their feet in the last eight against Spain, Dino and Roberto Baggio scoring memorable goals. A few days later Roberto eliminated Bulgaria with two moments of genius in the semi-final before acute hamstring pain forced him off.
Italy had lost their first game, they'd suffered two red cards and had the defender Mauro Tassotti retroactively banned for eight games after an elbow on Spain's Luis Enrique. Baggio was fragile. And yet Italy were in the final. Would Baresi captain Europe's representatives at the Pasadena Rose Bowl? He'd already had the same operation on his left knee in 1985 after injuring himself in the Coppa Italia final. That time he made a full recovery within two and a half months. But then he was a much younger man.
"I'll do anything to play. I can't miss a chance like this," Baresi told the journalist Gianni Visnadi. The unflappable libero made himself available to Sacchi, just three weeks after the operation. To put that into context, the 27-year-old English gymnast Beth Tweddle took 12 weeks to recover from the same injury and win a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. In April 1989 Baresi's Milan teammate Ruud Gullit, 26, tore his meniscus in the second half of their European Cup semi-final second leg against Real Madrid. One month and three days after surgery the explosive Dutchman returned to score two in the final versus Steaua Bucharest. While understandable, his swift reappearance was foolhardy. Gullit's right knee hadn't healed. The Black Tulip managed only three games the next season. Only the Swiss skier Pirmin Zubriggen, who resumed competition without complications 19 days after a meniscectomy, recovered faster than Baresi. Zubriggen was 21.
Sacchi had much to ponder. Benarrivo's dynamic left-back performances convinced the former Milan boss he could shift Maldini to the middle. Costacurta's caution for an injudicious foul from behind on Hristo Stoichkov in the semi-final was his second yellow card of the tournament, ruling him out of the final. The dependable Apolloni was the 'fit' option alongside Maldini. But the prospect of Apolloni against Romário and Bebeto stirred memories of Lanna's Swiss calamity — and Sacchi knew Baresi and Maldini had played together in many high-profile matches.
The healed hero led his men out on July 17 against Brazil with the white captain's armband hugging his left bicep. Italy played a 4-4-1-1 with Roberto Baggio behind the bulky striker Daniele Massaro. Baresi and Maldini were the central pair at the back, with Benarrivo and the tireless, conservative Roberto Mussi, another Sacchi foot soldier from Parma and Milan, patrolling the flanks. The writer Fiorenzo Baini dismissed their opponents as "the most horrid Brazil ever. A truly Sacchi-esque, compact team in which everybody maintained the correct distances at all costs, to allow Romário and Bebeto to run at opponents."
Baresi's task was thwarting the slippery, stubby streetcat Romário under California's fierce midday sun. There were no signs of rustiness. The skipper had one of his best matches. He intercepted, tackled, blocked and neutralised threats. A defensive reshuffle when the flame-haired right-back Mussi went off injured after 35 minutes didn't disturb Baresi. He was equal to anything Brazil offered.
The South Americans poured forward and the Milanista kept them at bay with his anticipation and incredible short-sprint athleticism. Baini noted, "Baresi seemed the only one not frozen by fear. He even tried a few of his trademark breaks into their half, driving into the Brazilian defence, to shake things up."
After a positive start, the Azzurri dangermen tired rapidly. Nicola Berti, galloping mezz'ala and one of Italian football's greatest lotharios, fizzled out despite a spritely opening on the left. Roberto Baggio was compromised by his damaged right hamstring, wrapped in an ugly black compression bandage below his white shorts. Massaro was starved of service after latching onto a magnificent Baresi long ball and prodding an 18th minute chance straight at Claudio Taffarel. Roberto Donadoni, the ultimate all-terrain, no-frills yet indispensable winger, was the solitary cogent attacker. Italy were pinned back but Baresi's heroics continued.
Sacchi replaced the dashing Dino Baggio, 22, with the square-jawed, rugged 31 year-old Alberigo Evani on 95 minutes. The Sampdoria man had evolved from the tornante of his prime with Milan into a reliable defensive mediano. The substitution indicated Sacchi was playing for penalties. The Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira threw on the broad-shouldered, bustling striker Viola to torment the shattered Italians in the second period of extra-time. The Corinthians fireball couldn't score but his direct running and zip bamboozled everyone — except Baresi.
Franchino's wispy, mousy hair looked more bedraggled than ever, his royal blue socks slumped around his calves. But Baresi was the ageing king among upstart princes. Los Angeles was witnessing a masterclass as the wizened legend organised his defence and prompted attacks as regista. Cramp briefly forced the No 6 off at the death. It reminded spectators that the titan with the familiar untucked shirt was flesh and blood.
After a goalless 120 minutes, the 1994 World Cup final was settled on penalties. The record books show Baresi missed his side's first penalty. They also note Baggio's failure. Both men sent their kicks high over the bar. Brazil won the shootout 3-2 and lifted their fourth world title. There are photos of the weeping comeback captain and drained Divine Ponytail consoling each other while Brazilian players dance in the background. No one did more on the pitch to drag Italy to the final than Baggio. No one did more off the pitch to be there than Baresi.
This article appeared on Episode Thirty Two of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.