These are heady days for Italy. After the nadir of the Gian Piero Ventura era, in which they failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1958, the outlook seemed bleak. Then Roberto Mancini arrived and rejuvenated his country’s flagging fortunes. Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear sharp suits.
Mancini’s team has won everyone over at Euro 2020. They were unleashed on the opening night of the tournament in Rome and overwhelmed a highly fancied Turkey team. The same treatment was given to Switzerland and Wales. Franco Baresi has been impressed. Speaking from Casa Milan, the club’s headquarters in the Portello district of the city, the legendary defender says he likes what he sees. “They are playing well and have been one of the protagonists of the tournament, which is proving tough for all teams,” says Baresi. “They’ve been playing with personality and showcasing attacking football with quality and technique.”
Rather than picking out an individual who has caught his eye, Baresi maintains that the strength of this side comes from the collective. “The group is what sets this team apart,” he says. “It is a very united group of young players who thrive with the type of football they are playing. They are all doing well, and therefore it’s hard to pick just one player.”
Unlike previous Italy sides who could call upon stars such as Gianni Rivera, Roberto Baggio or Francesco Totti, the current team lack a world class talent to build the side around, but could this make them more united? “It’s true that there mightn’t be a top player in this team, but it’s the group that has taken everybody by surprise because every single player feels valued and important.”
Italy were expected to brush Austria aside in the last-16 stage, but Mancini’s side struggled to assert their authority for much of the game, relying on a moment of brilliance from Federico Chiesa and a smartly executed finish from Matteo Pessina to win 2-1 in extra time. “Team spirit made the difference there,” says Baresi “And that is something that they’ll need in the rest of the competition.”
Belgium await in the quarter-finals. “It won’t be easy,” says Baresi. “They have very talented players.” One of whom is Romelu Lukaku, who scored 24 goals and set up 10 more as Inter won Serie A this season and finally ended Juventus’ nine-year hegemony over the Italian game. Lukaku has transferred his devastating club form over to the national side, scoring three goals in four games at Euro 2020, yet Baresi is bullish about Italy’s chances. “I’m convinced we have players who can create problems for their defence,” he says.
Baresi did not win an international tournament during his 12 years in the blue of Italy, but he won practically every competition available in the red and black of Milan. After seven years out of the Champions League, the club have made it back into next season’s competition after finishing in the top four in Serie A. “It was a very positive season for Milan, and getting back into the Champions League was the icing on the cake,” he says.
Baresi’s old defensive partner, Paolo Maldini, returned to the club as sporting director in August 2018 and is “proving his quality” off the pitch, just as much as he did for quarter of a century on it. Maldini was instrumental in bringing Fikayo Tomori to the club in the January transfer window. The defender had fallen out of favour under Frank Lampard at Chelsea and initially joined Milan on loan. Tomori made such an impact that he usurped club captain Alessio Romagnoli for a starting place within a matter of weeks, forming a formidable partnership with Denmark’s Simon Kjaer.
Given that Baresi knows a thing or two about defending, was he impressed that Tomori acclimatised so quickly? “He surprised everybody with his quality and his personality. Imposing yourself in a very difficult league, such as Serie A, isn’t easy,” he says. Milan, unsurprisingly, activated their option to sign Tomori on a permanent basis.
Despite San Siro being a little down-at-heel and lacking the adequate facilities associated with modern stadiums in Europe, it remains one of the most cherished: a footballing cathedral that’s been the backdrop for many of the greatest players to ever kick a ball.
The Milan clubs have been in talks with the city council over the construction of a new stadium for several years. Discussions have been protracted, but it’s inevitable that one day the two teams will move on, especially with the global pandemic cutting a severe chunk out of both clubs’ revenues over the past 18 months. “San Siro will always be in the history of Milan, but the club needs to look to the future and in that direction a new stadium is fundamental,” says Baresi.
It’s difficult to talk to Baresi and not mention Diego Maradona. They captained the brilliant Milan and Napoli sides who battled for supremacy in Italy in the latter half of the 1980s. “My heart cries, it was an honour to face you,” an emotional Baresi wrote on Twitter on the day Maradona died. “He was a genius,” says Baresi. You must love his quality, as it was out of the question. Was he the greatest player of all time? “He was certainly one of the greatest.”
Words by: Emmet Gates. @EmmetGates