In football, it is most often forward lines that are eulogised about. Whether it’s strike partnerships or modern front-threes, it’s the goalscorers who go down in the annals of history as the most evocative of footballers. Well, that’s the case in most countries, anyway…
But in Italy, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In this particular corner of Southern Europe, catenaccio reigns supreme, and the defenders are the poster-boys.
And no one group of men typified this state of affairs better than the AC Milan backline of Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini. Playing together from the late eighties, the four won trophy after trophy after trophy together. A decade of domestic and European dominance has since seen them labelled the best defensive quartet ever to play the game.
Between them, they racked up a staggering 87 years of service for Milan. Bar Tassotti, who came through the ranks with Lazio before joining Milan at the ages of 20, each component of the legendary defence was a product of the club’s youth academy. Maldini, in particular, couldn’t have been any more Milan if he tried – his father, Cesare, won four Scudetti and a European Cup with the Rossoneri, while his two sons, Christian and Daniel both played for the club in the modern era.
Of the four, Franco Baresi made his debut first in 1977. The following year, he was joined by Tassotti and the two won their first Serie A title together. But in the 79-80 campaign, Milan were relegated for the first time in the club’s history following a match-fixing scandal. They were promoted as champions the following season.
But in their first season back, they suffered one of the most surprising relegations – perhaps of all time. After zero demotions in almost a century, there had been two in three years. It was a million miles away from the opulence that awaited them over the next two decades.
In 78 and 79 respectively, two young Milanese defenders joined the academy; two youngsters that would change the course of the club’s history. The centre-back Alessandro Costacurta, and the full-back Paolo Maldini.
Maldini broke into the first team in 1984, and Costacurta – who was known affectionately as “Billy” in the club – in 1986. By 1988, Milan hadn’t won a trophy for eight years – a baron stretch which was simply unheard of in this part of the world. But between 1987 and 1994, the four men won four Serie A titles and a staggering three European Cups/Champions Leagues.
The first title came in 1987-88 as Milan stormed to victory losing just twice all season. In that campaign, the four defenders conceded only 14 goals. Playing a revolutionary brand of football under charismatic manager Arrigo Sacchi, this exceptional defence laid the foundations on which the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten could build.
The following season, an even bigger prize would come: the European Cup. Milan thrashed Real Madrid 6-1 over two legs in the semi-final before a 4-0 victory over Steaua Bucuresti in the final earned them their third European Cup – their first in two decades.
It was a feat they would repeat the following season, this time beating Benfica by a single goal in the final. Domestically, Milan were not as successful, finishing 2nd two season running. They reclaimed the title in 1992, however, and did so with an undefeated season. By this point, Milan had switched from the expansive Sacchi to the more pragmatic Fabio Capello. Under his stewardship, the quartet would flourish.
Milan won three back-to-back titles between 92 and 94. A third European Cup came in this period too – although by this time it had come to be known as the Champions League. Milan beat the favourites, Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in the 1994 final.
In the league, they slid to 4th place in 94-95 but roared back the following season to another title. Another title in 1996 proved to be the last for Franco Baresi and Tassotti, the right-back and the sweeper centre-half who had taken Italian football to another dimension. It was fitting that the two went out together on the final day of the 96-97 season, but it was a sad end as Milan finished well outside the European places.
With Costacurta and Maldini still going strong, Milan secured another Serie A title in 98-99 before a lean spell between 1999 and 2003. When it was ended, however, it was done in style. Milan beat Juventus in the final of the Champions League final in a highly defensive affair – apt in a match between two of Italy’s most famous proponents of catenaccio.
There was, remarkably, a first Coppa Italia title for the pair that season too. But they would have to wait another season for the last Serie A honour of their respective careers. Milan won Serie A at a canter in 03-04, with Costacurta and Maldini – now 38 and 36 respectively – still rock solid at the heart of the defence.
There was agony in 2004 as Milan lost in the Champions League final to Liverpool after leading 3-0 at the break, but they redeemed themselves three years later. And in a way, that last Champions League victory, which came after a 2-1 win over Liverpool in Athens, was the most impressive. It was Costacurta’s last match. He retired at the incredible age of 41. Maldini went on for another two years, and also retired when he was 41.