Tuesday March 29 2011
The lost Franco Baresi

There's great pressure on Andrea Ranocchia to develop into the new Franco Baresi, a weight of expectation that crushed the career of Salvatore Fresi. Antonio Labbate writes

Andrea Ranocchia took his seat in a makeshift television studio at the Worthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt, Austria, after 90 minutes he had always dreamt about. It was November 2010 and he'd just completed his Italy debut, a positive individual display in the 1-1 draw with Romania. It was now time to face Italian state broadcaster RAI's team of presenters, journalists and pundits.

As post-match question and answer ceremonies go, it was pretty unremarkable until Bruno Gentili took the stage. A recognisable voice of Italian football thanks to his 30 years of radio commentary on the peninsula, Gentili complimented the then Genoa defender before claiming that he'd seen visions of Franco Baresi in his play that evening.

It wasn't the first time that Ranocchia had been likened to the Milan and Azzurri legend. He is, after all, Italy's great defensive hope for the future following his transformation from an attacking midfielder to a centre-back as recently as 2004. His costly January move to Inter, to cover for the injured Walter Samuel, confirmed as much.

Yet Ranocchia also isn't the first youngster to be labelled with the new Baresi tag. In fact, he isn't even the first apparent reincarnation of Il Capitano whom Inter have signed in recent history. That honour goes to Salvatore Fresi, a player whose career should act as a precautionary tale for Inter, Italy and Ranocchia himself.

In 1995, the Gazzetta dello Sport confirmed the news that the Nerazzurri had signed the Under-21 captain with a front-page splash. Fresi, the Baresi of year 2000 it headlined as the 22-year-old completed his widely predicted switch from little Salernitana.

"The Baresi definition was the ruin of me," Fresi said with a touch of regret at the end of his career. "It was a characterisation that I had to cope with for many years. He was a champion, while I had to still prove myself.

"I wasn't well looked after at Inter and at a certain point I no longer recognised myself. I just needed someone to believe in me. Perhaps I didn't give everything that I should have, perhaps I should have left at the end of the first season, perhaps I was too immature…"

Inter's struggles to become Italian champions certainly didn't help Fresi evolve into the player many expected and hoped for. After failing to convince defensively, he was later tried out in central midfield which, according to him, only confused matters even further. "I was neither fish nor meat anymore."

Fresi won the UEFA Cup with the Beneamata in 1998, playing alongside Ronaldo whom he, without hesitation, describes as the best player he has ever shared a football field with. However, just months after that success he joined Salernitana on loan in an effort to rediscover his old self and deliver on his lost potential.

He would go on to play for Inter again, albeit briefly in 1999, before heading off to Napoli and Bologna while still on the Nerazzurri's books. There were glimpses of ability at the San Paolo, but relegation followed and Fresi was openly blamed for it by then owner Giorgio Corbelli. At Bologna, under Francesco Guidolin, Salvatore was somewhat of a revelation thanks to eight goals in 25 Serie A games.

A subsequent move to Juventus alluded to the rebirth of his career, but Fresi has no misunderstanding of why he was signed by Luciano Moggi in 2002. "They picked me up because I was available on a free transfer," he stated of his almost anonymous stint in Turin. "My career basically ended after Juve as it wasn't easy to take a backwards step. I gave up mentally too."

Fresi did play on thanks to stays at Perugia, Catania, Salernitana again and Battipagliese, but the hunger for football had gone. A dispute with the GEA footballing agency, who represented him, also suppressed his appetite for the game and at the age of 33 he decided to hang up his boots after a career that promised so much delivered so little.

Groomed for stardom at Azzurrini level where he won an Under-21 European Championship, Fresi never made the grade for the full international side despite being looked at by more than one Azzurri boss. In total he was included in the Giro Azzurro on six occasions, but he was never handed a cap.

With his playing days now behind him, the 38-year-old spends more of his time playing golf – after being introduced to the sport by Alessandro Del Piero in Turin – than watching the game he once fantasized about. But even with his limited viewing it's all too clear to him that Italy, a land once renowned as the home of great defenders, is worryingly struggling to produce in that position.

"It's sad to say it but I don't see any great Italian defenders with potential on the horizon," Fresi said just last week. "The only exception to that is Andrea Ranocchia. He promises well and I think he'll prove himself to be one of the best defenders around next season."

Fifteen years ago you could have swapped Ranocchia's name with Fresi's in that last sentence and few would have argued with you. Today it is the Inter man who is under pressure to deliver for firstly club and then his country. While Fresi's failure would be covered by the emergence of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta, Ranocchia currently stands virtually alone in a desert of ordinariness.

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