While he introduced himself to the world with a mistimed training ground challenge that broke Paul Gascoigne’s leg almost twenty years ago, Alessandro Nesta departed AC Milan in a press conference far more in keeping with a career in which has been synonymous with perfection and consistent brilliance ever since he first found space in the Lazio first team shortly after that incident with the England midfielder.
And now it’s over. At that press conference, Nesta announced that last weekend would see him don the red and black stripes for the last time. He took time to thank everyone at the club for “ten wonderful years” but admitted "I'm leaving because the level in the Serie A, the Champions League and Coppa Italia is too high for me now.” Those words show he knows he is slowing, a brave admission from a man who undoubtedly ranks among the very best defenders of the 21st Century.
Seeing him speak it was hard not to recall another similar retirement some fifteen years ago, back when another peerless defender was calling time on a stellar career. That day it was Franco Baresi, one of few players who truly transcend the partisan boundaries of fandom, men that supporters of other teams are willing to praise without reservations or caveats. Many times the compliments will have a 'but' or 'not as good as...' attached - simply ask a Juventus follower about Francesco Totti or Javier Zanetti and see the reaction. Praise of Baresi was rarely thus and now, aged 36, Nesta is leaving behind a very similar legacy.
Baresi, to almost every watcher of Italian football, was acknowledged as the foremost defender of his generation. We had years of watching him play, seemingly never running, shirt untucked, reading the game as though he had seen the match report before kick off. Always in position, never panicking and as fantastic on the ball as he was taking it from others, all the while leading his Milan side to countless trophies. Upon his retirement in 1997 he had played more games and won more trophies than any player in the clubs storied history and Milan retired his shirt in honour of a man who truly was a world class defender by any definition.
While Paolo Maldini took over the armband and surpassed his former team-mates records in the years following Baresi’s retirement, he was an entirely different breed of player. The younger man was much more of a stopper and less a complete defender, one of the finest exponents of slide-tackling the world has ever seen and he too was great at what he did for club and country. Yet despite the 1998-99 Scudetto triumph, the absence of a Baresi-esque player saw Milan enter probably their most barren spell under the patronage of Silvio Berlusconi.
Tired of seeing his defence struggling the President would, as ever, throw money at the problem and pay Lazio €30 million for their Captain back in 2002. His shirt may have carried the number 13 but his presence immediately brought echoes of the famous number 6, not that you are likely to catch the immaculate defender with even a hair out of place let alone an untucked shirt. Baresi himself had plenty of kind words for his successor upon being asked about Nesta on the day he moved to San Siro;
"Milan have made a great signing, because in Italy at this time no one is better than Nesta. He is a truly world class player, young but an expert. The Rossoneri can rest easy because for many years they are now covered in that role"
Finally with the missing piece back in the line-up, Milan would return to their former status as one of European football's most consistent trophy-winning sides. Two league titles, two Champions League titles (plus that 2005 loss to Liverpool) and two World Club Cups have followed the Rieti native to San Siro. The defender also helped Italy to victory in the 2006 World Cup and here another similarity to Baresi can be found, for he too took no part in the knock-out stages and remained on the sidelines as his team-mates surpassed all expectations to lift the trophy, a path the older man knows all too well, himself an unused reserve in the Azzurri's 1982 triumph.
Before he arrived many had tried and failed to fill the void, now he is leaving Milan may yet face a similar search to that which followed Baresi’s exit. Phillipe Mexès may have spent a year settling in and Thiago Silva may perhaps be Europe’s best defender this season, but Barcelona have serious interest in Brazilian. The club, with names like Daniele Bonera and Mario Yepes in the squad, have no other players in place to step up and fill that role and there are very few – if indeed any – ready-made replacements in the league this time around.
It remains to be seen whether he takes up an offer in Major League Soccer – where he has been strongly linked with New York Red Bulls – or follows the example of Raúl and former team-mate Andrea Pirlo in leaving for another top club. Wherever he goes, with three league titles to his name, Nesta’s trophy cabinet now contains eighteen major medals between his two clubs, just four behind the incredible medal haul of Baresi. While there is little chance of having his shirt number retired, the search for his successor may prove much more difficult to find than Alessandro Nesta was for Milan's management team.