It’s January 20, 1985, and the Udinese and Milan players are filing back onto the pitch after their half-time breather. A set of boards are raised to indicate Milan right-back Sergio Battistini is to be substituted. His replacement is a tall, slim 16-year-old with a famous father. He comes on and performs well if unspectacularly in a 1-1 draw. It is the first match of a distinguished playing career spanning a quarter of a century and encompassing over a thousand professional matches, by which time the name Paolo Maldini, is one known and massively respected throughout the footballing world.
Sunday’s 3-2 defeat at the hands of Roma marked Maldini’s last appearance in Serie A at the San Siro and it says a lot about the man that rather than being upset by his swansong ending on a losing note, he was more perturbed at how the defeat would affect Milan’s prospects of automatic Champions League qualification. Maldini’s farewell party was also soured by a minority of ultras who chose to unveil banners insulting him, in opposition to his history of confronting them when he has disagreed with their behaviour. Occasions such as the booing of former Milan striker Alberto Gilardino when he was enduring a tough time at the club or when they have thrown objects onto the pitch are just a couple of examples. It is this type of integrity that has also enabled him to enjoy adulation throughout Italy and increase the popularity of Milan despite the general apathy and dislike often expressed towards the club’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi. Many also point to the occasion when he received World Soccer Magazine’s prestigious World Player of the Year award, and graciously admitted that Milan and Italy colleague Franco Baresi was the defender who truly deserved the award.
The final match of the season away at Fiorentina will be the fans’ last opportunity to witness a true footballing great in full throttle. With his reputation as the greatest left-back of all time already assured, and with many also considering him the greatest defender of all time, it is worth remembering just how great a footballer Maldini has been. Even in recent years, with his form declining ever so slightly with age, he has frequently shown himself to still be as good as many other Serie A defenders. His technique is also still a joy to observe, his ruleta against Inter this season proving as much. On the eve of his retirement, it is worth putting into perspective that while he has spent 25 years in the first team of one of the planet’s biggest club sides, it is only a few years since he was still considered among the top five defenders in the world. He has been the one consistent component in some of best defensive backlines the game has ever seen at Milan, and is widely admired for being a hard but clean player, often in stark contrast to many other great Italian defenders down the years.
Despite the countless trophies Maldini has won at club level, silverware has always eluded him on the international stage despite coming close on a number of occasions. In particular, of the four World Cups he played in, three saw the Azzurri depart the world’s biggest football tournament on penalty kicks, while the heartache of the last-gasp loss to France at Euro 2000 ensured he would never win anything with his country to match his plethora of medals with Milan. Many believe he retired from the international set-up too hastily after Italy’s embarrassing exit from the 2002 World Cup, and his form for Milan in the following four years suggests that maybe he could and should have carried on. If the rumours are to be believed he may well get one last opportunity to say goodbye to the Azzurri fans this summer and add to his 126 caps, if as expected he captains the national team at the Confederations Cup. It is a great injustice that such an accomplished player won nothing at international level.
Yet there is of course the consideration that the sheer volume of trophies won with the Rossoneri has softened his disappointments at international level. It is worth noting that throughout a career which yielded seven domestic league winners medals, Serie A has been an intensely competitive league, even when Milan were such a dominant force in the early 1990s. Even more impressive however, is his personal haul of five Champions League winners’ medals. Amazingly, Maldini has lifted the trophy on more occasions than all other Italian sides put together and as many times as Liverpool, the third most successful club behind Real Madrid and Milan in the competition’s history.
The one question that remains however, is, what lies in wait for the Milan legend? The club announced long ago that they will retire his shirt number as they did when Baresi bowed out, only to be brought out of retirement should one of his sons play for the club. It is likely he will at the very least take some type of ambassadorial role with the club, or even involve himself in some backroom capacity. Yet one thing we will never apparently see is il Capitano coaching the Rossoneri. He has described being a Coach as: “all the worst aspects of football in one job.“
At present, his immediate attention is focused on helping Milan secure automatic qualification for the Champions League with a victory in Florence. Come Sunday afternoon there is sure to be a tremendous reception for the man with over 900 first team appearances from both sets of fans as Serie A says goodbye to one of its finest. In recent years, only the great Roberto Baggio compares to Maldini for the love received from fans throughout the peninsula. The word ‘legend’ is one that is frequently overused and often inappropriately applied within the world of football. But Maldini was the complete player. Electric pace. Magnificent timing. Fantastic aerial ability. Great technique and an amazing leader. His goal in the 2005 Champions League Final after barely a minute also proved what a danger he could pose in the opponents box. He is arguably the finest proponent of defending football has ever seen, and it is with all of this in mind that we salute an absolute legend of the sport at the end of his illustrious career. Grazie Paolo. Thanks for the memories.
Five golden Maldini moments:
1. Winning the 1987/88 Scudetto on the final day of the season. This was the first major trophy that Maldini would win, and his raiding runs from left-back not only helped Milan to a narrow title win at the expense of Diego Maradona’s Napoli, but earned him the first of his 126 Italy caps and a place at Euro 88.
2. Beating Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League Final. Although it would be three more years before Baresi retired, this would really be the game where Maldini took over from the old master as the lynchpin of the Milan defence. While Mauro Tassotti captained the side, it was Maldini who led it in the absence of Billy Costacurta and Baresi, neutralizing the threat of Romario and Hristo Stoichkov and helping Milan produce one of the greatest performances in history to defeat Johan Cruyff’s much-lauded ‘Dream Team’.
3. Captaining Italy at USA 94. Maldini would carry his performances over into the World Cup, and whilst Italy ultimately would lose out in the final to Brazil on penalties, with Roberto Baggio proving himself to be the star of the team, Maldini would take over captaincy following Baresi’s injury, and show a very mature head on relatively young shoulders to organise the Azzurri defence whilst Baggio wreaked havoc at the other end. His feats at the tournament would play a key part in him being crowned World Soccer’s World Player of the Year.
4. Winning 1998/99 Scudetto after fight back. Although often overlooked, this is the one Scudetto that sits in the transitional period between Milan’s great team of the 1990s and that of the new Millennium. Lazio looked to be cruising towards the title, but Milan began to find their form and the goals of George Weah, Oliver Bierhoff and the creativity of Zvonimir Boban saw them gaining on the Biancocelesti. What really gave them the edge though was the consistently brilliant performances of Maldini, who seemed incapable of even contemplating defeat, appearing to win every ball and make every tackle and inspiring the rest of the team on towards a glorious title win.
5. Winning 2007 Champions League Final. Two years earlier on that unbelievable night in Istanbul against Liverpool, Maldini had endured what he has referred to as the worst night of his career. He and the rest of the team were determined to make amends in Athens, and whilst he was solid if unspectacular, Pippo Inzaghi’s goals would win it and give the number three his last major European trophy. Notably, as the final whistle went, and while the majority of Milan players congratulated one another, Maldini, the consummate professional and gentleman, was seen shaking the hands of all the Liverpool players as he had done after their victory two years previously, before proceeding to collect his fifth European Cup.