9 – Paolo Maldini
In a world of mercenaries and prostitutes, it is the richest who write the laws – except when someone like Paolo Maldini holds the guns. Bred and forged in the pitches of Milan since his first trial in 1978 and never abandoning the team to these days that are running now, this man stands less as a football player than as a red and black flag whipping in the wind. Perhaps only Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti, among his Italian contemporaries, can claim a similar status in their own teams – but Maldini dwarfs both of them in terms of seniority and number of presences in Serie A. There is more history running through old Paolo’s veins than in those of any other player. In him are Roberto Baggio and Franco Baresi, Diego Maradona and Ronaldo – there is Arrigo Sacchi and USA 1994, Silvio Berlusconi and Calciopoli. Maldini has played more than a 1000 professional football matches and he holds the record for the most games played both in Serie A and with the Azzurri (alongside the record for the most games played with them as captain).
It goes without saying that his place on the list is not a mere prize for longevity – his talents and professional integrity were also outstanding. Besides, no-one would have lasted so long in Serie A without being extraordinarily gifted. Maldini played mostly as a left-back or central defender, two roles he dominated since his Serie A debut in 1985. The refinement of his technique stands, alongside that of a handful of other names, as the best expression of defensive game produced in Italy (surpassed only by that of his own predecessor, Franco Baresi). Yet Maldini should also be remembered as perhaps the most ductile among Italy’s greatest defenders, the one most apt at combining his rocky hold in front of the box with an often searing speed on the wings and an imposing physical aura.
Milan have already announced that since Maldini has hung his boots, the shirt number that he played with will never be assigned again. It is an homage which shows how much Maldini has given to the club, and a statement on their part which says, You’ll never come again. Certainly a champion combining such tremendous quality with such a marked sense of ethics and duty is not a common good (or, not anymore – there used to be a time, some decades ago, when Italian defenders were a model for decency all over the world) is not a prize anyone can hope to flatter Maldini with, but age 40 as undisputed captain and champion is as close as a footballer can get to it.
Top 20 Azzurri players of all time