One of the most remarkable sporting careers of the modern era is soon to draw to a close. Since his debut in 1985 for A.C. Milan, Paolo Maldini has been a consumate footballer, performing impossibly well with a peerless guile and panache for over twenty years. Maldini may well extend his remarkable era one more season as Milan look to regroup after a largely unsuccessful season. His tireless, energetic performance in the first leg of the champions league final against Arsenal confirms that, when necessary, he still has all the attributes to compete at the very highest level. Now is as good a time as any to say goodbye and look back at the career of perhaps the best defender ever to grace the field of play.
Son of another Milan legend, Cesare, Maldini Jr has more than surpassed his papa, winning everything worth winning in club football. Among his astounding achievements are seven scudetti (Serie A championships), five Champions League titles, World Player of the Year (1994), five UEFA Super Cups, the FIFA Club World Cup and a Coppa Italia. It is one of football’s great ironies that Maldini will never win an international honour. and that Marco Materazzi has. Still, he has twice been only moments away from victory: the 1994 penalty shoot out loss to Brazil and the extra-time defeat to France in Euro 2000. It is the latter that must really rankle. Italy’s defence in that tournament, of which captain Maldini was its beating heart, was imperious and by far the most effective back line until the recent World Cup victory of 2006.
Maldini has always played with a rare combination of athleticism and style. Time and again he has bombed up and down the channels, crossing deep or driving forward, displaying dribbling skills and a light touch worthy of any top-level midfielder. His rangy, once gangly frame is oddly attuned to his defensive style: powerful in the air, a reaching tackler and a clever user of professional fouls. Indeed, that’s one element of Maldini’s game that eulogies often shimmy past – he can mix it with the best of them and has flicked, tripped, pulled back and hand-balled to get the job done. This has always been the difference between great Italian defenders and their counterparts in England, Italians know when and how to play dirty. It’s not quite a dark art, but a well-tanned one. Claims that Roberto Carlos was ever the world’s best left-back could only ever have been made spuriously, by those colour blind to black and red stripes or the azzurri. As a complete article, there was never any contest and it is the rossineri man who always understood what it means to defend, to protect, to lead and build an attack from the back, without compromising the shape of his team.
I have grown up with Maldini. He has always been a constant in my life. Sportsmen can define many a personal history and he has always been the leading figure of my own. I thought that when Roberto Baggio hung up his ponytail I had seen an unmatched legend pass. Maybe so, but his was a career of incandescent moments rather than glittering achievement. Maldini, however, as a force and as a symbol, has been a giant. I must admit, too, a fondness for ageing footballers who can hold their own with emerging talent. Maldini has lived the right way, as an athlete should. One of my favourite performances from the great man came just a few seasons ago when the much touted ‘Emperor’ Adriano – a genuine powerhouse – was expected to tear to shreds the knee knackered, spent Maldini. It wasn’t to be so (could it ever be?). The Milan man imposed himself at the first opportunity and for the rest of the evening, Adriano, as fat as he is, sat comfortably in Maldini’s pocket, snug as a pet hamster.
It would be willfully doltish to ignore the overbearing attractiveness of the man and the way it has shaped world opinion of him. There are no two-ways about it, Paolo is pretty damn hot. Handsome enough certainly in the eyes of Armani and Dolce & Gabbana, for whom he has strolled the catwalk. His skeletal features and high cheekbones give him a kind of simian, classical poise and hitting 40 has only seasoned his looks, with H&M recently signing him for their summer campaign. He also set up his own fashion label with Chritian ‘Bobo’ Vieri called Sweet Things. In an almost unreal way, everything fits for Maldini: the looks, the clothes, the career, the family – I’m always a little sickened to know that, in addition to stealing my dream of playing for the azzurri, he’s also married to a Venezuelan model.
His legacy, however, will be on the pitch, not the fashion houses. It is telling that he hasn’t been able to fade slowly onto the Milan bench, providing a guiding hand to younger defenders – simply because Milan have failed to find anyone who is more valuable to the team. Even at almost 39, when Maldini is fit, he plays. He is undoubtedly better than Simic, Jankulovski, Favalli, Kaladze and Bonera. He is just as adept as Nesta, and I would argue, makes less basic errors of judgment. A veteran himself, a bouncing ball sometimes seems to inexplicably bemuse the ex-Lazio man. For the decade in which their paths crossed, the miracle partnership of Baresi and Maldini (as centreback and left-back often) will remain the greatest of all time. Should you be able to think of two better exponents of the art of defending playing in the same team at the same time, you would destroy the integrity of the logic that ticks the tock of the universe.
Maldini is the anchor of Milan, playing with and through them in their most glorious and desperate incarnations. Their greatest form might be the Gullit / Rijkaard / Van Basten led team of the late-80s and early 90s that retained the European Cup. Some might argue that their brightest expression was in the 1994 demolition of Barcelona in the same tournament, Maldini, Desailly and Baresi providing a solid base from which Albertini, Massaro and – in particular – Savićević could wreak havoc over Johan Cryuff’s men. And Maldini has slugged through the bad times, too. The last ten years have not been a glittering domestic triumph, with Milan constantly underperforming, occasionally flirting with the unimaginable horrors of relegation and the indignity of UEFA cup football. Even in the pit of defeat, such as the 2005 shootout loss to Liverpool in the Champions League Final, Maldini showed the kind of elegance for which he will also be remembered, taking aside the Reds’ captain Steven Gerrard to personally congratulate him and his performance. Although both Ambrosini and Gattuso are fine battlers, they are not adequate successors, for Maldini has always been there and it is hard to imagine a version of the Milan team that will not include his presence.
Like any great sportsman, Maldini wants to leave the stage in the giddy wake of success, with his disappearance obscured by the haze of triumph. Milan are in a transitional phase at the moment and it is unclear how many of the current team might remain next year. The scudetto has eluded them for too long and I think domestic success would taste the sweetest to Paolo on his season long lap of honour as it is the best illustration of a strong football club and the interests of A.C. are only ever always what their eternal captain has in mind. His name meaning, literally, ‘of Milan’, Maldini will leave behind a gaping hole that the club will struggle to fill. I cannot think of any Italians capable of stepping in. Perhaps, for a few years, Cannavaro might be convinced to bridge the gap, but he’s not the future, just a brilliantly capable present. On the world scene, I think Sergio Ramos could become a great defender in his own right, as too, could Gonzalo Rodriguez. Whomever Milan turn too, they have cavernous boots to fill. Who, really, could give us the style, grace and beauty that Maldini has? Don’t waste your time thinking of an answer to that question… just watch the great man in action.
Mr Paolo Cabrelli