Legends: Paolo Maldini
When Channel 4 began broadcasting Football Italia in 1992, many of us fell in love with Italian football.
At a time when Serie A was the best league in Europe, we were dazzled by the skill, style and sophistication of the football we saw – and no player embodied those qualities better than Paolo Maldini.
In a country famous for producing great defenders, Maldini is one of the greatest.
In 25 seasons with AC Milan, he has won five Champions Leagues, seven Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana trophies, five European Super Cups and two Intercontinental Cups.
They must get through a lot of metal polish in the Maldini household.
Admired the world over
It wasn’t only the winners’ medals he won which made him a player admired the world over, though – it was the way he won them.
Whether timing a tackle to perfection, popping up in the right place to make an interception or coolly playing the ball out of defence, Maldini made the art of defending look easy.
Equally comfortable at left-back or centre-half, Maldini was an unflappable, stylish defender and a great reader of the game.
His grace and guile were complemented by his ferocious will to win; the perfect combination of silk and steel.
Maldini’s precocious talent saw him make his league debut on January 20, 1985, aged just 16, as a substitute against Udinese.
All-time great defender
The following season, he was in Milan’s starting eleven and learning his trade alongside another all-time great defender, Franco Baresi.
Two years later came Maldini’s first trophy when the Rossoneri won the 1987-88 Scudetto.
A year later he picked up his first European Cup winners medal as a member of the Milan side which trounced Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in the final in Barcelona in 1989.
And he was in the starting line-up again when Milan retained the trophy the following year, defeating Benfica 1-0 in Vienna.
Maldini and Milan had become almost unbeatable.
They were undefeated winning Serie A in 1991-92, with few opposing strikers able to find their way past the formidable back four of Maldini, Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti.
Arguably the pinnacle of his club career came in 1994.
Milan won the European Cup by thrashing Barcelona 4-0 in the final in Athens, with a display widely regarded as one of the finest team performances of all time.
As well as the medals, the personal accolades started flooding in.
When player of the year awards are handed out, defenders tend to get overlooked, so it says a lot about Maldini’s brilliance that he won World Soccer magazine’s World Player of Year Award in 1994 – the first ever defender to do so.
A year later he was runner-up to his Milan team-mate George Weah in the FIFA World Player of the Year Award, further cementing Maldini’s reputation in the mid-1990s as the finest defender on the planet.
Then there was Maldini the captain.
Following Baresi’s retirement in 1997, Maldini inherited the captain’s armband and lifted the European Cup for the first time as skipper in 2003, when Milan beat Juventus on penalties in an all-Italian final at Old Trafford.
With timing as impeccable as one of his sliding tackles, Paolo lifted the trophy exactly 40 years after his father had achieved the same feat for Milan in 1963.
Maldini junior wasn’t always victorious.
Despite scoring the fastest ever goal in a European Cup final in 2005 after just 51 seconds, his side lost to Liverpool on penalties, having blown a 3-0 half-time lead.
Worst moment of his career
He later described the final in Istanbul as the worst moment of his career.
He avenged the defeat in 2007, however, when he captained Milan to a 2-1 win over Liverpool in the Champions League final in Athens.
Later that year, he was named Best Defender in the UEFA Club Football Awards.
It was official: At the age of 39, Maldini was still one of the world’s best players.
Yet whereas Maldini won everything there was to win with Milan, trophies eluded him throughout his international career.
After making his debut for the Azzurri in March 1988 aged just 19, he played in several major tournaments, but failed to win a World Cup or European Championship with Italy.
World Cup final
The closest he came was USA ‘94, when Italy reached the World Cup final but lost to Brazil on penalties.
At least Maldini had the consolation of being named in the Team of the Tournament.
Another near-miss came in Euro 2000, when Italy lost 2-1 to France after extra time in the final in Rotterdam.
Yet despite the disappointments, Maldini still achieved much in his 16 years playing for the Azzurri.
He retired from international football in 2002 as Italy’s most capped player (126) and having captained his country a record 74 times.
Right up until retirement, the medals and milestones kept coming.
900th appearance for Milan
On May 25, 2009, at the age of 41, he made his 900th appearance for Milan in his final match at the San Siro, against Roma.
A week later he made his last appearance in the final match of the season against Fiorentina, having already helped Milan clinch the Serie A title earlier that month.
Among the many tributes paid to Maldini upon his retirement was one from Alessandro Del Piero, the Juventus and Italy striker.
Del Piero, who played both with and against the Milan legend for many years, described Maldini as “quite simply the best there is”.
Since hanging up his boots, Maldini has so far resisted offers to move into coaching or management.
Yet whatever “Il Capitano” decides to do next, we might not have seen the last of the Maldini name on the AC Milan team sheet.
His two sons – Christian, 15 and Daniel, 10 – both currently play in the Rossoneri’s youth teams.
The club retired Maldini’s number 3 shirt in his honour, but it will be passed on to one of his sons if they make the senior side.
Paolo might have retired, but the Maldini dynasty looks destined to run and run.
By Lawrence Cohen