Defence wins championships, and the best defences win the most trophies in football as a general rule. Defence in modern football has evolved into an art form. The best defenders in the world today are the fittest in the history of the game, and play some of the most tactically astute and technically assured football ever seen.
The evolution of the modern defender has occurred due to the extraordinary abilities of footballers from the past. Franz Beckenbauer reinvented the role of the sweeping defender in the game to devastating effect, and ever since then, defenders have devoted more attention to honing their ball-playing skills.
Paolo Maldini is probably the only defender who went one better than Der Kaiser in the way a defender could impact a football game. The Italian’s illustrious career saw him play for the majority of his career as a left-back, despite the fact that he was predominantly right-footed while kicking the ball.
Maldini, over the course of his career, faced all of the best players of his time – from Maradona in the ‘80s to this current Messi-Ronaldo period, which began at the fag end of his career. He earned victories over nearly all of them and is universally acknowledged as the greatest left-back of all time.
Here are 7 reasons why he should be considered as the greatest defender of all time:
#1 He was world-class right from his introduction
Maldini broke into Milan’s first team at the mind-bogglingly young age of 16. Within 2 years of his introduction to the Milan first team, Maldini was competing in European competitions and performing against the best footballers of the day.
He won his first Champions League trophy in the 1988-89 season, and then proceeded to defend the trophy alongside Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti and Costacurta with a 1-0 win over Benfica. By that time, he had also made his senior national team debut (at the age of 19), already having been blooded into Italy’s youth setup under his own father and Italian football legend Cesare.
These were the turning points of his career, as his elite defensive skills came into notice before he turned 23 years old – he is one of the few defenders to have won 2 Champions League trophies by that age.
#2 He has won almost every trophy there is to win
Maldini, over the course of his career, has won multiple league and cup titles. He also has the distinction of being the most decorated defender in the European Cup/Champions League, having won it in ‘89, ‘90, ‘94, ‘03 and finally in the Istanbul revenge match against Liverpool in the 2006-07 season.
7 Serie A titles, 5 Champions League crowns, a Coppa Italia, 5 editions each of the European and Italian Super Cups as well as 3 Club World Cup/Intercontinental Cup titles populate Maldini’s decorated CV, which would hold its own against almost any in European football history.
The only regret of his career may be his failure to win international tournaments with Italy, for whom he was the record-holder for appearances as player and captain, till Cannavaro and Buffon proceeded to break his records. He was spectacular in all of those tournaments nonetheless and faced heartbreak in one Euro Cup final, as well as the intensely dramatic ‘94 World Cup final, in which Maldini’s Italy lost to Brazil on penalties.
#3 His colleagues hold him in the highest esteem
Through the course of his career, Maldini has faced some of the most dangerous strikers, wingers and attacking midfielders to ever ply their trade in Europe. A fully in-form Ronaldo, who played for Inter during Maldini’s best years, was emphatically shut out by Maldini and Nesta during their Milan derbies.
Even Ronaldinho remarked this when asked his opinion on who his toughest opponents were – “Paolo Maldini and John Terry are the two toughest men I have ever met on the football field.”
He is not alone in his adulation for the man. Many of his other opponents have acknowledged Maldini as the best defender they ever faced back in their day – he is one of the few players to ever hold his own while marking Ronaldo Nazario in those epic Milan derbies of the late 1990s.
#4 His longevity is incomparable in football history
Maldini began his professional career in 1985, and for a period of 25 years, he was almost the exact same player when we talk about his fitness and his endurance levels. He was a world-class player for the entire length of his career, and even though he was 41 years old when he retired, Paolo was an athletic phenomenon till his last game.
Such consistency over such an incredibly long period of time (Paolo has 902 appearances for club and country) has only been shown by the greatest players of all time. While Maldini had a number of injury-hit seasons during the latter stages of his career, his overall quality was always taken for granted by every Milan manager that he played under.
While he was easily the best defender of his team in the noughties, Maldini was also really gracious and intelligent while managing the number of games he played each season. He gave up playing twice a week for extended periods, in order to preserve his fitness levels for the games that he did play in.
#5 His ability ranks among the very best in history
While it is hard to find good quality YouTube videos showing his tackling skills, the amount of respect that every dribbler showed to him wherever he played can easily be peeked at when you look at his footage from the 1990s, and even in the latter stages of his career.
Maldini’s greatest attribute was his ability to produce an attack-stopping, instinctive reaction without fuss, whenever he had the opportunity to do so. He is probably the greatest tackler to ever take the football pitch, but so masterful was his reading of the game that even when he switched to the centre back role later in his career, he never did need to put in many tackles in any such situation.
It is Maldini’s defensive skills that gained him all the renown in the world, but as fans, we often forget that he was an amazing left-back, as well as a centre-back, despite being a predominantly right-footed player. The two-footed nature of his game allowed him to be a marauding attacker when he needed to, and Maldini has scored a number of screamers through the length of his career.
#6 His relationship with Milan is THE benchmark for loyalty and respect
Paolo Maldini has known no football club other than Milan. His entire career was spent at the San Siro training pitches, mostly on the left side of defense, but also in the central areas for a fair share of time. It is no wonder that Maldini’s No. 3 jersey has been retired and is hung in the San Siro museum with the greatest of adulation.
Several times in his career, Maldini was involved in Milan teams which were not as good as the ones in which he began his career. If he had wanted, he could have moved to any club, anywhere in the world, but he saw Milan through all of their ups and downs of the ‘90s – from the lows of losing in Champions League finals and finishing with no silverware, to beating Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 European Cup final.
Such loyalty from one of the very best players in the history of the game is incredibly rare, and Il Capitano is a benchmark of loyalty for all footballers.
#7 The impact he has today as a role model for footballers everywhere is unmatched
Young kids in football academies all over the world are taught to learn basic skills from the very best. And when it comes to the basic skills of defending, Maldini is second to no one in footballing history. Left-backs are only given one example to learn from, and that is Maldini.
It never was Ashley Cole or even Roberto Carlos, even though the Englishman is definitely the greatest player at left-back from the noughties, while the Brazilian is a much-loved and admired player all over the world. Left-backs from football academies all over the world, even in India, look up only to Maldini as their inspiration.
Today’s top footballers are all in awe of Maldini, whose aura and legacy goes far beyond just the football field. Il Capitano represents a beacon of footballing quality married with the best human qualities on the football pitch, and Maldini is considered one of the ultimate authorities on any topic in football today, even though he chooses not to involve himself in football on a daily basis after retirement.
(Video courtesy: Blitz Soccer Academy YouTube channel)