Paolo Maldini - The greatest defender of all time

Paolo Maldini – the AC Milan legend who won five European titles

With a population of just 200,000 odd people, Trieste is the largest city in north-east Italy. The capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the city is sandwiched between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia.

Cesare Maldini, their son, grew up in the predominantly in the suburb of Servola in Trieste. However, the gifted lad soon made it big in the world of football, going from the sleepy suburb to the city of Milan.

Milan – Europe’s most populated city, and the tip of the Blue Banana, the continent’s urbanisation corridor that extended till Manchester. Cesare was the darling of the San Siro, playing for the red half of the city.

Winning four Scudetti with AC Milan, he went on to lift the club’s first ever European Cup as captain of the Rossoneri, at the Wembley in 1963. Five years later, he hung up his boots, calling time on a legendary career.

That summer, exactly 47 years ago, a child was born in the Maldini household. His name was Paolo Maldini.

The Prodigal Son

Cesare Paolo Maldini
Father (L) and son (R) – Cesare Maldini and Paolo Maldini holding the European Cup aloft – 40 years apart

Young Paolo grew up idolizing La Vecchia Signora, the Old Lady of Turin – Juventus. With the poster of the immortal Roberto Bettega, the star Juventus marksman, on his bedroom wall, Paolo was an unabashed fan of the Bianconeri till the age of 10. A student of the famed San Pio Oratorio in Milan at the time, he was called up for a trial by AC Milan, at the insistence of his father. The rest, as they say, is history.

Demetrio Albertini, who grew up in the Milan Primavera team with Maldini, later went on to say in an interview that his teammate was destined for greatness, right from his time as a fresh-faced child. In fact, Maldini was so good that Nils Liedholm, the then Milan manager, brought on the 16-year old as a substitute in January 1985.

It was to be the only Serie A appearance for the teenager that season.

“A jockey doesn’t have to be born with a horse”

Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi and Maldini – The Fab Four

The following season saw tumultuous scenes, with the Telemilan tycoon Silvio Berlusconi buying the club. His first move was to appoint a man with no professional, top-tier experience, at the helm of the team.

Arrigo Sacchi was no ordinary man though. The quote in bold was his response to being asked if he was good enough to manage the Rossoneri. Along with the celebrity signings of Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten, he also entrusted the left-back slot on the shoulders of the local, 17-year-old boy.

Partnering the boy were probably three of the greatest defenders in the world at the time. Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta and captain Franco Baresi formed the strongest defensive spine the world has seen to date – with Maldini.

Together they formed the immovable object which supplemented the unstoppable force of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten. Together, along with the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni and others, they formed probably the greatest club team of all time.

Maldini won the Scudetto in his first full season. Still a teenager, he was a real force of nature, commanding respect from friends and adversaries alike. Two years later, he went on to play in his first European Cup final, at the Camp Nou in front of nearly 98,000 fans. Steaua Bucharest were taken to the cleaners as Milan strolled to the Ol’ Big Ears.

The next season, they repeated the feat, beating Benfica at the Praterstadion in Austria.

A two-time European Cup winner at the age of 21, Maldini had already spent half a decade at the club he joined more than a decade ago. He also played in his first World Cup, at home, later that year.

After keeping a record five clean sheets, the Azzurri faced Argentina in the semi-finals. Stadio San Paolo then witnessed a cathartic moment, as their favourite son, a certain Diego Maradona, inspired them to a penalty shootout win against the hosts.

Italia ‘90 triggered the beginning of a storied yet unfortunate international career for Maldini, a perpetual tale of “so near, yet so far”. He retired from the international stage at the age of 34, after the disaster in the Far East that the 2002 World Cup was.

The tale of four Champions League finals

Maldini Champiosn League trophy 2007 AC Milan Midnight in Athens
Midnight in Athens

The legend of Paolo Maldini, however, never revolved around his exploits with the Azzurri. It was always about Milan, and only about Milan. When they lost the 1992/93 European Cup final to Marseille, the wound made on Maldini by Italia ’90 was reopened.

Some players wither when faced with twin disappointments of this enormity. Maldini, however, was never just “some player”.

In probably the most hyped Champions League summit clash of all time, Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona Dream Team were set to face the weakest Rossoneri team in well over a decade the next season. Fresh from winning their fourth successive La Liga crown, M/s Romario, Stoichkov and Co. were expected to subject Fabio Capello’s Milan to a drubbing like no other in Athens.

What made the clash more ominous for all parties concerned was the depleted state of the Milan squad; they were missing Gialnluigi Lentini – the world’s most expensive player, who had just suffered a life-threatening accident – as well as Marco Van Basten, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Jean-Pierre Papin. The writing was on the wall for Capello’s team.

90 minutes later, Cruyff’s expensively assembled Dream Team had been blown to smithereens. With many pundits calling it the greatest Champions League final performance of all time, the Blaugrana were ripped apart, with the score reading 4-0 at the end of the 90 minutes.

As the little known Dejan Savicevic dinked the ball over the towering Andoni Zubizarreta for the third goal, the world watched in awe. What a team. What a final. Athens had become a real theatre of dreams.

AC Milan 4-0 Barcelona 1994 Champions League final
The victorious AC Milan side that beat Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League final

Maldini slotted in at centre-back that night, and looked perfectly at home against the Brazilian and Bulgarian mavericks. It was a sign of things to come – when Alessandro Nesta moved to the San Siro in 2002, a budding centre back pairing was formed. Little did the world know that the partnership would go on to become stuff of legend.

However, in the immediate aftermath of Athens came two crushing disappointments for Maldini. When Roberto Baggio, the Divine Ponytail, skied his penalty against Brazil in the final of World Cup 1994, Maldini experienced the sinking feeling that had become all too familiar to him by then.

And when Patrick Kluivert scored a late goal for Louis van Gaal’s famed Ajax team in the 1995 Champions League final, Maldini’s aura had been scythed with two scarring defeats in rapid succession.

Going back to his partnership with Nesta, let’s revisit Old Trafford, in the summer of 2003. Milan were set to face fierce rivals Juventus in the summit clash of Europe’s showpiece event. With Maldini and Nesta forming a rock at the back, they held a formidable Old Lady attack in their sway, and went on to win the encounter on penalties.

Exactly 40 years after the son of a Slovene refugee had lifted Milan’s first ever European Cup, his grandson lifted it again – and in the Old Blighty, no less. The beautiful game had played one of its beautiful games with fate.

Agony and Ecstasy

Paolo Maldini walks past the Champions League trophy after AC Milan were defeated by Liverpool on penalties in the 2005 final at Istanbul

“There are always lessons to be found in the darkest moments. It’s a moral obligation to dig deep and find that little glimmer of hope or pearl of wisdom.

You might hit upon an elegant phrase that stays with you and makes the journey that little bit less bitter. I’ve tried with Istanbul and haven’t managed to get beyond these words: For f***’s sake.” – Andrea Pirlo

Enough and more has been said about the Miracle of Istanbul. Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Rafa Benitez have been worshipped ever since, and rightly so, for there will never be another comeback like that.

11 years after beating Barcelona as rank underdogs, the Rossoneri themselves had been beaten by one. The disappointment was all the more bitter for the 37-year-old Maldini, who had scored the fastest Champions League final goal of all time earlier that night.

However, his was always a career that had been about winning, and not just winning; it was a career that made winning after suffering a setback its dominant theme. Two years later, Maldini was back in the same stage as a near quadragenarian. The venue, incredibly, was Athens. And this time, neither him nor his team slipped up.

As Maldini lifted the cup for an eye-watering fifth time, his name had been etched in the annals of the glorious history of the European Cup.

Paolo Maldini 2007 Champions League final trophy
Two years after losing to Liverpool in the Champions League final, AC Milan exacted revenge in Athens

The Legacy

Maldini retired at the age of 41, in 2009. Il Capitano, as he was lovingly called, was no pushover at that age. Indeed, he refused a transfer to Chelsea at the grand old age of 40, before calling it a day the next season.

Like they had done with Franco Baresi, Milan retired Maldini’s No.3 shirt upon retirement. Needless to say, there won’t be another player who can ever wear the Milan jersey with as much pride as the great man did.

For there will never be another Paolo Maldini. He was a throwback to the early days of the beautiful game, when age and money were inconsequential numbers. In a generation that fixated on both of these things, Maldini was like the girl in red in Schindler’s List – somebody who lived life on his terms, eternally different from the rest.

And for that feat alone, his legend will never die.

“Buon Compleanno, Il Capitano!” Happy birthday. captain!

One man. 24 years.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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