This article was originally published in January.
“Get yourself ready, boy,” said manager Nils Liedholm to the youngster. “By the way, which side do you prefer to play on?”
“On the right, please, mister,” he replied. And so started the amazing career of Paolo Maldini. He wanted to emulate his famous father Cesare, who in his heydays, was a renowned defender plying his trade as a right-back. But he would soon realize that even though he was a right footed player, his game was more suited to the left-back position.
Paolo Cesare Maldini was born and brought up in the city of Milan. Everyone thought that he would live under the shadow of his great father, Cesare Maldini, but he proved them wrong! Despite of his father’s links to AC Milan, Paolo was a fan of the Turin team Juventus, home of his hero Roberto Bettega. The young Maldini eventually got a place in the AC Milan youth team when he was 10 years old. What would follow is a glittering career spent under the intensive and often pervasive Italian media.
In a very short time, he scaled up very fast and made his first team debut at the age of 16, in a match against Udinese in January 1985. That season was his first in Serie A and from the next season onwards, he cemented his place as one of the best left-backs in the team.
Former England International Ray Wilkins was a senior defender at the club during that time and Maldini made a good impression on him from the very onset. An impressed Wilkins had this to say -
“You could have stuck him in any position. As soon as I saw him I thought, my God, this boy’s got everything. He was 16 years old, 6ft 1in tall, quick and strong, with two good feet. And he was in love with football, which you can still see today. He’s also stayed the same thoroughly decent bloke, a gentleman as well as an outstanding player.”
Along with the Rossoneri, his journey at the world stage with the Azurri started in the year 1986-87 as a member of the under-21 squad. He graduated to the main squad two years later and was a mainstay in the Italian defense till his international retirement in the year 2002.
Maldini was a part of the back to back Champions League winning squad during 1988-89 and 1989-90. He was one of the famous back four of Milan which comprised of Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tasotti. That awesome line-up had the record of conceding only 15 goals in 34 Serie A matches in 1994. That was undoubtedly one of Paolo’s brightest years on the world stage, as he went on to win the Champions League and also reached the World Cup finals with Italy, only to lose to Brazil via penalty shoot-out.
Maldini was the recipient of the prestigious FIFA World Player of the Year in the year 1995. On receiving this award, Maldini said:
“It’s a great honor for me to know that so many people consider me so highly. It’s a particular matter of pride because defenders generally receive so much less attention from fans and the media than goal scorers. We are more in the engine room rather than taking the glory.”
With Paolo, it was not only about defending resolutely, but when he played, defending seemed like a magical art form.
After Franco Baresi retired in 1997, he took on the mantle of leadership at Milan and remained captain till he finally decided to hang up his boots in 2009. In the year 2003, Maldini lifted his 4th Champions League trophy, exactly 40 years after his father led Milan to their maiden Champions League triumph.
One of Maldini’s many gifts was his technical knowledge. During his entire career, he hardly made a bad or rash challenge. One could spend hours simply watching him tackle and tackle cleanly. His ability to read the game put him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. The ability to run down an opposition striker all the way to the touchline and then deftly dispossess him has been a hallmark of the great Paolo. Even the great Ronaldo was not spared of his magic and he found himself being dispossessed easily during a Derby della Madonnina.
Another aspect of this great personality was his leadership skills. He exuded confidence and stability which naturally led to youngsters looking up to him. His ability to remain calm even during the most trying of situations led his former team-mate Gennaro Gattuso to say this about him -
“He’s a true leader, he never raises his voice and he never shouts at anyone. Even away from the pitch, Paolo never loses his temper.”
Paolo never charged around, never argued and always remained in control while on the pitch. There goes a saying like “one can judge a true leader by the ability to command respect and not demand it”. The same can be said of the great “il Capitano”.
There are mainly two kinds of football players all over the world – one who plays to earn money and then there is another type of player who plays football because they love to do so. When the first kind of player retires, he retires with a truck-load of money to burn, but when one of the second kind retires, he does so with an elusive component – RESPECT. A player who has devoted his playing career to only one club, is very hard to come by and also extremely rare in this age of commercialization and fast bucks. It is easy to get distracted by the amount of money being thrown around. But when you stumble upon someone who has taken as much as 50% reduction of salary just to play for a club, it naturally fills one’s heart with nothing but pride and respect to have known such a committed individual, who is a perfect role model for generations to come.
He stayed at his boyhood club, Milan for as long as 29 years and barely generated a paragraph of scandal in the gossip-infested waters of Italian football. AC Milan retired his number 3 jersey in his honor, but they plan to give it to Christian once he reaches the first team. The great Sir Alex Ferguson once said –
“I wanted Paolo here, but it was impossible. I met his father and told him how much i’d love to have his son at United. Cesare smiled at me and said ‘My grandfather was Milan, my father was Milan, I played for Milan and now my son is Milan’.”
And with Paolo’s son Christian going up the youth ranks, it looks like the Maldini dynasty will continue to rule Milan for years to come.