Paolo Maldini, is quite simply one of the greatest footballers to have ever played, easily the best left back there has ever been, and a Milanese icon, great and a beloved and respected Captain.
In a glittering career that spanned a quarter of a century, Maldini has picked up seven Serie A titles, five Champions League trophies as well as a Coppa Italia and five Supercoppa’s.
Paolo’s trophy haul is only matched by his loyalty, having spent his entire career at Milan, from youth prospect in 1984, to legend in 2009.
Maldini played his first game for Milan on January 20, 1984, coming on for the injured Sergio Battistini against Udinese. Paolo quickly became noticed for his confidence and grace on the ball, and by the following season, was a regular in the starting eleven.
Maldini became a cornerstone of what is rightfully regarded as the greatest defensive line in Club football, the young man slotting in alongside fellow youth prospects Billy Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti and the eternal Franco Baresi.
When Silvio Berlusconi bought the club in 1986, that back four was the foundation in which the Rossoneri were built on during their most successful ever period, the likes of Marco Van Basten, Frank Riijkaard and Ruud Gullit turning Milan from mid table mediocrity into Domestic and World Champions.
Maldini picked up his first Scudetto in 1988, as well as his Italy debut, and in the following year Milan won the European Cup.
By this time Maldini had found fame as a key member of the new European Champions. The fame only grew, as the Milan juggernaut picked up success after success, retaining the European Cup in 1990, and going unbeaten throughout the entire 1991/2 season, winning the Scudetto that year.
By the summer of 1994, Maldini’s Milan had won three European Cup’s and Il Capitano had led Italy to a World Cup Final, resulting in being named World Soccer magazine’s “World Player of the year” , and the first defender ever to win the prize. Ever a humble man, Maldini alluded to the drawbacks of his position, referring to the back four as the “engine room” of a squad, and dedicated his award to Franco Baresi.
Maldini’s success continued, Milan reached the European Cup Final in 1995, and the Scudetto in 1996. By this time, Maldini had taken over from Baresi as Milan captain, and lead the Rossoneri into a new Millenium as Italian Champions yet again, Il Diavolo lifting the Italian title in 1999.
Maldini appeared in his final World Cup in 2002, as Italy were knocked out in the second round by South Korea. It was his fourth, meaning that Maldini had been Azzurri regular for over a decade.
Maldini enjoyed a great personal triumph the following year as he lifted his fourth Champions League trophy in 2003, 40 years after his father did the same thing as Milan captain. As the Italian’s career continued, records began to fall.
He simultaneously became the fastest and oldest ever scorer in a Champions League final in 2005 after putting the Rossoneri in front after 51 seconds. He looked set to lift the fifth trophy as Milan raced to a 3-0 lead, but Liverpool fought back to win an extraordinary game on penalties, in what Maldini later described as the “worst moment of his career”.
After the game, Maldini walked up to the victorious Steven Gerrard, congratulated him on his win and told him he would be back to win it again. Two years later, Milan beat Liverpool in the Champions League Final and Maldini hoisted ‘Old Big Ears’ for a fifth, and what was a final time.
Milan announced that he was to retire at the end of the 07-08 season, and in February of that season, Maldini appeared in his 1,000th career game for Milan. He suspended his plans for a year after Milan’s exit against Arsenal in the Champions League, but he finally put his wonderful career to an end the following summer at the ripe old age of 39, with a 2-0 victory over Fiorentina.
Maldini was a unique footballer, part of a select band of players that believe loyalty and respect transcends money and materialism. A player of class, grace, substance and style, there are very few Paolo Maldini’s in world football, much fewer than there ever has been.
When Il Capitano hung up his boots for the final time, the FIGC offered Maldini the chance of playing in a testimonial game signalling the end of his career, he declined, never needing or desiring the attention or spotlight that such a match would bring.
Milan retired his number three jersey, with the intention of bequeathing it to one of Maldini’s sons should they play for the Rossoneri. Football is a family business in the Maldini household, and Milan fans worldwide can look forward generations to come for future Maldini’s to bless Milan with their talent, and continue the legacy of the man, the icon, the Maldini.