By Lewis Steele
“There are great players and there are world-class players. Then there are those who manage to go beyond that term. Paolo is the perfect example. He is the symbol of Milan” – Alessandro Del Piero, one of the most decorated icons of calcio history described the great Paolo Maldini as one to fit the bracket above world class.
The man who scored over 200 league goals over a spell of nearly two decades with Juventus, Del Piero, was right with his words on Maldini. The greatest defender to ever grace Serie A, without question or exception for Franco Baresi, was certainly part of the ‘elite’ bracket of player.
Players come and go in leagues around the world and win the hearts of neutrals over, some are a role model for kids on the playground at the time, some dash through with fleeting fraternity and then their career trajectory falls, but some leave a mark or a legacy that lasts a lifetime. Paolo Maldini redefined the art of defending and is the benchmark for all budding defenders around the world even now, in the age of ‘the modern defender’. When a young defender excels at a club, the comparisons start – “He’s the Basque Maldini”, some Manchester City fans said on Aymeric Laporte. The comparisons are not true, but they show the benchmark for all young defenders around the world.
Let’s take you right back to January 1985: Bettino Craxi is the Italian leader, in a country hit by record freezing temperatures, Ronald Reagan is not long into his second reign as president in the United States, and over in Udine Italy, a 16-year-old Paolo Maldini comes off the bench to make his debut for Milan, playing right back. He is on against Zico’s Udinese in temperatures of around minus 13 degrees, and was ill-prepared for the snowy conditions, so was lent boots that were two sizes too small for him by English football legend Ray Wilkins.
The fact he started his career at right back may have grabbed your attention, for the fact Maldini established himself as a great on the left side of defence over the years. Surprisingly, right back was Maldini’s natural position, where he started out. When he was a kid, he spent hour after hour kicking the ball as far as he could with his left foot, until he was as comfortable with that one as his right.
The hours spent were well worth it – a vacancy arose at left back during the 1985/86 season, and Maldini was thrown in at the deep end at an unnatural position. He was a fresh-faced teenager, but the maturity he showed to not drown when thrown in the deep end was what you’d expect from a seasoned veteran. If anything, the story of Maldini being forced into the side in an unfamiliar role captures his career in a microcosm: consistency, professionalism, reliability – Maldini had everything you wanted in a defender and more.
But realistically, if you were asked the one thing you wanted from a defender, what would it be? Many modern football fans would say pinpoint passing ability like the Gerard Pique’s and Aymeric Laporte’s of this world, or the never-say-die attitude of Diego Godin or Giorgio Chiellini. But really, the one thing would be to be good at tackling, for that is how defenders earn their stripes. Paolo Maldini was so good, he didn’t even have to tackle.
According to him, if he had to make a tackle, he had made a mistake. One of the greatest managers of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson, said he once watched Maldini play two legs of a Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich without seeing him slide once. The ex-United boss said: “When I think of the current generation, Lionel Messi is top-level. Zidane was brilliant too but, without a doubt, Paolo Maldini has been my favourite. He has a wonderful presence, competitive spirit, athleticism, and although not the world’s greatest technically, he has influenced all the Milan teams during his wonderfully successful era.”
The Maldini bloodline lives at the San Siro. The number 3 shirt is retired as Paolo’s legacy, and the only way it will be restored is if either of Maldini’s sons Christian or Daniel come through the ranks at Milan – the former of which plays for AS Pro Piacenza in Serie C. Prior to all this, Paolo’s father Cesare was a legend of Milan. He was the first Milan captain to lift the European Cup, and was a true defender schooled on the ideas of Catenaccio – the extremely defensive tactical system in calcio.
Paolo Maldini was eternal and the longevity serves as a sole reason why he should be regarded as one of the best to grace the game. He played at left back until around age 30, where he lost the legs, but he didn’t retire or move on, he innovated and moved to central defence.
What may be the best marker of Maldini’s brilliance was the fact he shone in multiple eras under different coaches with varying ideas of how to play the game.
In Maldini’s first full season, they won the Scudetto as well as the Supercoppa under the great manager Arrigo Sacchi, who is cited as one of the best coaches of all time. A couple of years later, the Sacchi’s Rossoneri cemented their name as one of the greatest club sides of all time, winning back-to-back European titles, with Maldini at the heart of it, alongside players such as Franco Baresi.
After Sacchi’s reign, Maldini was a key part of Fabio Capello’s reign, which included a famous 4-0 victory over Johan Cruyff’s Barça dream team in 1994. Il Capitano played in an astonishing eight European Cup/Champions League finals in total, in a glittering career that saw him make over 1000 appearances for club and country. He also won seven Serie A titles.
His legacy went far beyond Sacchi and Capello, it continued for decades after. The pure longevity serves as a reason to view Maldini as one of the best ever. He didn’t form the backbone of just one team, but four or five. In Maldini’s first season at Milan he played with Giuliano Terraneo, and in his last with Matteo Darmian. Those two players were born 36 years apart.
It would be a gross miscarriage of justice to try and summarise Maldini’s shining career in a single article, you would need a hardback book to do so, he was so eternal that there is simply too much to try and recall.
On 24 May 2007, Maldini lifted his fifth and final Champions League trophy at the age of 38. Rossoneri defeated Liverpool 2-1 in Athens, avenging the infamous drama of two years earlier in Istanbul.
A master of all trades and jack of none, Maldini had everything you could ask for. In 2009, Maldini played his last match, at the staggering age of 41. He retired as an icon of Italian football, and he retired as potentially the greatest defender of all time.
One-club players are very hard to come by in this day and age, but Maldini was just that. He wasn’t the traditional defender who wore his heart on his sleeve in chest pumping style, but he was humble and professional, dedicating hours off the pitch in meticulous fashion to improve his game.
Milan have retired his number 3 shirt, so it only seems fitting that we dedicate day 3 of our advent calendar to Il Capitano, Paolo Maldini. Grazie, numero tre.
Lewis Steele is a founder, editor, writer and podcast guest for 5WFootball. He also writes for sites such as These Football Times, Breaking the Lines and Football Whispers. Follow him on Twitter here.
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