We started our Footballing Legends series with Diego Maradona and ‘The King of football’, Pele, and today we turn our gaze towards one of the most decorated, loyal, and respected players in World Football history. He is the record appearance holder of AC Milan, Serie A, and Italy. I speak, of course, of the great Paolo Maldini. Born on this very day in 1968, Paolo Cesare Maldini had football in his blood. His father, Cesare Maldini, was also an accomplished centre-back, and is still regarded in high esteem at his club, AC Milan. He went on to manage Milan briefly in 2001. He set off on his journey to emulate his father by joining the Milan youth team aged 10. For the next seven years, he would star in that youth team, so much so that he was turning out for the AC Milan first team while still eligible. However, despite his father’s ties with Milan, Paolo Maldini was actually a Juventus fan growing up, and started off for Milan as a left-winger, before he was moved back into the left-back slot which he would make his own. His debut came on January 20, 1985, when he was just 16 years of age. He performed well in the 45 minutes he was given, but, due to his young age, that was his only league appearance of the season. The following season saw Maldini see more action, playing 40 games in total, and Milan, despite being cautious in using him too often, due to his inexperience, and the fact that he would be coming up against players like Diego Maradona, could see his huge potential.. Everything seemed to come together for Milan in the 1987/88 season as Silvio Berlusconi’s idea of a dream team started to come to fruition. He had poured a lot of money into the club, and immediately saw the rewards. With Dutch stars Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit arriving, later to be joined by Frank Rijkaard, and Italian Roberto Donadoni joining up with Franco Baresi and Maldini, Milan became a formidable machine. They won the title that season, only losing two games along the way.
On an individual level, Maldini was awarded his Italian debut on March 31, 1988 against Yugoslavia, aged just 19, and went on to appear in all of Italy’s games in that summer’s European Championships. The following season saw Milan miss out on the league crown, finishing third behind arch-rivals Inter Milan and Napoli, but an even bigger prize awaited them. The AC Milan “Dream Team” was now making major strides in Europe and they came up against a very strong Steaua Bucharest who had won the Cup just three years previously. Milan got through to the final by thrashing Real Madrid, while Bucharest got through by thrashing just about everybody. Until the final, they hadn’t failed to score at least five goals in a match. Bucharest were also in the middle of a domestic league run that would see them go an unbelievable 104 matches unbeaten. Yet they were no match for Milan, as Gullit and Van Basten each got a brace to give Milan the 4-0 win. A second consecutive European Cup followed the next season as Milan beat Benfica in the final, with Maldini and the rest of the Milan defence once again keeping a clean sheet. 1990 also saw Maldini’s second major international tournament with Italy, and his first World Cup. He helped his country to the semi-finals, where Italy lost to Argentina. 1990/91 was a rare, trophy-less season for Maldini and Milan, but normal service was resumed the following season when Maldini helped them to another Serie A title, quickly followed by another a year on. In the midst of this, Milan went on a 58-match unbeaten run in Serie A, which is a record which still stands to this day. As well as being a record in Italian football history, that unbeaten run is the third longest in any top flight European league. 1993/94 was really Maldini’s season, however. His classy defending and unparalleled ability to read the game lead Milan to a third consecutive league title, and they completed a historic double by claiming their fifth European Cup, the third in Maldini’s time there. The 1994 World Cup was where Maldini really shone, guiding Italy to the final against Brazil. He kept the likes of Romario and Bebeto out for 120 minutes as it ended 0-0, and went to penalties. Brazil ended up winning after Roberto Baggio ballooned the crucial penalty over the bar. Once again, the most coveted prize in the game had eluded Paolo Maldini.
But, to help him get over this crushing disappointment, he received the highest accolade a footballing individual can get: the World Player of the Year award and, in doing so, he became the first defender to win such an award. Not even the likes of Bobby Moore or Franz Beckenbauer had won that award. After former Italy captain Franco Baresi had announced his retirement following Italy’s World Cup final loss, the armband was given to the 26-year-old Maldini. As the Milan “Dream Team” started to break up, 1994/95 was another trophy-less season, but the very next year, the “Dream Team” had one final hurrah as they won the league title for the fourth time in six years. Silverware became increasingly rare over the next few seasons, with only one Serie A title to show for their efforts between 1996 and 2002. It was in 2002 that Maldini led Italy into the World Cup and, after crashing out in the quarter-finals in 1998 to hosts and eventual winners France, Maldini made it clear that the tournament would bring the curtain down on his remarkable international career. It wasn’t to be a fairy-tale ending, however, as Italy were beaten in the second round, again by the hosts, this time losing out to South Korea after extra time. True to his word, Maldini retired after that game. He left the Italian national team as the most capped player in their history, with 126, and he also recorded the most caps as captain, leading his country on 74 occasions.
2003 saw the return to winning ways for Milan and Maldini as, for the first time in his Milan career, Maldini tasted success in the Italian Cup. That wasn’t the highlight of there season, however, as they also won the Champions League, beating Juventus in the first ever all-Italian final on penalties, to claim their sixth title. The following season saw Maldini help Milan to another Serie A title, the seventh Maldini had won in his career. Then, the season after that, he helped Milan to yet another Champions League final, this time against Liverpool. Maldini scored the fastest goal ever in a Champions League final (51 seconds), and became the oldest ever Champions League final scorer. Despite being 3-0 up at half-time, however, Liverpool staged a remarkable comeback to win on penalties in what Maldini later described as the worst moment of his career. He had a chance to exact revenge two years later, however, as the two once again met in the Champions League final. This time, Maldini’s Milan came out on top, giving Maldini his fifth European Cup/Champions League winners medal. Maldini has signed a new one year deal, despite being over 40 years old, and went on to make 32 appearances in his final season. His loyalty, dedication and fitness are perhaps unbeaten in footballing history. With 902 games played for Milan, and 126 for Italy, Maldini is one of a handful of players to have played over 1000 competitive games.
/p> He certainly must be considered among the greatest players to ever walk this planet, and when he finally decided to hang up his boots, it was the end of an era for world football.
Footballing Legends: Paolo Maldini
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