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Football's One Club Men: Paolo Maldini

"Paolo Maldini is a legend". The one line description used in the 2007 Champions League Final programme is without doubt the only way to describe the former Italian full-back. After a trophy laden career stretching over twenty-years Maldini is surely one of football's greatest one club men. The second part in our series celebrating the loyalty of players, Maldini's career at A.C. Milan is no stranger to intrigue and inspiration.

To start with Maldini is to start at the beginning. At the age of ten, Paolo first joined the youth ranks at the Milan club. Before long the young defender was making his Serie A debut as a substitute against Udinese, his age only sixteen. It was his only appearance in the 1984/5 season, but within a year he was a regular in the Rossoneri's first eleven.

Perhaps one of Paolo's greatest role models for his early career was his father, Cesare Maldini, also a former Milan player. In 1986 Cesare was awarded the role of Italy U21 manager, much to Paolo's advantage. Maldini played under his father for two years, earning 12 caps and scoring an impressive five goals from defence.

Maldini's first trophy for Milan was the 1988 Scudetto (Serie A). After years of Michel Platini inspired Juventus dominance and the emergence of Roma and Napoli, Milan began to form a side to rival the greatest in history. Alongside Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, Milan would begin to impose themselves on the Italian league stage even going the 1991-2 season unbeaten. The Milan side of the late 90s even winning the European Cup back to back between 1989-90 (the last time a club successfully defended the title). After much initial success, Maldini's early years culminated in the 1993 Champions League Final, a controversial loss to French side Marseille 1-0.

"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."
-Sir Alex Ferguson

The next season would provide Maldini's third taste of European glory, the 1994 Champions League. Alongside Pannuci, Costacurta and Tassoti, Milan had forged one of modern football's greatest back fours as well having as a strong midfield and attack with players like Marcel Desailly, Robeto Donadoni and Dejan Savicevic. Their opponents? The Barcelona "Golden Team" of Guardiola, Koeman and Stoichkov. Fabio Capello's Milan would go on to triumph 4-0 with a performance widely regarded as one the greatest of all time. Maldini at 26 was already one of Europe's most decorated players and one a small clique to have won three European Cups.

The later 1990s would bring mixed fortunes for Maldini. After 1994, the major Italian European power was found in the form of Juventus as they reached the 1996 and 1997 finals, winning in 1996 against a strong Ajax squad. Maldini by this time had already been playing for his hometown club for over 10 years, an achievement in its own right. Maldini would still win two more Serie A's (1996 & 99) during the more turbulent time and continue his fine club form, as well as playing regularly for Italy.

"Maldini is the symbol of Milan. He brings continuity and he has represented the antique and the modern,"
-Gianni Rivera

For Italy Maldini would earn 126 caps over 14 years (1988-2002) and score 7 goals. After making his debut aged just 19, the full-back would play in eight successive major tournaments. His Italian career to be remembered with success, failure and near misses. After semi-final appearances, first at Euro '88 and on home soil at Italia '90, Maldini's Azzurri career would reach its highest point with the World Cup final in 1994. A penalty shootout defeat meant Maldini would return only with a silver medal despite playing every match on Italy's road to the final and captaining the side for the semi-final against Bulgaria.

Bitter taste of International defeat
After 1994, as well as his club career for Milan undertaking a few hiccups, the Italian national sides performance would also suffer as Maldini's father Cesare took over the team. Although not too much of a slump, a quarter-final exit to hosts France in the 1998 World Cup was not good enough for Italy, with Paolo now the captain of the side. However, by 2000 the record had been set straight and the Italians had reached the Euro 2000 final against France. It seemed destined for the trophy to be lifted by Maldini only for a 94th minute equalizer from Sylvain Wiltord and a 'golden goal' from David Trezeguet to wrench away Italian glory and continue the French global dominance.

Following the Euro 2000 final defeat came the first real threat to Maldini's "one-club-man" status as reports were rife of the Milan captain's contract not being renewed and a transfer to Chelsea becoming a real possibility. However, despite the interest Maldini would continue to play for the Rossoneri in the midst of a new era of Milanese dominance. The team, captained by Maldini, offering the likes of Shevchenko, Seedorf, Gattuso and Pirlo would go on to win the 2003 Champions League (his 4th) and 2004 Serie A (his 7th). The 2003 European final however coming as a crowning achievement for Maldini due to it being the first (and only to this date) all-Italian European final. An Andriy Shevchenko penalty sealing a shootout victory after a drab 0-0 draw at Old Trafford.

It would be penalties which would determine Maldini's next major final, the 2005 Champions League final against Liverpool. The match famous for Liverpool's miraculous comeback from 3-0 down at half-time. Despite Maldini's opening minute goal and a subsequent brace from on-loan Hernan Crespo, a six-minute second half salvo from the Reds drew the game level before a Steven Gerrard inspired Liverpool triumphed 3-2 on penalties. Maldini has since spoken of his disappointment of the outcome and described it as the worst moment of his illustrious career.

Early goal but ultimately defeat for Milan

"It is very strange and hard to explain. Of course, it is a huge disappointment. I've had a few disappointments in my career but this is certainly among the major ones. But we go out with our heads high and we have to accept the result even if it was so harsh and hard on us."

However, two years later Maldini's Milan would stage a comeback of their own, and enact revenge over the Merseyside club winning 2-1 in the 2007 Champions League final in Athens. In true testament to Maldini's character, his side showed great resilience to put 2005 behind them and be crowned champions of Europe for a 7th time (5th for Paolo). The lifting of the trophy being the last major victory for Paolo Maldini in a Milan shirt and the crowning achievement of his untouchable career.

"I will not have his longevity. He has something which no one else has, he has a strong head. Paolo is like metal, he never slackens, he loves to train and to play. I do not believe that in four or five years I will be like that."
-Alessandro Nesta

As with our piece on Jamie Carragher it is almost impossible to find a modern day career not impacted by a few controversies. For Maldini however, it is difficult to find any. One sour patch came at the very end of his time at Milan, when before retirement following 902 official games and 33 goals for the club, Rossoneri Ultras chanted the name of Franco Baresi in protest to remarks apparently made by Maldini following an encounter after the 2005 Champions League defeat. "Il Capitano" had apparently described the fans as "mercenaries and mangy."

"It is outstanding what he has achieved at this level at his age. He is a world great, one of the best of his era. He has won the whole lot in his career, with five European Cups now. He will be remembered for a long time."
-Jamie Carragher

Despite this, there can be no argument on the question of Paolo Maldini's Milan career. His time at the club amassing 24 years of loyal service and 26 major trophies. Without Maldini it is clear that the great Milan sides of the early 90s and 2000s would not have come near to encompassing the success the achieved. His Italy career also providing performances in four World Cups and three European Championships. For many he will be remembered as the greatest left-back of the last 30 years and maybe even the best player not to win a World Cup or major international trophy. His legacy is that of a committed player whose reading of the game is surely unrivalled by any other professional. For Milan his number, '3', has been retired with only his sons being allowed the take on the shirt should they reach the heights of the Rossoneri first team. As this article suggests, it is his Milan career that he should and surely will be remembered for, a captain they will never forget and perhaps never see the likes of again.

Long live the Maldinis?

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