Evergreen Maldini still the soul of the Rossoneri

 

Euroscene: Twenty years ago next Thursday, the 16-year-old Paolo Maldini sat wrapped up in blankets, tracksuit, cap and gloves on the substitutes' bench on a bitterly cold, snowy January afternoon in Udinese's Friuli stadium.

AC Milan's Swedish coach Nils Liedholm approached the youngster, saying: "Get yourself ready, boy. By the way, which side do you prefer to play on?" "On the right, please," came the answer from Maldini.

A full score of years on from that Serie A debut, Paolo Maldini was still strutting his stuff for AC Milan last Sunday, playing left back in a 3-1 Serie A win - against Udinese. It is a curious fact that the player, who for the past decade and more has been considered one of the outstanding left backs in world football, is actually a natural right-footer who began his career in the right-back berth.

It gives some idea of the longevity of Maldini's career if we point out that the man who scored Milan's equaliser in the 1-1 draw on that January 1985 debut was English striker Mark Hateley. How many readers out there actually saw Hateley play?

The sheer volume of Maldini statistics is overwhelming. He has won four Champions League trophies and seven Italian league titles. He is the most capped player in Italian football history with 126 caps, 74 of those as captain. He played in four World Cup finals and three European Championship finals tournaments. Last Sunday, he played in his 553rd Serie A game, ranking him third on the all-time list (only Dino Zoff on 570 and Pietro Vierchowod on 562 are ahead of him). Above all, he has played out his entire career with just one club - AC Milan.

For those of us who have watched him over the past 20 years, however, Paolo Maldini represents more than just statistics or sporting excellence. In the ever more tabloid, ever more pressurised world of top level international football, he has been a rare voice of sanity, moderation, sportsmanship and old fashioned good manners.

He has never been one to milk the hype. Put simply, he was born to play football being a figlio d'arte, the son of Cesare Maldini, captain of AC Milan's 1963 European Champions Cup winning side. He has always tried to steer clear of the limelight, preferring the company of his family (his father Cesare, his Venezuelan wife Adriana and their two small children) to that of cinema stars and TV personalities. When he talks, it is usually to say something intelligent.

Indeed, the contrast this week between Maldini's continued pre-eminence and the fall from grace of the feted but fame-haunted Diego Maradona is marked.

Maldini, though, rates Maradona as, not only the greatest player he ever faced, but also, perhaps surprisingly, the most honest.

"He was a model of good behaviour on the pitch - he was respectful of everyone, from the great players down to the ordinary team member," says Maldini. "He was always getting kicked around and he never complained - not like some of today's strikers . . . mamma mia."

Even though he played in seven major tournaments (he retired from international football after the 2002 World Cup finals) without winning a major title, he nonetheless has no complaints about his 14-year-long stint with the Azzurri: "I'm satisfied. I know we didn't win anything but for 14 years I was playing on the big stage. I played in some fantastic games."

Watching Maldini last Sunday, it is not hard to imagine him playing on for at least another season. His coach Carlo Ancelotti sees no reason why he should not play on for a long time yet. Maldini himself is more realistic: "I have a contract (with AC Milan) through to 2006 and I'll decide in the summer whether or not to continue. It doesn't depend on my level of motivation, which is still intact, but on my body. The older you get, the more your body cracks and creaks, the harder training gets."