Italy place faith in family values

 

The Maldini family have a fixed rule. When they get together for a family gathering, conversation about soccer is banned. Father Cesare, better known to soccer fans as Italy's coach, and his son Paolo, better known as arguably the best left back in the world, never "talk shop" over the spaghetti bowl.

"We don't often want to talk about soccer, anyway. If you are a soccer professional, you talk enough during the week. But that is not to say that I don't sometimes talk to Paolo about problems either of us might have. I do, but not at the family dinner table", says Cesare.

Italy's most famous soccer family carry the sporting fate of the nation on their shoulders tonight when Italy line out at the Olympic Stadium in Rome for a European Group Two qualifier against England which they must win in order to be certain of qualifying for next summer's World Cup finals.

England, by contrast, are in the comfortable position of knowing that they need only a draw to win the group and force Italy into the uncertainty of the play-offs for a finals place.

The Maldinis will be at the helm of the Italian ship as it takes to the choppy waters of World Cup qualifying this evening. Sixty-five year old Cesare is the team coach and manager, while 29-year-old son Paolo, with 82 caps, is not only Italy's most experienced player by far, he is also the team captain.

The Maldini father-son show has been in operation at senior international level since only last December when Cesare Maldini stepped in to replace Arrigo Sacchi, the controversial ex-AC Milan coach who was held responsible for Italy's disappointing first round exit from the Euro '96 finals. However, they have been through it all before since, in his time as Italian under-21 coach, Cesare Maldini capped his son 12 times.

On the first day the 18-year-old Paolo - already an established AC Milan first team player - turned up to play for his father's under-21 side, he felt embarrassed: "With the under-21, the situation was embarrassing because, for better or worse, there were always people willing to say that I was a favoured son, only there because my dad was the team coach . . . I've always tried to forget that the coach is also my father but, anyway, since those early days, things have changed and people don't make certain accusations anymore."

Indeed, they do not. By the time Cesare took charge of the senior side, Paolo had been not just an automatic first choice player for the previous nine seasons, he had also become a national idol and a winner of five Serie A and three Champions League medals with the mighty AC Milan. When sports daily Gazzetta Dello Sport commissioned a survey to find the most "representative" and the most "Italian" footballer of the modern age, the answer came back loud and clear from coaches, fans, journalists and even scientists alike - Paolo Maldini.

Tall, blue-eyed and handsome, Paolo has been a media darling for a long time - the footballer everybody considered the ideal next door neighbour and the footballer that radio station, Rete 105, invited on as DJ to present his own programme of rap music. When in May 1994, fashion mogul Giorgio Armani turned up at the Italian team headquarters to present new team outfits designed by himself, he was asked if there was any particular player he would have liked to use as a model on the catwalk. The answer? - Paolo Maldini, of course.

While Paolo was establishing his nationwide star status, Cesare was working away quietly in charge of Italy's under-21 side. While Paolo was dominating the world club scene with AC Milan, Cesare put together an under-21 side that won three consecutive European Championships (1992, '94, '96).

Cesare's success with the under-21 side surprised no one in Italy. He had been an excellent player, winning 14 caps for his country and four league titles with AC Milan as well as captaining Milan to a 2-1 European Cup win against Eusebio's Benfica in the 1963 final at Wembley. Paolo comes from good soccer stock.

Maldini senior had a reputation for being a class player, tough in the best Italian defensive traditions but also occasionally tempted to pull off the odd number, dribble his way past an opposing centre forward or hit the 70 yard long ball to his own forwards.

He also knew the game.

When Milan hit a rocky patch at the beginning of the 1961 season, the club's legendary coach Nereo Rocco summoned his team captain and told him he was going to resign.

"Don't do it, boss. We won't lose again this season," said Cesare Maldini. Nor did they, with Milan going on to win that year's title and with Rocco still at his post.

When Maldini senior hung up his playing boots, he moved immediately into coaching, finding success with a then lower division Parma before being asked to step in as the number two to Enzo Bearzot, the genial, pipe smoking wizard who coached Italy to World Cup success in 1982. Bearzot has fond memories of the man who sat at his side throughout that magnificent achievement in Spain.

"Cesare knows his soccer. His Italy, the side you see now, plays an intelligent soccer based on what the players know best, on what we Italians do best. Cesare knows his soccer, all right," Bearzot said recently.

The Bearzot influence is there for all to see. A practical, Northern Italian, brought up in the old Austro-Hungarian seaport of Trieste, Cesare Maldini is no more a footballing romantic than Bearzot. He believes and has always believed in the traditional Italian footballing virtues of a combative midfield, a man-to-man marking defence complete with libero, and a side always ready to hit on the counter-attack. Bearzot's Italy had the fabulous invention of a player like Giancarlo Antognoni in midfield but it also had Claudio Gentile in defence, ready and willing to kick famous shins such as those of Brazilian, Zico, or Argentinian, Diego Maradona. Maldini's Italy has Gianfranco Zola up front but it also has defenders like Ciro Ferrara and Fabio Cannavaro, who know how to stop an opponent, if and when necessary.

Maldini's Italy also has Maldini the son, not just a solid defender but one of Italy's principal attacking weapons if and when he gets down the flank. In that regard, Cesare was much amused to be asked on his first day in charge of the senior team if he thought it would prove difficult to again coach his son, now the Italian captain.

"Difficult? I've already been lucky enough to have him as a player in my under-21 side and therefore, rather than creating problems for me, I'll be looking to him to help me out."

And Paolo has been helping Daddy out, too. For most of the last week, Cesare Maldini's daily news conferences have been tense affairs as the coach tries to dribble his way past provocative questions about Italy's recent disappointing 0-0 away draw with Georgia. Had Italy won that game, then they and not England would have been in the driving seat tonight.

Paolo joined forces with his father in rejecting criticism, saying: "Look, our group record is very good. We've won five and drawn two and only conceded one goal (under Sacchi, at that). If we had been in another group, we would have already been qualified. "Ok, we also drew in Poland but look at England, when they went to Georgia they were much worse than us but fluked a win. That happens."

Those remarks were made in the bar of the Italian team's Coverciano training centre near Florence, on Wednesday afternoon. About two hours earlier and 20 yards down the corridor, Daddy Maldini had said: "Look, our record would normally have been good enough. It's not that we played badly in our away games with Poland and Georgia, it is simply that England picked up wins in those games and you don't always do that. Well done, England."

Publicly, the Maldinis have seemed in total harmony this week.

Cesare has attempted to play tonight's game down, refusing to rise to the offered bait of journalistic cliche and call it `the most important game' of his life: "As a coach, I've played all sorts of big matches. Some went well, some went badly. This is another important match."

Like father, like son, Paolo echoes: "This is a big game, of course, but the side isn't nervous."

Fervent family loyalty is important to the Maldinis. Italian reporters joke about the "Maldini Fan Club", open only to those with Maldini as a surname, that watches over Cesare and Paolo in their international joint outings.

The family has always been important to Cesare Maldini. When he was a young married man, he once asked his wife how many children they would have: "Marisa, my wife, told me to leave it all to nature. We had six children. At least, I'll never be left on my own."

If Italy beat England tonight, the Maldinis are likely to earn themselves about 55 million new friends. Neither Cesare nor Paolo Maldini will ever be likely to be left alone.