Italian football has long viewed defending as an art form. Whilst cultures elsewhere view pragmatism as a negative, Italy has found the beauty in defending and taken pride in a meticulous approach to defensive tactics.
The list of elite defenders to have been produced in Italy reads like a roll-call of the game’s greats, from Gaetano Scirea and Franco Baresi, to Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro, the latter the most recent defender to have bucked trends and won the Ballon d’Or.
Right at the top and sitting in the upper echelons is Paolo Maldini, a man whose career contained such longevity and success that it is difficult to tell his tale in one manageable read.
Much like Da Vinci with his paintbrush, Maldini was a master of his art. This was a man who once claimed ‘if I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake’, a thought process far away from the blood-and-thunder challenges often raucously roared on in English football.
Maldini viewed defending as a game of chess, always looking to remain one step ahead of the opponent. In a career that spanned more than two decades at the highest level, he almost always was.
Maldini made his debut for his beloved AC Milan at the age of 16. His father, Cesare, was a former captain and manager of the Rossoneri, with a teenage Paolo taking to the side with a difficult act to follow.
Beginning at right-back, he later found a home on the opposite flank, working relentlessly on his weaker foot until it became natural.
He broke into a Milan side struggling to compete at the top end of Italian football. The Rossoneri had twice been relegated in the early eighties; firstly because of their involvement in the Totonero match-fixing scandal, before a second after a sorry campaign of struggle.
Maldini’s emergence coincided with the arrival of Silvio Berlusconi and Arrigo Sacchi, an owner and manager team who would take Milan back to the pinnacle of the sport.
Sacchi – who had never played professional football – was faced with doubts over his credibility, but turned Milan into a powerhouse with Maldini at the centre of the side’s success.
The young defender formed part of the club’s famous back four alongside the iconic Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti, with Milan’s captures of Dutchman Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit equally crucial to the their success.
“He was very young, so I tried to give him some advice. But he needed very little; he was already a great player,” Baresi said, as per talkSPORT.
“We were teammates for 15 years. We read each other’s brain; moved as if we were one person. He could play in every defensive role – extraordinary. Playing with him was a pleasure and an honour.”
Maldini won his first Serie a title during the 1987/88 campaign, conceding just 14 goals all season, before the legend of Sacchi’s side was written in Europe.
Milan were crowned champions of Europe the following season, their success built on organised pressing that was far ahead of trends of the era. Real Madrid were thrashed 6-1 in a semi-final statement of intent, before a 4-0 win over Steau Bucharest saw the European Cup head to the San Siro.
It remained in Milan for another season, as a 1-0 win over Benfica made it back-to-back triumphs and crowned Maldini a two-time European champion at the age of 21.
Despite a change in management that saw Sacchi depart and Fabio Capello arrive, success continued to arrive at Milan in the early nineties.
Milan won three consecutive league titles, completing the 1991–92 Serie A campaign without defeat. It was an unbeaten run that lasted for an Italian record 58 league matches, as Capello’s charges became “The Invincibles”.
Maldini also reached three consecutive Champions League finals under Capello, losing the first to Marseille. However, Milan bounced back in unforgettable fashion.
Regarded as rank underdogs against Barcelona’s fabled Dream Team in 1994, a depleted Milan side ran out 4-0 winners in Athens to secure the biggest winning margin in a Champions League final.
The late nineties saw Milan struggle to repeat past successes. Maldini remained throughout a lean period, particularly in Europe, and was handed the captaincy following Baresi’s retirement in 1997.
Scudetto wins in 1996 and 1999 sandwiched finishes of 10th and 11th in Serie A, a turbulent period for the Rossoneri who bounced through a succession of coaches, including second spells for both Capello and Sacchi.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) March 20, 2020
The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti led to an upturn in fortunes, with Maldini the leader of an emerging team. Ancelotti was a former teammate of Maldini’s during the golden era of Sacchi’s first spell and proved the perfect fit to guide the club in the early noughties.
His man-management skills and the presence of Maldini as the side’s undisputed leader proved a perfect fit, one which led to Champions League success in 2002/03.
For Maldini – approaching his 35th birthday – it was arguably his best season, a culmination of decades of discipline and desire to improve.
Milan beat Juventus as Maldini won a fourth European Cup, in the first-ever all-Italian final at Old Trafford. Fittingly, a tight encounter ended goalless with the Rossoneri triumphing via a shootout.
Maldini, immaculate throughout, was named as man of the match.
“Who was the best Maldini? On a physical level, that of 1991-92 and 1993-94, but I choose the Maldini of 2002-03,” Maldini told RossoneriBlog.
“I was a perfectionist because of my dad. I always tried to have the perfect game, but it’s impossible. I got pretty close to it in 02-03. That season I played 19 Champions League matches, all of them, and I played well in many of them.”
Maldini might have been approaching the retirement age of a mere mortal, but he was far from finished at the highest level. He won his seventh and final Scudetto the following season, before Ancelotti’s side reached Champions League finals in 2005 and 2007.
The first ended in disastrous fashion as Milan squandered a 3-0 goal lead to lose to Liverpool, in a fixture which saw Maldini set new records as the fastest and oldest Champions League final goalscorer, having opened the scoring inside 50 seconds in Istanbul.
Maldini and Milan bounced back however, exacting revenge on the same opponents to win the Champions League in Athens two years later.
Maldini’s career continued for a further two seasons, eventually retiring having made 902 appearances in the famous red and black of Milan. His international career also spanned 14 years and 126 caps for Italy, though he fell just short of tournament success with the Azzurri.
He formed part of the team that reached the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup on home soil, failing to concede a goal until their last four defeat to Argentina on penalties. Four years later, the Azzurri finished as runners-up to Brazil in the United States.
More than a decade after his retirement Maldini is still held as the benchmark. Modern defenders are held to the standards he set and in truth, few come close.
His greatest strength was always in mind, though he was a formidable physical presence when required, quick across the ground and dominant in the air.
🇮🇹 Legendary defender Paolo Maldini made his AC Milan debut #OTD in 1985 🔴⚫
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) January 20, 2022
For more than two decades forwards were frustrated against the Rossoneri’s rock, his legacy built on elite anticipation, intelligent interceptions and legendary leadership.
Having grown up in the nation that gave birth to Catenaccio, he took defending to a new level, a man who was arguably the best full-back and centre-back in world football all at the same time.
Maldini’s list of achievements makes for remarkable reading, from his debut at 16 in 1985 to his final season, aged 41, in 2008/09, his standards rarely ever faulted. Seven league titles and five European Cups count among 26 trophies won at club level.
Ronaldo Nazaro is one of many to have called Maldini his toughest opponent, while former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson – who admitted he tried and failed to prise the defender from Milan – named him as his favourite footballer of the modern era.
“When I think of the current generation, Lionel Messi is top-level and, although he has never taken my breath away, Kaka has impressed,” Ferguson said, as per talkSPORT.
“Zinedine Zidane was brilliant 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 AC Milan teams during his wonderfully successful era.”
Adored in Milan and respected the world over, Maldini’s named is etched into football history as an Italian icon. Calm, composed, graceful and almost unfairly good-looking, he cemented his status as one of the game’s greats at a time when Serie A was home to the world’s finest finishers.