Paolo Maldini was the greatest defender of his and any time

Date published: Friday 26th June 2020 1:46

Who’s this then?
Paolo Cesare Maldini is now, amazingly, 52 years old on this very day. Happy birthday, Paolo. A 6′ 2″ Milan-born player, he came to redefine defending as a beautiful art form, which required as much skill as any playmaker to execute it to perfection.

Ronaldinho said of him: “He was one of the best defenders in Champions League history, but what was so impressive about him is that when he was on the ball he didn’t look like a defender, but like an elegant midfield player.”

A one-club man, he turned out for Milan 902 times (a record), scoring on 33 occasions. He also played 126 times for his country, making him one of just 18 players to have played over 1,000 games.

His career in the Rossoneri first team began in the 1980s as a right-back, before switching to the left. While he was notionally right-footed, his left was better than most players’ best foot. It would be 25 years later when he finally retired at 41! Imagine playing as a defender in Italy until that age?! It is a remarkable feat of endurance, if nothing else.

He won seven Serie A titles, five European Cup/Champions League medals and pretty much every individual award, twice finishing third in the Ballon d’Or, almost unheard of for a defender. He captained his country at two World Cups.

After making his bow in 1984 (the youngest ever at 16 years and 208 days) he only played fewer than 30 games in five seasons, three of which were in his late thirties. With only one campaign – 2001/02 – half lost to injury, he was imperiously consistent.

He broke many records throughout his career. One of the most remarkable is fastest goal scored in Champions League/European Cup final history: 50 seconds against Liverpool in 2005. That also made him the oldest player to score in one at 36 years and 333 days. He has appeared in the most Champions League finals – eight – of any player. He was the first defender to be listed for the FIFA World Footballer of the Year award in 1995 (though it had only been in existence since 1991), coming second to George Weah.

He has made the most appearances for a single Italian club, the most competitive appearances in European competition (168), the most FIFA World Cup appearances for Italy (23), and has the most minutes played at World Cups (2,216).

Is he married to a former Venezualan model? Of course he is: Adriana Fossa.

Does he have his own fashion label? Of course he does. The oddly titled Sweet Years – which he runs with Christian Vieri. Very much Beauty and the Beast, that pairing.

Andrea Pirlo, a man who knows a thing or two about being a footballing god, said: “Paolo Maldini is the best. A defender. A peerless defender. The best defender going. Both physically and mentally, he had everything, and the enjoyment he got from playing was as obvious at 40 years of age as it had been the day I first walked through the door at Milan.”

 

Why the love?
Now, regardless of the fact he was a brilliant, elegant footballer, we must first address the fact that Paolo is stunningly good looking. With Mediterranean blue eyes framed by mascara-like black eyelashes, high cheekbones, butterfly kiss lips and messy tousled hair, he could easily have had a career as a model. It all added to the sense of cool, calm, stylish class that pervaded his whole career.

Have you noticed that he’s one of those players who looks wonderful in slow motion? The hair thrashing, the eyes piercing as they stare down a player, the almost expressionless but composed look, even in the fiercest of encounters. Quite, quite epic.

To see him glide across the pitch was to witness someone pass through the air with an effortless ease, as though impervious to gravity or the elements. He seemed above and beyond a mere mortal, forever level-headed, always seeing the play several moves ahead.

What was so constantly wonderful about him was his style of defending really wasn’t based around tackling. Tackling was for lesser mortals, players who had been caught out of position, who had not read the play. His famous quote – “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake” – has been so often repeated it is teetering on cliche, but it is, nonetheless, the perfect summation of his approach and of how we understood his defending.

More typically, he dispossessed the opposition player by a mixture of anticipation, interception and physicality. Because for all he was elegant, he was also a big, fast, powerful unit who was never going to lose any battles of strength.

Of course he actually could tackle, too. And when he did so, you damn well knew about it, as he did it with strength and precision. But he only did so as a last option, which is perhaps why so many are high speed and sliding, arrowing in on the ball.

A point not often made is that his career straddled two very different eras. When he began in the mid-80s, he faced an entirely different type of player to that in the 2000s. But even as fitness levels improved and tactics evolved, it made no difference to him. Whether at centre-half or left-back, he purred through games effortlessly.

Today, we all love Virgil Van Dijk’s cool, break-no-sweat approach to defending, and he is cut from similar cloth to Mr Maldini but with one crucial difference: in the 80s and 90s, the game was far more aggressive and physical. Being cerebral was fine, but you had to have the stones to back it up, too. You had to be able to hold your own against strikers who were less the middle-distance athletes of today and more like battering rams. If you were made of anything less than pig iron, you’d shatter like a biscuit.

He was so good that, perhaps for the first time ever, people just wanted to see him defend. It was as exciting and thrilling as any striker to see him show a player inside and nick the ball off his foot, collect it, accelerate away, and thread a killer pass through midfield. Not many defenders can get you off your seat but Paolo was cut from different cloth.

And, man, he was fast, time and again, winning the ball at left-back, laying it off and then sprinting at high pace to take the return pass, knocking it past a defender, taking position again and crossing the ball. I mean, this isn’t how defenders play. Defenders are rarely this good at other elements of the game. He could have played as a winger, played any role in midfield – shielding or progressive – or played as a striker using his height and power. He was that good, his skill set that wide.

It should be noted that his relationship with Milan’s ultras was always a tempestuous one. His loyalty to the club first and foremost, not the fans, annoyed them. He wasn’t afraid to be critical of the ultras either, if they had caused trouble. Even at his last game there were banners held up which read:

‘For your 25 years of glorious service you have the thanks of those who you called mercenaries and misers.’

‘Thanks captain. On the pitch you were an undying champion, but you had no respect for those who made you rich.’

In the post-game presser he declared: “I’m proud to be nothing like them.”

You’ve got to hand it to him, he didn’t lack guts and sheer chutzpah to take on the ultras in this way and it reflects the strength of mind he so often showed on the pitch. It’s also good to see a player who doesn’t bow and scrape to fans and who knows his own mind. There could never be any doubt about his commitment to the Milan cause.

 

What the people love
I don’t really believe in role models per se – it seems an overstretched notion – however I do think we can be inspired by people and Paolo is very inspiring. Whether it is the composed way he went about playing the game, or the mix of intelligence and physicality, or just how we might wear a headband, many of us have drawn something from the magic Maldini, so it was no surprise for my post bag to be loaded with love.

“I had the pleasure of spending an hour with him when Jamie Carragher and I went to Milan in 2015 to do Istanbul 10 years on. He was unfailingly helpful, we met him at his house. He was the one who went to get us water, he looked like he could still play and you wouldn’t know he’d ever had a career in football (not souvenirs anywhere on display). He was my hero growing up and I can say meeting him is one of the best things ever to happen to me in my work!” – Dominic King, journalist, talking about this interview.

‘European Cup final ’94. Milan without Baresi and Costacurta. Maldini plays centre back and is utterly sublime. Only up against Romario and Stoichkov. As you were.’

‘Right back / left back / centre back.. he brought sexy back!’

‘Such beautiful eyes to match a remarkable football brain.’

‘Right footed. How mad is that?’

‘One of the greatest defenders of all time, an automatic selection for an All Time Fantasy team.’

‘The way top coaches had to design a game plan around not wasting their time attacking down the right when Maldini was at left back. Wonderful.’

‘Immense player. Best left back ever seen and then to top it off he was also a fantastic centre back towards the end of his career. He could have done a decent job in midfield I am sure. Never saw him make a stupid mistake (he must have done i’m sure).’

‘The fact that the ultras didn’t warm to Maldini is all the more reason to love the beautiful bugger.’

‘He wasn’t blessed with any one outstanding attribute except for the ability to appear like a man among boys all the time.’

‘An exceptionally cool customer. So cool. The myth / stat about him averaging less than a tackle a game over his career doesn’t even need to be true, what’s important is that we all believe it to be true anyway, because we want it to be, because he was that good.’

‘Classy, calm and cool.’

‘The embodiment of Sexy Football. The “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake” summed up this brilliant right back Adonis.’

‘One of the rare one club men, a player whose father was an Italian legend in Cesare Maldini, iconic and made the art of defending look effortless.’

‘His hair. One of few who contributed to making being a defender sexy, especially in the 90s.’

‘He’s the left back in EVERYONE’S all time team.’

‘To stand out from the crowd like he did while playing at the same time as such luminaries as Costacurta, Baresi, Nesta, Ferrara, and Cannavaro is testament to his unique and enduring talent.’

‘There’s cool, and then there’s being-the-greatest-left-back-in-history-despite-being-almost-entirely-right-footed cool. And he got good enough at tennis in retirement to play in a professional tournament at 48. Because of course he f**king did.’

 

Three great moments
At 1.05, the perfectly timed no-tackle interception followed by an overhead kick. Yeah, did that.

At 1.03, defending performed as though it is dancing. It comes naturally.

But of course he really could tackle. Oh yeah. Like an exocet. If he tackled you, you stayed tackled, as these clips rather wonderfully prove. Go on, Il Capitano!

 

What now?
Il Capitano is, of course, still at Milan, now as technical firector. He still looks incredible, even though the unkempt locks of yore have been shorn he still seems effortlessly stylish and cool. We would all like just five per cent of his aura. He and his son caught COVID, but thankfully made a full recovery.

His whole life has been spent at Milan and it seems impossible to think of him doing anything much outside of the club.

His legend as one of the greatest defenders ever to grace a football pitch will never die. Even clips that are 30 years old show a defender that could easily play and dominate in the modern game. He wasn’t just so far ahead of his time, it’s that he was outside of time. He was so elevated that he transcends fashions and trends. There is no time in football’s history where he wouldn’t have been the best defender to play the game. That’s Paolo Maldini – a standalone talent that still staggers. Ciao Paolo. Thanks for making us feel all funny in our tummy.

John Nicholson

 

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