“Thank you, Skipper. On the pitch you were an infinite champion, but you failed to show respect towards those who made you rich.” The Curva Sud’s final farewell to one of the greatest defenders Italian football has ever produced was an unedifying insult from AC Milan’s ultras and one that helped to expose the fact that the only way to truly get them onside is to routinely kiss their arses.
Franco Baresi, whose name was chanted during the unveiling of another banner stating that “There is only one captain”, was as good a central defender as I’ve seen in my lifetime and the preferred icon of the ultras. But me? I’ll take the number 3. My favourite footballer, give or take the occasional Maradonian flirtation and my huge admiration for Paul McGrath, is Paolo Maldini.
Let’s get the facts out of the way early. Maldini, the son of Cesare, played his first game for the Rossoneri in January 1985 against Udinese, aged 16. He retired in May 2009 at the age of 40. Between 1988 and 2002 he picked up 126 caps for Italy (74 of them as captain) to become the Azzurri’s most-capped player until Fabio Cannavaro overtook him. Maldini won seven Scudetti, five European Cups and a whole host of other club and individual honours.
This is not a player who played until 40 on his last footballing legs. Almost until the end, Maldini was at the very top of the world game, an incredible testament to his wonderful athleticism and the famous Milan Lab. But the thing about great players – genuine, best-of-the-best great players – is that their achievements are matched by an aura, some non-statistical story of class, like Bobby Moore, or freakishness, like Diego Maradona. Even then, world class players are ten a penny.
Favourites are different, and Maldini qualifies emphatically for such elevated status. He was the ultimate one-club man from the ultimate one-club family. Paolo’s father, Cesare, won four Scudetti and one European Cup with Milan. His sons are both in Milan’s youth system. Paolo never played for another club despite being one of the best players in the world for most of his career. How often do the greatest players today not circulate between Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United, Milan and Inter? Those who stay loyal are rightly revered and Maldini is their king. His number three shirt, retired at the same time as its long-term wearer, will be brought out of retirement should Christian or Daniel make the Rossoneri first team.
As a player, the best word with which to sum up Maldini is ‘elegance’. He had everything one could ask of a ball-playing defender. His positioning and reading of the game were second to none and his passing marked out a sophisticated full-back who was years ahead of the position’s development. Although it would be a stretch to describe him as an attacking full-back in any sense, Maldini’s cultured style and inimitable swagger on the ball meant that he appeared as comfortable in the opposition’s half as his own. Given his outstanding quality and clear natural ability, Maldini arguably could be disappointed with his goal return despite his position of choice. But at the tasks he got paid for, he was probably the best of his generation.
Here’s the over-emotional, gloating personal involvement bit. What would you do if, by some miracle, you ended up as the proud new owner of a pair of football boots that had been worn by your favourite player? Stick them in a glass display cabinet? Find some way to get them signed? Punch anyone who touched them? After Maldini’s appearance in a TV advertisement for a well-known sportswear manufacturer, that’s exactly what happened to me. And I’ll tell you this much: I got more joy and pleasure from playing in those boots until they fell apart, knowing whose feet had been in them immediately before mine, than I would ever have taken from showing them off in pristine condition.
That is what being a favourite means. It also means that visitors to my flat are greeted in the living room not by a picture of Maradona, McGrath, Cowans or Mortimer, but one of Maldini in the famous red and black stripes of Milan. A wonderful player, a dignified man and a true captain.