When a 16-year-old left-back stepped out onto the pitch during a game against Udinese in 1985, AC Milan fans limited knowledge about their youth team might be forgiven for scepticism.
Yet, this was no ordinary 16-year-old; this was Paolo Maldini. Maldini. As in Cesare Maldini. Former captain and European Cup winner, Cesare Maldini. King of the fucking club, Cesare Maldini. With Italy being a land disposed to nepotism, it would be easy to imagine a kid whose contacts at the club had led to an undeservedly easy route to the first team… but not this kid.
Any of these question marks were soon vanquished, and fans had their doubts replaced with dreams, despite the teenager only making that one appearance in his maiden season. Dreams of a youngster who could go on to have a big impact on the clubs fortunes, that is, but overshadow his father? Surely not.
Under the wing of fellow legend Franco Baresi, Maldini flowered into possibly the greatest defender the world has ever seen, playing at left-back alongside Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti to form the best defence in history. The back four were all over opposition attackers like a gang of over-friendly masseuses (Maasai? Messiah? No, Google says the plural is indeed masseuses).
The quartet used their collaborative genius to read matches as though Arrigo Sacchi had shown them a tape before kick-off predicting every minute detail.
They stamped their glorious mark on the game for ten years, but are probably best remembered for their first season together, when they were the foundations of ‘The Immortals’, a team that also featured a not so shabby front three of Dutch stars Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit.
During the next couple of decades, Paolo saw all of those greats – and many more – come and go, but one thing remained ever-present. The only player to have lifted the Champions League trophy in three different decades, Maldini was the rock on which the Rossoneri could rely, moving into the centre of defence to form a partnership with Alessandro Nesta that rivalled that of Baresi and Costacurta.
The star also had a huge impact on the Italian national side, playing 126 times for Gli Azzurri and led them out as captain for eight years. Heartbreakingly, final losses in the World Cup and European Championship prevented major international honours, but predictably brave performances resulted in adoration not only in Milan. Paolo became a national hero.
He finally retired in 2009, having won seven Serie A titles and four Champions Leagues, somehow appearing to be just as talented – and just as handsome – as ever. His famous number three was retired, unless either of his sons end up playing for the first team; both Maldini boys are currently in the youth set-up and showing a promise that makes us wonder if the Maldini men don’t ejaculate some kind of red and black concoction of guaranteed footballing eminence.
The aim was to end this article with a quote that summed up Maldini’s impact, but looking for quotes that praise Paolo Maldini is a little like searching stupid shit to come out of Kanye West’s mouth; it’s easy to spend hours getting lost within the quotation marks and impossible to pick just one.
Here, then, is a selection:
“A defender who could read the game like nobody else, so intelligent and always so calm on the ball. One of the true greats, for both Italy and Milan.”
“When I think of the current generation, Lionel Messi is top-level. And, although he has never taken my breath away, Kaka has impressed, Zinedine Zidane was brilliant but without a doubt, Paolo Maldini has been my favourite.”
Sir Alex Ferguson
“He is one of the best players in the history of the game and he represents everything that’s good in football. And above all, he’s a winner.”
“Maldini was the best and toughest defender I ever faced. He had everything: he was a complete defender, who was strong, intelligent, and an excellent man-marker.”
Michael Owen: We did find an Owen quote, but fell asleep reading. Sorry, Michael.