There has never been anyone quite like him. And there never will be, ever again. Paolo Maldini the one and the only; the god dressed in red and black; the prince of all Italy; Il Capitano. This writer is lost for words (words that will always fail to capture his uniqueness), short of breath, wiping a solitary tear trickling down the cheek as Maldini walks from the pitch at San Siro for the very last time. It’s an end of an era; an era that left an undying legacy at AC Milan. A legacy that will never be equalled.
In terms of ability Maldini is one of the best players in the history of football. With his technical grace, physical elegance and power and charismatic sportsmanship, Maldini stands alone like a perfectly carved statue. His achievements simply beggar belief. His loyalty to a club, to a city and to the fans of not only AC Milan but of football around the globe in a clinical world of commercial football goes unmatched. Twenty-five years in AC Milan after coming through the youth ranks; seven championships; five European Cups/ Champions League trophies; 126 appearances for Italy (featuring in four World Cup tournaments).
But despite all the trophies, all the honours and statistical milestones, his greatest and most significant achievement, the one that rises him above everybody else, is that he has remained on the very top level in one of the most illustrious clubs in the world for a quarter of a century. During this time, Football has evolved a great deal, an evolution which he has had a big part in creating. The game has become faster, more physical, tactically more meticulous and technically and mentally more demanding. And he has gone through the process without never loosing his charm, his majestic elegance and unrivalled professionalism.
He was and is THE modern full-back. A total defender who is as adapt going forward as he is defending. A defender who, in one moment, will dispossess you with a perfectly timed tackle without you even noticing and put the ball between your legs in the next. In a way he is even more than all this since there are few defenders who are as reliable at full-back as they are in the centre; defenders who stand rock solid in either position in a Champions League Final.
Milan’s last Champions League victory in 2007 was a testimonial to this. Maldini, then at 39, led the defence and Milan to victory against Liverpool. And this season, in his last Milan derby against Inter, Maldini marked Zlatan out of the stadium. Milan won 1-0. There are countless of other examples from his career but they are all somehow beside the point. It’s not how good he is. It’s not what his trophy cabinet contains. It’s what he is and what he represents. He is simply the classiest defender (in every imaginable sense of the word) the world has ever seen.
A 16-year-old Paolo Maldini made his debut away to Udinese in 1985. After a quarter of a century and over a thousand appearances later, the 41-year-old defender hangs his boots. With a heavy heart we watch him go, but he will never be forgotten. There are so many legends in the football but there is no other who is so unanimously respected, so esteemed, and so loved as Paolo Cesare Maldini.