After over 1,000 senior appearances, five European Cups, 126 caps for the Azzurri and nearly a quarter of a century at AC Milan, Paolo Maldini considered retiring. The world was ready to pay tribute to one of the world’s greatest defenders and a beacon of the word “loyalty”. Maldini had other plans. As AC Milan were knocked out of the Champions League by Arsenal in March this year, Maldini decided to play on for one more season. World football was glad of another 12 months from the legend.
The son of another Italian legend, Cesare Maldini, Paolo was destined to play for one team only. Born in Milan, he was snapped up by the AC youth set-up aged only 10. He stayed there until he made his senior debut, aged just 16, against Udinese. He worked his way into the starting eleven and, coinciding with the club’s first Scudetto in nearly 10 years, became first-choice at left-back.
AC Milan grew from strength-to-strength with the young Maldini, and the influence of Dutch trio Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard helped to win back-to-back European Cups, a feat that has not been repeated since. The team would go on to win the trophy three more times in Maldini’s career, two as captain, with two different generations of squad, showing his influence, adaptability and determination.
He has played on the biggest stages and won the biggest accolades. He was the first defender to ever win the World Soccer Player of the Year award, previously held for attackers. If ever a modern player was worthy of being listed amongst such greats as Beckenbauer, Pele, Maradona or Puskas, it is Maldini.
He has maintained a great value to AC Milan, even as he approached his 40th birthday. He has given so much to the club that they plan to retire his number 3 jersey when he finally calls it a day. It will only come out of the shadows for another Maldini.
That goes to show the level of respect the club has for its favourite son. And it is fair reward for something that is all too absent in todays game: loyalty.